The Niche of Folk Art

May 22, 2003 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Goethe Room
California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118

A slide lecture

by Grace Alexander Johnson

According to Grace Alexander Johnson, folk art is far easier to recognize than to define, even after 27 years of collecting it. Her slide lecture to FEA presented the role and function of folk art as it relates to the Mexican culture of today.
Her slides were drawn largely from the book “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art,” published by Harry N. Abrams, that serves as a catalog for the traveling exhibit “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art from the collection of Fomento Cultural Banamex,” currently at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, through July 27, 2003.
The Mexican folk art market is driven by collectors, and this publication had quite an impact on the popularity of the artists featured in it. Johnson said that artists who were not featured in the book have suffered in terms of the demand for their work and the prices they can expect.
Citing the Linares family, known for their fantastic papier mache creatures, she explained that the transmission of techniques and meaning from one generation to the next can make folk art distinct from fine art, as it includes little to no formal training and emphasizes the importance of mentorship. Legend has it that the family patriarch, Pedro, during a near-death experience, dreamed of multi-hued fantastical creatures which, upon recovery, he began to sculpt out of paper and glue. Soon he became an international master of the art of cartoneria, with Andre Breton collecting these alebrijes for their striking surrealistic appearance. Pedro passed his skills to his sons, who, along with a grandson, continue to make these colorful figures.
In an aside – and warning to collectors — Johnson  noted that wood carvers in Oaxaca are now making their own carved alebrije in an attempt to cash in on their popularity, stating that they are Mixtec mythological figures. As Pedro Linares actually invented the word alebrije, she suggested that the buyer beware.
An interesting comment was made by an audience member who had visited the Linares family and reported that Pedro’s so-called dream was an admitted fabrication and that these alebrije can be found in the political caricatures of Mexico and in certain myths.
As Johnson introduced us to many contemporary folk artists and their work, we saw the incredible variety of techniques and materials. Back-strap weaving, pottery, wood-carving, paper-cutting, lacquer work, and embroidery were among the more traditional, pre-Hispanic method covered. The Spaniards introduced  colored pottery glazes, glass-blowing, floor looms, and hand-carved wooden violins. Johnson shared interesting tidbits with the audience: for example, some  ceramic trees of life are so large that kilns are  constructed around them, they are fired, and then the kiln is removed.
One particularly interesting tale was that of Burquido Lara, a conservator at the Museum of Jelapa in Vera Cruz. Apparently, he was picked up by the police while carrying many pre-Hispanic style pieces that he claimed to have made. They didn’t believe him and threw him in jail for dealing in ancient artifacts. He asked for some clay, and in his jail cell created a replica of ancient work that was so convincing they had to release him. The  governor then issued him a license to make replicas but required Lara’s signature on each piece. This didn’t stop middlemen from removing the signature and selling the pieces in the U.S. as the real thing, with several ending up in art museums in Cinncinati, Indianapolis, and Dallas.
Johnson next walked us through her show “Hecho En Mexico: Mexican Folk Art,” at the Museum of Man in San Diego through August 18, 2003. Going state-by-state, she pointed out the exhibit’s highlights. The full range of Mexican folk art is on view through the 1,024 objects in the exhibit.
She noted that the Mexican government is encouraging the folk art tradition — tourism is second only to oil as the most powerful economic force in Mexico today – and offered some good advice for collectors traveling in Mexico: arrive in a place that specializes in some particular art form and just ask anyone who the best artist is in town. Even though folk artists are largely anonymous to the outside world, they are very well-known in their own communities.
The presentation ended not with a sunset slide, but a piñata shop in Oaxaca displaying several American cartoon characters among its wares. Mexican folk art indeed maintains traditions as it evolves new ones, embracing both continuity and change.