Folk Art/ Arte Popular
Arte popular, or folk art, the stuff of collectors is usually created in rural areas, small, towns and villages, and involves artistic interpretation of utilitarian objects, such as a household dish, an item of furniture, a religious object, an article of clothing or a decoration for the home on feast days. An important and defining aspect of such pieces is that they embody a cultural tradition, with function, form and design determined by the history of production.
By definition, arte popular is the product of an individual or family, and is often made anonymously. If the product develops a following, and appeals to a wider market, regional production may be established, and these days, outstanding artist may find it convenient to sign their pieces, as each work demonstrates artist's personality and imagination. Examples of regional production include the astounding, textured ceramic pineapples of San Jose Garcia, Michoacan, and the lacquerware pieces from Olinala, Guerrero.
On a less regional basis, the ex-votos, retablos and older nichos made for private devotion are also considered folk art. The popularity of such pieces for decoration and collection has spawned a kind of spin-off school of ex-voto artist, who paint their visions of religious gratitude on tin, along with a crudely written but heartrending message of thanks or pleading. The product is then intentionally bent and rusted so that it will look old.
Folk artist pick up their techniques in non-academic contexts, and the methods are often transmitted from generation to generation. While this can ensure continued production, it can also limit yield.
In San Miguel de Allende, for example, folk art collectors are wondering about the future of the traditional food dishes decorated with fantastic animals by Don Esteban Valdez in the nearby brick-making village of Pantoja. Don Esteban's children have no interest in continuing creation of the appealing, rustic bowls, and it is likely that the art will die with him.
Further characterizing folk art is the use of primary materials from local environment and simple tools. Initially, anyway, production is intended for local use. But the recent boom in popularity of Mexican art in general, coinciding with and bolstered by the immensely successful Thirty Centuries of Mexican Art exhibition, which traveled to the world's great museums during the last decade, has many folk artists graduating from the local market into the world art scene.
The Linares family of Mexico City, for instance, has created paper mache ceremonial pieces for generations. Their imaginative alebrijes (paper mache figures built upon wire armatures) have become so popular that individual works are now signed by their artist-creators, and find their way to large art and hand craft markets outside of the Mexican City area.
The spiritually inspired yarn and wax paintings and bead art and jewelry created by Huichol artists has made international art-world figures of individual craftsmen including such masters as Jose Benitez, Otilia Lopez and Mariano Valadez; their work now forms the core of important folk art collections.
Even the untrained eye will find it a simple matter to distinguished, if rustic, folk art and the mass-produced category of handcraft know as artesania. Artesania is usually created in larger villages, towns and cities, and exhibits minimal individual artistic expression or interpretation. Such pieces, while they may indeed be produced by hand, are intended for commercialization.
The molded porcelain mugs from Dolores Hidalgo, hand-dipped in glaze and produced by the truckload, warm the hands of coffee and atole drinkers in homes, offices and restaurants throughout Mexico. Their production involves a factory-like organization with hierarchies, salaries and established shifts, and the product itself is characterized by standardization. If you need another couple of cases of brown cups with gray glaze dripping from the lip-line, there's a warehouseful of such artesania in Dolores, with scores more in the kiln.
While such common, mass-produced items are intended for everyday use, rather than manifesting centuries of native cultural tradition, they may benefit from traditional aesthetics while altering the traditional use, significance and function of a traditional piece. The popularity of small nichos (niches), and their mass production in tin for use as picture frames, is such an example. And it is easy to see and feel the difference between a display of hand thrown, and hand painted Mezcala, Guerrero water jars and a boxful of molded, hand-dipped vases from the kilns of Dolores. The latter is hardly the inspired product of an individual or family; instead, an inspired businessman has trained workers for serial production.
Evita Avery cites glassware, paper mache clowns and fruits, etc. as further examples of factory-type training and production passed from generation to generation. She points out that the production of artesania employs the use of a variety of raw materials, along with complicated tools, presses, molds and stamps. Production of artesania is aimed at national and international markets. And it is meant to be consumed, used, broken and replaced.
With this in mind, shoppers will be able to pick and choose among the items offered for sale in any ethnic market within Mexico. Most of the items for sale in San Miguel de Allende's Mercado de Artesanias, near Calle Loreto, are exactly that-artesanias. Though the objects are handmade, and the quality is often very good, it is evident that few of the items have been produced by individuals who are committed to technique or singularly inspired by motivation such as veneration of a saint or use in a traditional dance.
In regional crafts markets, in a few of the "antiques bazaars" that have proliferated during the last half-dozen years in San Miguel de Allende, and in gallery-stores such as Avery's La Calaca, dedicated to the individual nature and piece-by-piece production that characterize folk art or arte popular, patient shoppers will find the uniquely decorative and functional pieces that constitute and define folk art.
Arte Polpular catches the eye, it's usually one of a kind, and it often costs more. Now you know why.