In late February a friend invited me to attend an art show. I was anxiously anticipating this cultural affair until I learned the “big event” was taking place over a three day period in the tiny clubhouse on the grounds of a local condominium property. Without a moment’s thought, I concluded, “What artistic delights could possibly be found in a condo clubhouse?” However, word on the street in San Carlos was that an early arrival on opening day was best for this “show” otherwise the best pieces would be gone. This hearsay alone perked my interest. I had no notion who these artisans were or what they created but it was also rumored they worked for a full year preparing for this annual show. As a result, I was ready and waiting at 9:00 am when the doors to the clubhouse eased open.
Inside I was greeted by a flash of brilliant color as my eyes focused on the unique beauty of Huichol folk art. Alongside the lovely pieces were three interestingly dressed people eagerly yet quietly welcoming attendees and working diligently at their craft.
These indigenous people traveled from a location in the Sierra Madre Occidental Range. This chain of mountains is an almost complete continuation of California’s Sierra Nevadas. The range runs through many Mexican states including but not limited to Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco and Nayarit. For geographical reference, all of these states are south of my location in Sonora. Durango proclaims the highest peak of the Sierra Madre Occidental Range while Zacatecas is known for mining the beautiful silver associated with Mexico. Both landlocked states are farther south and east than Sonora and unveil beautiful lush forests and valleys in their higher elevations. Jalisco is home to the well known cities of Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajura as well as Lake Chapala. The coastline of Nayarit is some of the most stunning of the Pacific Ocean.
Just like in the USA, each state has its own unique qualities. Following that quick geography lesson you hopefully have a better understanding of where these individuals reside. You should also know their isolated, mountainous home has kept the Huichol very “pure” to their beliefs and customs which date back more than 1,500 years. While the world calls this ethnic group Huichol, they prefer to call themselves by a word from their native language, Wixarika. They are, Wixaritari or “the people”. Once one sees the intricate work of these lovely people they can also be referred to as true artists.
The pieces at the art show included a variety of earrings, bracelets, rings, keychains and necklaces all of which were created using tiny glass beadwork. There were wooden animal sculptures carefully covered with a combination of glass beads and yarn in lovely, intricate, bright patterns. I learned that historically these items were covered with clay beads, coral, stones, bones, shells and seeds versus the “modern” version constructed of commercially made glass beads.
Prominently on display were the incredible masked faces of wolves, rabbits, skulls, deer and jaguars. Each piece was as unique as it was mysterious. A crowd favorite were the gourd bowls. These multi-sized beauties had natural bottoms and interiors lined with complex patterns of yarn and beadwork. According to the artists, bowls are created using dried gourds in which a thin layer of beeswax is smeared inside. Beads are then placed inside one by one working from the center outward. Each design has meaning to the Huichol. For example, a flower with five petals indicates a rainy season while a reddish brown color represents earth. Zigzag lines moving from one prominent figure to another represent the transference of information or blessings. The thought and meaning put into each piece is endless.
In one area, a few much sought after yarn paintings were displayed. I was drawn to these immediately. These magnificent pieces have religious and cultural significance to the Huichols. Many of the designs are influenced by the plant, animal and celestial motifs associated with religious beliefs and mythology of the ancient Huichol world. One plant that is prominent is the peyote flower as it was (and perhaps still is) used in sacred ceremonies of “the people”. These “paintings” are known as nierikas or “gifts of seeing”. Which means the yarn art pieces are a form of writing and represent stories, religious experiences and myths that are to be passed down to following generations often from the tribe shamans and healers. If these paintings weren’t beautiful enough they also come with a very special addition found on the backside of each piece. The “story” is translated into Spanish to allow the purchaser to understand the vision of the artist.
While commercial copies of Huichol art can be found throughout Mexico and other locations around the world. After learning about this folk art and witnessing the artisans at work, I can only say I am thrilled to be the owner of four small original pieces. I love my peyote earrings, whimsical lizard keychain and colorful gourd bowl. I must admit however my favorite is the yarn painting I coveted from the moment I walked into the tiny clubhouse show. Luckily, I was able to snag this prize due to my early arrival.
The story behind this piece translates VERY roughly as… “The healer (who looks like a purple lizard) blesses the offerings (corn in the blue cauldron and peyote flower floating above) to the greater god. A main point of the ceremony takes place when the healer (purple lizard) anoints his head (with the water drop that resembles a weird spider, I think). Following this anointing the hummingbird is blessed by the healer with water. (In Mexico the hummingbird is often found in stories. It represents strength and following your dreams.) The hummingbird flies away to carry blessings to the cornfields, plants and those who are ill.” Got it? Perhaps something is lost in translation or maybe the sacred peyote was somehow involved when translating the painting into words. Either way it’s an interesting, although somewhat convoluted tale.
Regardless of this strange and mystical story woven into the yarn painting, next winter I fully plan to return to the little condo clubhouse where I am positive I will once again find alluring pieces of work created by the Huichols. Until then, I will simply enjoy the wonderful pieces of their folk art that now adorn my home.
May 19, 2020
Note: Folk Art is often created by artists with little to no formal training. Pieces are often made with simple tools and materials and creative techniques. Each item created holds deep meaning within the culture of the artisans.