The art of Mercados

I love a Mercado! Across the major neighborhoods of Mexico City, Mercados are the center of commerce and the interactions of daily life and should be part of  every visitor experience.IMG_0978

During a recent trip to Mexico City we stayed outside the center in Coyoacan, a quieter community where Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky once lived. The Mercado Coyoacan has everything a local resident might need in daily life, from birthday gifts to fresh tortillas. In fact, the entry we came through had a tortilla machine cranking out fresh tortillas.

Walking through the aisles I am always struck by the beauty of the displays – whether the rows of cactus fruit, or the pyramids of differently colored red chilies, it is visually beautiful. The perfume of each section will assail your senses as well – I always stay away from the meat aisles for this reason.

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There is a pride and showmanship in each merchant’s displays – whether you are selling fruit or toys, items are arranged with an artistic eye and precision.IMG_0980

Small food stalls sell fresh fruit drinks, breakfast, lunches and snacks. Sitting down at the counter and ordering the specialty can be one of the most wonderful parts of your visit to a Mercado.

Xoloitzcuintli

We are departing for Mexico City in 4 days, leaving snow and slush behind – nothing these little Mexican hairless dogs would likely experience. Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo for short, has been popular in Mexico for centuries. The dog was named by the Aztecs after Xolotl, the God of lightning and death.

These small effigies can be seen at street markets as freshly baked clay folk arts, and also nearly identical Xolos at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The dog statues were buried alongside their masters to protect and guide them in the afterlife.

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Art collecting as you like it

Our Mexican folk-art collection began in 1980 with a mask that my husband and I fell in love with, but it was far beyond our budget. We

Carved and painted wood mask
Carved and painted wood mask

struck a bargain with the Santa Barbara proprietor and paid for it over three months – the layaway plan for art. Today, that same mask hangs on our wall, at the center of our mask collection.

We have bought sculptures, paintings, prints, drawings, and textile work from artists and galleries. The only criteria are that we love it and can’t imagine living without it. This work is intermingled with my own artworks, and our home is like a small museum with the art exhibited salon style. We do switch the art around and change the exhibition for our own pleasure. However, rarely have we deaccessioned a work of art. Nearly 40 years later, the collection now has a voice and personality of its own.
Nearly every piece has a memory and story about how we acquired it, along with information about the artist. And this is essential, we seek to buy works most often directly from the artists, or at least with knowledge about the artist.
For instance, our first trip to Mexico we purchased a crow, one of the papier-mâché and wire creations of Saulo Moreno Hernandez, who today is one of the pre-eminent Mexican artisans and has been featured in the MOMA publication, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. We liked its raw personality, and after several years added another of his pieces – a gallo, (rooster) to our collection.
We have purchased many wood sculptures from the Miguel Diaz family who live just outside of Oaxaca in San Pedro

By the Miguel Diaz family
Miguel Diaz family

Ixtlahuaca. We met the Diaz family on a trip to Oaxaca when they were in the central square selling their wood carvings. We instantly connected when we realized that we had a family that had the same number of children that were the same ages, and were invited out to their home to have a Sunday meal with the family. We have bought many pieces from the Diaz family on numerous trips to Mexico. We remember when we look at these pieces that the entire family has a job in creating each of these wood alebrijes; from sourcing and carving the first wood structure, to the final delicate painting, every family member contributes to the piece. In 2018 we discovered another family of artists in San Martín Tilcajeta. The Fabían family work in a similar manner and their work is held in major international collections.

We have purchased rugs from artists in Teotitlán del Valle and in 2018 added a piece from J. Isaac Vasquez Garcia and family in our collection. The rug is woven with handspun wool and colored with natural dyes created from cochineal, pericón, a type of marigold that changes natural wool into a pale yellow color, jarilla leaves that create a bright, fresh green, and tree lichen known as “old man’s beard” that changes wool to a pale straw color.

One of our favorite pieces is a Huichol yarn painting bought on our first trip to Mexico, with the help of our friend, Robert Forman, who we also met on that first trip in 1992. We had heard from Robert that a Huichol yarn painting might be for sale when we were in Mexico City preparing to depart for home. On the night before we left, we were summoned to the lobby of our hotel by Robert, accompanied by several of the Huichol and discussed the paintings and other artworks we had seen during the day. At that point, we had no more pesos left but made an arrangement with Robert to send a check to his father living in New Jersey, who would reimburse the Huichols for the painting. We left Mexico that next day with an a???????????????????????????????stounding work of art that we have included in our collection – front and center.
The moral of this story is to buy art that you like – don’t hesitate! Don’t rely on anyone else’s opinion, unless that person will also live with the art on a daily basis. Have faith in your preferences, and the only thing that might happen is that your eye becomes more discerning as you focus in on what art gives you the most pleasure.

A love affair with Mexico

Our love affair with Mexico began long ago as we grew up in the Southern California high desert. Finally we both had the opportunity to travel for the first time to Mexico in 1992. Looking back on that now it doesn’t seem so long ago, but much has changed in the 23 years of traveling to the same places.

The wild first trip had us landing in Mexico City, taking the train to Guanajuato, then to Morelia, Patzquaro, and spending some time in Mexico City again before we headed south on the train to Oaxaca.  The craziest thing about this was it was done over a two-week period and we were traveling with our two youngest sons, who were 5 and 9 years old.

Jerus and Caleb in Oaxaca
Caleb & Jerus Oaxaca, 1992

So many trips later, it feels like coming home when we arrive back in Mexico. Although we now travel alone since our children have long left home, we decided to change things around a bit for our upcoming trip to Mexico City.

Whenever we have been through Mexico City we have stayed at Hotel Sevilla, a small no-frills hotel next to Sullivan Park. The good thing about this consistent choice was that we knew how to give directions to our taxi driver from any point we returned from, and knew when we were going in the right direction “towards home.” This time when we made hotel accommodations, Hotel Sevilla had no vacancies. We considered booking another place in the immediate area since we were familiar with the local espresso shop and the great breakfast place that made homemade tortillas, but then we thought about Airbnb and the idea of staying within a local neighborhood instead of a tourist hotel. The more we considered this idea, the more enthusiastic we became and booked a single room with private bath in a home in the Coyoacan district. Although the inexpensive hotel we had planned to stay in would have been $433 for one week, the Airbnb place was $156. Saving over $270 was great since we rarely hang out in the hotel and were excited about staying in a neighborhood.

Travels and Public Art

Recent travels took me through the Denver Airport to transfer to another flight. The first flight was delayed and feeling stressed that I would not make the connection, I was annoyed to find that I had to board a train to transfer to the next terminal. The train left and entered a tunnel where my grumpy outlook was immediately changed to delight.  Inside the tunnel were tiny shiny propellers mounted on the walls that twirled as the train moved through the tunnel.  The electric blue lighting inside the train reflected onto the propellers, adding color to a fantastic public art installation.

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Kinetic Light Curtain – photo courtesy Denver Airport

The “Kinetic Air Light Curtain” was designed by husband and wife team, Antonette Rosato and William Maxwell in 1995.  Although both artists have died in the past decade, their artwork is still fresh and continues to engage passengers. Both artists lived and worked in Denver and their design has meaning to the place:  there are 5,280 propellers in the tunnel, which signifies the altitude of Denver, known as the ‘mile high city.’

Frequently we forget to savor the moment in time when we are amazed, delighted, intrigued or mystified by art.  After I got on my connecting plane, I kept seeing those reflecting propellers around me on the runway, and thought of the power that artists have to elevate the mundane through art.