Sunday, July 15, 2018

Wonder Woman: Marianne Carlson, founder of Feria Maestros del Arte

Bujo Speaks ... inspired by an alebrije
Not long after I moved to Ajijic, someone told me about a folk art fair here. Sounded like fun, so I went online to fill in the volunteer application.

Little did I know how those few minutes of filling in some blanks would change my life.

Some time later, Marianne Carlson called and wanted to talk about the Feria Maestros del Arte. Turns out, after 16 years of shepherding this event into its position as the premier folk art festival in Mexico, she was ready to delegate some of the tasks she was still doing … like the newsletter and publicity. I was definitely interested but I had never been to the Feria and I didn’t know Marianne well enough to know if we were in sync. So, she invited me to wander the Feria, take pictures, talk to people and think about it.

Several hundred pictures later, I was in love and my wallet had a definite dent in it. It’s one thing to see beautiful folk art in Tlaquepaque or Tonalá and something entirely different to meet the artists in person, see a huge selection of their art, and learn more about how they make it. My first purchase was an alebrije made by Zeny Fuentes Mendez which inspired the image above and sits on my mantel offering me wisdom when I'm wise enough to listen.
Prison Doll

One of the surprises at the Feria (and, apparently, there are always surprises) was a booth of dolls made by women in prison. They were so charming that two of them went home with me and are now living with my granddaughters. This one actually inspired another piece of art as I began thinking of her as an embodiment of the lady of the lake.

Lady of the Lake
Budget expanding huipil
One of the booths I wandered through more than once was a group of textile makers from Oaxaca, called Mexican Dreamweavers. I was enchanted with their huipiles but they were out of my budget range. They were doing a lecture so I went and saw a video of how they actually “milk” the ink they use for dyeing from a purpura snail. It’s a dangerous job only done by a few men, called tintoreros, willing to brave the wild, rocky shores to find and gently coax the snail into sharing its ink which, in sunlight and on cotton yarn, transforms into an amazingly rich color. After the video and actually holding the shell of one of the snails in my hand, my budget suddenly expanded enough to include a Dreamweavers rebozo. (Read more about this experience here.) (And, don’t miss this video where you will see what it takes to gather this precious dye … it’s not easy!)

These were just a few of the amazing experiences I had during the three days of the Feria, the event launched when Marianne decided that it would be a good idea to bring folk art artisans and potential customers together. Since then, I’ve grown to greatly respect Marianne, her creativity, organization, determination, and generosity. The Feria could have been a commercial venture supplementing her income. However, she chose to make it a non-profit venture supporting artisans from all over Mexico, as part of a growing movement to save the future of Mexican folk art. 

The Feria “business" model:
  • Every peso the artisans earn goes home with them.
  • There are no fees or commissions charged the artisans.
  • The Feria pays all transportation costs for artisans (including renting buses from Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Michoacán)
  • The Feria pays ALL expenses related to the event. Period. (artists are hosted by local families - (more info here)
  • The Feria cooperates with other local nonprofits to benefit the community (Such as Operation Feed and the LCS Children’s Art Program)
The brilliance and generosity of this event enchanted me so much that I said yes to everything Marianne wanted and shortly thereafter found myself on the Board of Directors … which is a wonderfully loose, amiable, committed, diverse and also generous group of Mexicans and immigrants. It has always been Marianne’s vision that the Feria will be a community event for Mexicans, run by Mexicans.

Marianne's gourd art prior to Feria
Marianne traveled the world before she settled down in Ajijic and then Chapala. With a diverse background from running an Arabian horse farm to working at a nuclear power plant on the central coast of California, she brought a lot of skills with her, however, mainly she brought a creative spirit and a huge heart. She has changed lives for artisans all over Mexico and created a powerful force for saving Mexican indigenous art which is still threatened by modern, mass-produced processes and synthetic, plastic materials.

However, today, in some areas, children are staying in their villages, learning the old ways of making beautiful, quality products with local materials. The Feria offers them a way to get those products out into the world. And, the money they earn has built homes, educated children, and provided a way to keep families together. (Read more about Marianne Carlson and the early days of the Feria here.)

Miniature kitchen in a gourd
Here in the lakeside area, hundreds of volunteers and host families are connecting with people and places in Mexico they might never ever have met otherwise. The Feria is a meeting place for art and commerce, old and new, beauty and function, ancient traditions and modern processes. Marianne is quick to talk about all the people who have made the Feria a reality, but it is always her spirit that guides this amazing event. She is truly a Wonder Woman. 
And, as for me, my life now has a layer called Mexican folk art. It goes with me everywhere and changes what I look at and for, and how I look at it. A recent long conversation I had was about sand ... not a subject I've ever thought much about, but it is amazingly important to artisans working with clay. More about this later.

All of this reminds me of how the smallest actions often open up doors to new experiences. If I had not entered information into that online volunteer recruitment form, an incredible world might never have opened to me. My life is so much richer for it.

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