What Does Mexican Folk Art Mean to Me?

Marianne Carlson

What does Mexican Folk Art Mean to Me?


“We’ve frozen your bank account!” Those were the first words spoken to me today as I sat at my computer trying to write my monthly column for the Lake Chapala Review magazine. As my morning unfolded, it got worse and worse. So, what does this have to do with folk art? Well, as I continued to bemoan my financial state of affairs, I was revolving in my swivel computer chair looking around my house. Without even realizing it, my thoughts turned from “what am I going to do?” to the happy memory of when I purchased my barro negro mona (black ceramic figure) from Magdalena Pedro in Oaxaca.

Wouldn’t you like to own a piece of art that is so beautiful it can take your mind off of money? We all take something for granted now and then — our comfortable homes, the fact we live in a wonderful country full of laughter and color, or our friends, partners or spouses who are always there for us. I had taken for granted all the intricate, beautiful art objects surrounding me every day.

On a day when I really needed something to be happy about, I was reminded with just a glance, that each object I have purchased or been gifted over many years has a wonderful story behind it; that I have met and spent time with each artist whose hands have molded, woven or formed the beautiful artwork that now resides in my home. I have been living with them for so long that they have become a part of my daily life and part of those things I, too often, take for granted.

So, instead of spending more time worrying about a problem that will solve itself in time, I’ve decided to write about what folk art means to me.

Anyone who has traveled to México has been exposed to the abundant handcrafts created here. It's nearly impossible to resist bringing home one or two items; it's like bringing a bit of México back with you. But I don’t think I would be inaccurate in assuming that most of México’s visitors do not know very much about folk art. Most tourists do not realize that pottery they purchased may have been made in the same family for generations. Neither do they know it can take a month to weave a rebozo. And, it’s almost certain they are unaware that the woman who wove the huipile they believe is priced “too high” may give up weaving the indigenous garment to weave placemats because she cannot get a “fair” price for her work.

I have trekked up and down hills (with my bad knees) and driven on roads not even used by cows in search of a piece of art I read about or saw in a photo somewhere. Sometimes I don’t even know the name of the artist I am looking for. Like when I first found Martin Ibarra. I asked at a store where I was admiring a piece of his work, “Who made this? Do you know where he lives?”

“Well, he lives in a town San Juan something or other. That’s all I know.” I got out my map and the only San Juan I could find was San Juan Evangelista on Lake Cajititlan. I grabbed a friend and off we went in search of the man who had made the incredible orb I had admired.

It took us all day to find San Juan because the road was terrible, there were no signs and we got lost several times. As we finally drove into town, I stopped and said to a man on the street, “Excuse me, I am looking for the man who makes beautiful round orbs. Do you know where he lives?”

“Continue down this street and turn left at the fourth tope (speedbump). He lives across from the church,” the man told me and then continued walking down the street. I did as I was instructed. As I neared the church, I saw incredible virgin statues sitting on the rock wall along with the orbs I was seeking.

I walked across the street to an old adobe home with a rickety door. I knocked. A soft-spoken man with a smile from ear to ear greeted me and said he was Martin Ibarra and yes, he was the creator of the ceramics drying in the sun on the church wall.

I guess some people might have felt uneasy entering this humble man’s home with its dirt floors and small dark rooms but I did not feel at all out of place. Perhaps because Martin, like so many other Mexicans, put you at ease from the moment you meet them with their broad smiles and easy ways.

There are many such tales to tell of my journeys to find artists who exemplify the best in Mexican art. There was the time when the initial impact of seeing a weaver laboring on an extraordinarily beautiful rebozo brought tears to my eyes. For me, it was impossible not to feel moved by the object’s beauty, the blend of colors, its texture, and shape. The movement of the weaver’s fingers sliding up and down the threads was a work of art in its own right. The love for her work was obvious as she proudly carried on a family tradition that had gone on for generations before her. She took my hands, looked into my eyes and told me that there is no higher compliment for an artist than to see in someone’s eyes that they have succeeded in passing on to them the emotion they have tried to weave into their art.

Did you love the work you used to do for a living this much? I know I didn’t. In those outstretched hands, I recognized a language of generosity that went beyond words. The aesthetic experience alone had brought me to tears but now I was experiencing the realization that this was more than just make a living, it was what gave meaning to her life.

Marianne Carlson 
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