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Mexican Masters at DMA

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – [Music: "La Pistola y el Corazon" by Los Lobos]

Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of small communities in Mexico where life is art. Like the town of Olinala in the southwestern state of Guerrero.

Damaso Ayala Jimenez, Artist (translated from Spanish): It's a small town. 7,000 people. 80% of them live off their artwork. Some leave to study and some go out looking for the dollar. But the majority are working in art.

Sprague: Damaso Ayala Jimenez has been crafting lacquered chests and boxes, with a scratching technique called rayada, for 40 years. He loves his work, which was passed down from his father when he was 11 years old.

[Sound of plastic bags.]

Sprague: But it's a tedious process, beginning with unraveling the small plastic bags of powders that tint the coats of lacquer.

Ayala (translated from Spanish): You work with the vegetables and minerals of the region to make the colors. The red I use is a traditional color. It's made from the chochineal insect, which feeds on cactus. So, you'll see a lot of red - and black. The black comes from burnt oak. They're primordial colors.

Sprague: It took Ayala 45 days to make a small trunk now at the "Masters of Mexican Folk Art" exhibit. Hand-cut red rabbits, fish and birds leap around flowers and leaves against a bright orange background. Sometimes Ayala works with a pattern. Mostly the designs come from his imagination. But, he is worried that none of his children have followed in his footsteps.

Ayala (translated from Spanish): Yes, it's true. I say that with me, the artistry ends. This is too laborious. It's very tiring to make one piece. You work from 8 a.m. until midnight and get filthy. If you're working in red, you get red all over you.

Sprague: Candida Fernandez is worried, as well. She directs the cultural foundation of Banamex, the national bank of Mexico. Five years ago, Banamex began a program to support aging artisans and encourage more Mexicans to appreciate their work.

Candida Fernandez, Fomento Cultural Banamex: We know a lot of very old artisans who work alone and that concerns us because when they die, maybe this technique, can forget it by the community. In this support program, we work with the artisans in their own workshops and help them to better the things that they need to improve.

Sprague: That includes buying the artists new kilns, teaching them how to market what they make, and acquiring thousands of pieces of Mexican folk art. In the past five years, Banamex has amassed one of the largest such collections in the world, which is now making its debut tour through Europe and the United States. Dallas is the first American stop.

Charles Venable, Curator, Dallas Museum of Art: And then you turn the corner and see a whole family of jaguars looking at you from the southern state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala.

Sprague: Charles Venable believes these life-size ceramic jaguars will be most popular with children. But Venable, who co-curated the Mexican masters exhibition at the DMA, is also drawn to three so-called trees of life. They're four-foot tall ceramic trees made from thousands of small pieces of pottery that celebrate a specific theme, like traditional Mexican dances.

Venable: So you have dancers hanging by ropes, twirling off the tops; there are people dancing with great headdresses, sombreros, ponchos, great native costumes. But as you can see, they're composed of hundreds and hundreds of small, multi-colored painted bits and pieces glued together in these towering trees.

[Ambient Transition: Woman answers the phone: "Stanley Marcus's office"]

Sprague: There's another tree of life on display in Dallas, this one just a few blocks from the Museum, in the office of Stanley Marcus. Dallas's guru of good taste and chairman emeritus of the Neiman Marcus stores has been collecting Mexican folk art for more than half a century. Marcus was instrumental in bringing the Banamex exhibit to the DMA, a move he considers important in light of the growing Hispanic population in Texas.

Stanley Marcus, Art Collector: I think it's very desirable for the Anglo population to become familiar with Spanish culture, Hispanic culture and to understand it and to like it, because they'll be able to understand their Hispanic neighbors much better if they understand it than if they don't.

Sprague: But the Banamex exhibit is somewhat different than previous folk art shows at other museums, because curators like Charles Venable didn't spend time trying to validate the importance of native crafts in the art world.

Venable: We assume that when you walk in and see - like we're standing here looking at these great towering ceramics sort of mythical figures - we assume that nobody has a problem thinking they're important because they're just amazing, glorious objects; so therefore, why sit here and convince us that they're amazing, glorious things.

Sprague: Instead, the exhibit focus on the artists themselves: who they are, what they look like, how they work.

[Sound of silversmith hammering]

Sprague: A number of folk artists demonstrated their work at the DMA this weekend, including Odilon Marmolejo Sanchez, a silversmith from Mexico City.

Odilon Marmolejo Sanchez, Silversmith (translated from Spanish): I produce pieces that represent the history of our country. I think that this is the most important part of my life.

Sprague: That's about all Marmolejo would say about his work. He's a quiet, smiling, modest man with hair as silver as the candlesticks, bowls and vases he makes. But Adela Blancas is too proud not to speak up on behalf of her husband.

Adela Blancas, Artist's Wife (translated from Spanish): He doesn't like to talk much about his work. All of his sensibility goes into his art and that's how he expresses himself. All of his knowledge is there. All of his heart is there.

Sprague: Marmolejo's father taught him to be a silversmith when he was just 14 years old. He also learned to honor his ancestors by recreating the designs they engraved hundreds of years ago.

[Blancas speaks in Spanish.]

Sprague: Adela Blancas explains her husband is hammering a replica of a silver cup that ancient warriors would have raised in victory when they returned from fighting. A small silver bird resting on the lip of the cup denotes good luck. Organizers of the Mexican Masters exhibit are counting on more than good luck to revive interest in folk art on both sides of the border. They've carefully laid out a number of public programs in Dallas to educate and inspire visitors. The show continues at the DMA until January 6th, when it leaves for Chicago and New York. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.