Oaxaca: Art is Everywhere

Oaxacan Embroidery

I just returned from nearly two weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, where art is everywhere. I am not talking about Precious Art that you only see in galleries and museums, often separated from daily life by entrance fees and a tiresome aura of cultural superiority. I am talking about art that lives in the hearts of local artisans and is expressed through the creation of beautiful objects for everyday use: prints; jewelry; ceramics; weaving; embroidery; wood carving and metalwork. Vendors could choose to sell any number of foreign-made trinkets to visiting tourists, but when possible, the vast majority prefer to create and offer their own work .This artistic pride stretches back to pre-hispanic times. Oaxaca was always a major center for skilled and sophisticated art production.

As an artist who enjoys applying aesthetic principles to things many people would not consider to be "art", I get it.

Every day, I saw ancient techniques reinvented for 2012 (exquisite, nearly abstract  weavings) and new techniques that featured innovative applications of traditional design motifs (laser cut jewelry made from recycled x-ray film painted with iridescent acrylic paint). Every museum and crafts shop was filled with an unusual and almost overwhelming visual exuberance.

Some experiences stood out. I visited a small, high quality crafts fair held outside in a lovely park, where booths were set up by local artisans from outlying villages. Here, once a year, artists bypass agents to sell personal creations themselves. Since I spoke enough Spanish to get by easily, I learned from several of the artists that many tour guide agents (who routinely accompany tour buses to their villages) often receive more in commissions than the artists who actually produce the work.

On "opening night" at the booths, I only had time to pass by casually. Round and round the displays I walked, but kept returning to one only, which featured unusually simple and striking dresses made from soft unbleached cotton, lace, meticulously applied cream colored satin ribbon, and two simple borders of luminous, gracefully executed silk thread embroidery. They stood out from all the other work at the fair for their quiet elegance.

I have always had a weakness and a great respect for fabric art. Maybe it is due partly to the legacy of my Nebraska quilt maker grandmother and great grandmother, who created orderly beauty from colorful, cast off fabric scraps. Or, maybe my own history as a determined, small town, ten-year-old 4H sewing queen had something to do with this. After all, my perfectly hemmed tea towel and potholder won first place at the Yakima County Fair.

Now, half a lifetime later, as I stood in the little Oaxacan art booth surrounded by lovely embroidered variations on a theme, I was in heaven. I spoke briefly to the artist and asked about the occasions for which these elegant dresses would be worn. Her son, a young man in his early twenties, took my questions and replied. I explained that I did not have time to talk at length but would return the next day to look more carefully.

I reminded myself that I did not really need a dress, but I could not forget those dresses all night.

At the opening hour the following day, of course I was there at the booth. This time a handsomely featured gentleman was presiding alone. He said that the artist I had met the night before was his wife. We began a half hour conversation that included many subjects and a lot of hearty laughter. Soon his wife arrived from across the street. She smiled at the conversation in Spanish but said nothing. When she spoke to her husband in an unknown (to me) language and he replied, I realized that the artist understood Spanish but appeared to speak only Zapotec, one of the indigenous Oaxacan languages.

I left the park with a beautiful dress, warm smiles all around and a sincere invitation to visit the family in their home village of Mitla. I feel fortunate to have made a valuable and inspiring artistic connection beyond the "marketplace".

I am preparing a nice letter bound for Mitla, way ahead of time....

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Sandra Dean published on February 19, 2012.

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