A Culture Cut in Wood by Alec Dempster

Arbol
El Arbol Florido, woodcut. All images in the post © 2015 Alec Dempster

Out of the blue, Alec Dempster wrote to tell me about his new book, Lotería Huasteca. I know a good deal about Mexico, but never heard of the Huasteca. This book is both charming and illuminating. Its woodblock prints provide 54 little windows into the Huasteca culture of East-Central Mexico.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 4.14.17 PMOddly enough, last week we had a master woodblock printer from Mexico on Kutztown’s campus, Alan Altamirano. He often advised our students “dibujar sin meido” to “draw without fear.” Alec Dempster draws without fear. His gutsy woodcuts are infused with a profound respect for Mexican culture. I have traveled some of the same highways as Dempster in the mountains of Vera Cruz, but Dempster has seen much more than I. It helps that he is an accomplished musician, and although he is Canadian, he was born in Mexico. It was an invitation to a musical event that launched his Huasteca project.

Carnival
Carnaval © Alec Dempster

The prints are boldly cut in the tradition of early Taller Grafica Popular prints or the drawings of Jean Charlot.

The text is accessible and informative. The prints are presented in alphabetical order. At one level this alphabetical construct seems odd, but Dempster gives a good introduction. He fashions his presentation after Mexican lotería cards, a deck used for a game something like BINGO. He manages to place the Huasteca creation myth near the beginning with the Arbol Florido pictured above. I love the image of the birds and beasts suckling at the tree’s many breasts.

Amate
Alec Dempster’s Amate illustration seems to pulsate off the page.

‘A’ is also for amate. Anyone who visits Mexico will be approached by vendors selling naive prints done on cork-colored amate paper. Dempster chooses to portray a lesser-known use for the ancient paper.

“Today Otomı shamans continue to cut out small figures from amate paper to represent a pantheon of gods associated with agriculture, rain and mountains. In San Pablito, a community in the municipality of Pahuatlån, Puebla, famous for amate paper, the paper figures are used to intercede with the gods for purposes of healing, protection and spiritual purification.”

Cana
La Caña  (Sugar Cane) © Alec Dempster

Together with the introduction of cattle farming, sugar cane plantations severely transformed the Mexican landscape. Since the colonial era they have been the main cause of deforestation in the Huasteca.”

El Camåin
El Camåin

Dempster manages to convey much of the power and glory of Mexico. Every one of the images is flanked with a thoughtful descriptive essay, and Dempster’s words are as precise as his cuts.

El Tarango
El Taronga by Alec Dempster

This temporary wooden structure is built for musicians to play on during huapangos. It is also known as cuauhtlapechtli, a Nahuatl word meaning ‘wooden bed’.”

Huasteca is just one of many pre-Hispanic cultures that survive in Mexico. Dempster’s chronicle of the Huasteca is a moving achievement. I learned a lot, and realize I have a lot more to learn about Mexico.

Clearly, a vital heritage is still being passed down in songs, recipes, folkways and art. You can see more sample images at Scribd, here. Lotería Hausteca is published in Erin, Ontario, Canada by Porcupine’s Quill. It can be ordered here through AbeBooks.com.

NOTE: A Book Launch Party for Lotería Huesteca will be held in Toronto, Nov. 2 at the Gladstone Hotel. Starts at 7:30pm. Tickets $10 at the door, or free admission with purchase of the book! Live musical performance by Tlacuatzin direct from Veracruz. 

Lapiztola Stencil Collective, Spray for Us.

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Yankel and Roberto of Lapiztola at work in Oaxaca. photo: K McCloskey

Lapiz = pencil.  Pistola = pistol. Lapiztola is a stencil collective in Oaxaca. The pun suggests the pencil is as mighty as the pistol. Their artwork has been described a visual poetry. In October, one of Lapiztola’s crew,  Yankel, was on a conference panel in Oaxaca about the city’s street art collectives. Yankel had spent much of the day on a ladder wearing a respirator mask spray-painting a luminous sparrow on a wall at Matria Art Garden a few blocks away. Another artist in the audience proclaimed his love for Lapiztola, but added compared to more radical street collectives he found their stencil murals “decorative and appropriate for restaurants.” –Decorative?  OUCH!

Rosario, Yankel and Roberto of Lapiztola.
Rosario, Yankel and Roberto of Lapiztola.

Walls are where you find them. Yankel responded, sure, Lapiztola might accept invitations, but they would never let a restaurant owner dictate subject matter. They might even get reimbursed for their paint, but they don’t profit from their work.

Reflejos de Huida, stencil, 2013, Lapiztola.
Reflejos de Huida, stencil, 2013, Lapiztola.

Yankel talked about a piece that had appeared in MACO, the Museo Arte Contemporanea de Oaxaca. Reflejos de Huida featured a little boy and birds escaping from a cage. Their inspiration was a real boy they met on the streets who lived a life of extreme stress. Even more than most children he dreamed of escaping the confines of his domestic life.

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El Mundo Feliz /Happy World shows a fire-eating child at an intersection. © Lapiztola

Lapiztola’s art includes the iconic imagery of M-16’s, molotov cocktails, and skulls found in Oaxacan street art since 2006. Lapiztola, however, adds their own visual vocabulary: birds; street musicians; indigenous children. Their work often deals with street-level domestic issues like child welfare and displays a special empathy for Mexico’s children.

Mural image from Lapiztola's tumblr.
Mural image from Lapiztola’s tumblr.

Rosario and Roberto are trained in graphic design, while Yankel studied architecture. Due to their mix of backgrounds the collective’s projects are both graphically crisp and site-specific, taking full advantage of a particular wall’s potential.

A shop gate in Tiajuana © Lapiztola from their
Shop gate project in Tijuana. Mexico © Lapiztola from their blog.

One of the wonderful things about stencils is how the elements can be repurposed. Below Lapiztola reused their accordion playing boy (spraying through the reverse side of the stencil) to collaborate with French artist Seth Globepainter.

Seth (left) with Lapiztola
Seth (left) with Lapiztola

Lapiztola’s artwork looks clever online. Clever is good, but in person, their large-scale visions are more than clever. They are fantastic. They have clarity, visual impact and soul.

Commentary on Genetically Modified Corn, Lapiztola, Oaxaca.
Commentary on Genetically Modified Corn, Lapiztola, Oaxaca.

Check out Lapiztola on Facebook and via their blog. For more info, see Jeffrey Pena’s fine interview with Lapiztola at Curbs and Stoops.

Irving Herrera, the Artist and his Models

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Irving Herrera creates wonderful images of beautiful woman. What is so remarkable about his artwork is that he appreciates the beauty of the indigenous and mixed-race woman of Oaxaca.

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Throughout Mexico the leggy newscasters you see on T.V. and the models on billboards, calendars, and magazines often look like pure-blooded Europeans. I took a walk looking for examples and found this mind-boggling image in the lobby of a liposuction clinic.

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And here is a more typical image from a dress shop window…

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Such images of so-called ‘female perfection’ bombard the men and women of Oaxaca daily. Dark, broadbodied Indigenous women might play the sympathetic maids, but not the love interest in telanovelas (soap operas.) Irving was born to an indigenous Mixteco family in the high mountain village of Huajuapan de Leon in 1984. He came to Oaxaca and studied with the master printmaker Shinzaburo Takeda.

20131022-182332.jpg Today, Irving Herrera is an artist on a roll. He illustrated the current issue (Oct. 2013) of the magazine, El Jolgorio. It is a special Oaxaca Poetry issue and can be downloaded here. Irving recently had a roomful of his prints exhibited at MACO, The Museo del Arte Comtemporaneo de Oaxaca. He has twice won ‘Young Creative Artist’ grants from the State of Oaxaca to complete the series of oversized portraits he calls, ‘Senora Matanzas.’ I don’t know how to translate this, maybe,’ Killer Women?’

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He told me he carves these portraits from models directly into the wood in a matter of hours. Then he crowns the portrait with the bones of a slaugthered animal, often a goat. The senoras’ seductive expressions are jarringly juxtapozed with the formal posture and dress of the Porfiato (Mexico’s version of Victorian era.) Irving says he’s mixing memories from the slaughterhouses of his boyhood town and the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada. This past weekend Irving travelled into the mountains accompanied by his beloved teacher Maestro Takeda. The two artists were honored guests at a regional festival in Irving’s pueblo, Huajuapan de Leon, were the woman are so very beautiful.

20131022-230329.jpgIn Oaxaca, Irving Herrera and his talented companeros of Gabinete Grafico studio can be found at 307 Xincotencatl.

Art Oasis in Mexico City

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Maestro Gerardo Torres Gonzalez (center) tends an oasis in one of the world’s largest cities. Mexico City’s Bosque de Chapultepec is home to many wonders including Emperor Maximilian’s castle. Below the castle in a grove of eucalyptus trees you will find a house called Quinta Colorado. In the patio every Saturday and Sunday there are art classes. At the center of this school is an extraordinary art teacher, Maestro Torres. Anyone who finds their way to his class is welcome. The classes are free. Maestro Torres gets support for the project from the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes , the famed Mexico City art school where he studied.

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Carolina, one of the youngest artists in the open-air class.

Mexico has a long tradition of open-air and free art education. It was especially big in the 1930’s. It is wonderful to see the tradition continue. Maestro Torres told me he has been in the park for 6 years; before that he taught  classes for 11 years at another location. He has a truly amazing in his capacity to teach a class of diverse students of mixed abilities. Some of his students arrive with recycled copy paper and a single pencil. Others bring watercolors and proper sketchbooks. When I visited one young artist , Luis, was painting in oils. Maestro Torres works with what he gets, and treats every student with respect. Over the years I have observed many art teachers in action. This man is special.20131013-114118.jpg
My friend Diego works as a civil servant in a skyscraper at the metro stop Zapata.  Weekends he gladly rides the train a few extra stops to Chapultepec Park. Diego has no expectation of quitting his day job to become an artist. He told me the art class means so much to him because his office work is so very routine. At Quinta Colorado, Diego has a chance to do something creative and forget the stresses of his week.

Carolina, a talented little girl came with her grandfather, who sat behind her on a stone wall reading a novel while she painted. There was one older fellow with gray flecks in his beard and long hair tied up in an odd knot like a Hindu monk. His fingernails were painted black and he didn’t say much. Maestro Torres greeted every student with enthusiasm, and hopped from table to table giving encouragement and technical demonstrations.

Alberto, age 7, uses crayons for his art.
Alberto, age 7, uses crayons for his art.

Maestro Torres believes that copying photos is a fruitless way to learn to draw. He told me there must be a balance between observation and imagination. He has developed a number of quick exercises to facilitate imagination. One he calls the ‘Constellation.’ He peppers a page with random dots. Then with the side of a pencil, or a hexagonal bar of graphite, he connects some of the dots creating a balanced, but abstract, tonal composition. He then takes a quick breath. I noticed at this point he sometimes looks up into the trees for an instant. Then he finds something on the page. If he is working with a child, he might draw an animal. If he is working with an adult he can create a complete figurative drawing in a matter of minutes. He dates his drawings, signs them with a carved stamp and gives them freely to his students.
20131013-114219.jpgThe maestro is a firm believer in keeping a sketchbook. In fact, he keeps two. He was good enough to share these pages. Even his tiny pocket-sized Fabiano notebook demonstrates his mastery of the human figure and his delightful drawing ability with brush, pen, and pencil. Maestro Torres is working on a book about his teaching methods. I look forward to seeing it.  When I return to Chalputelpec Park, I know where to find him. Gracias, Maestro.

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“The Last Supper” by Yescka, Oaxaca

Yescka has a grand mural on a full wall in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca. It’s his take on the Last Supper re-imagined Mexico style with Narco-trafficers, cops, politicians and a stripper. I knew him when he was running around pasting his work to walls without permission, risking a beating or arrest.

The Head of Benito Juarez, detail from the Last Supper, stencil and paint.
The Head of Benito Juarez, detail from the Last Supper, stencil and paint.

I met Yescka in 2007 in Oaxaca, and know his real name. He asked me what I thought of his street name of Yescka. I said to English speakers it might sound rather feminine, like Jessica. He laughed and shrugged. I asked if it came from an indigenous language, maybe Zapotec or Mixtec? He told me he made it up from ‘calles’ (streets) backwards. I said calles backwards, sellac, would sound like “Sayack.” He told me it wasn’t exactly backwards, but syllables reversed.  At the time Yescka was one of the younger members of the ASARO collective. He was often in the company of a beautiful young European woman, or two.

Marcha, 2007, detail, woodblock print, ASARO, attributed to Yescka
Marcha, 2007, detail, woodblock print, ASARO, attributed to Yescka

ASARO, the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca, is a collective founded in 2006. ASARO’s art belongs to Mexico’s long tradition of revolutionary public art. Back in 2006, they sold woodblock prints for 100 pesos, roughly $10, in Oaxaca’s public square. ASARO’s real passion, however, was the work they give away.

Stencil graffiti, ASARO, 2007. Oaxaca cathedral
Stencil graffiti, ASARO, 2007. Oaxaca cathedral

Overnight they cut stencils of an arrested comrade, the next morning her portrait was sprayed all over the walls of the historic city. They would print 3ft. tall woodblock prints of goose-stepping police monsters on tissue paper. By dawn a chorus line of mutant policemen would be pasted on walls of the cathedral or Governor’s Palace. I was lucky enough to spend time with ASARO in their studio. I remember meetings where heated discussions took place. Yescka would calmly weave around the room, always painting, sketching, making collages and popping into the conversation. He made some of ASARO’s most distinctive political prints. In those days, they were unsigned.

Taller Siqueiros, Yescka's studio and gallery, Calle Porfirio Diaz, Oaxaca.
Taller Siqueiros, Yescka’s studio and gallery, Calle Porfirio Diaz, Oaxaca.

As ASARO’s fame grew Yescka began doing more personal work. He travelled to Art Basel, to Munich and Oakland leaving a trail of street art along his route. Today he has his own studio in Oaxaca, Taller Siqueiros, named in honor of the radical 20th century Mexican muralist.

Masked Grafittero, Azompa
Masked Grafitero, Azompa, 2009

AZOMPA, 2009.
One day in the town of Azompa, near Oaxaca, collectives from across Mexico came to paint murals on the walls of the municipal basketball court. Azompa was once a small village known for green clayware; today it’s an overcrowded suburb of Oaxaca City. There was a screamo punk band playing at one end of the ballcourt. The lead singer had a head like a bull and wore tire chains over his shoulders. The municipal police roared up in pick-up trucks. Ten blue uniformed police jumped from the truckbeds brandishing clubs; some had sidearms and rifles. They told the crowd of maybe 100 that event was over. The muralists, grafiteros, stopped in mid-stroke. The punk band fled the stage. Yescka who had been stenciling at the far end of the basketball courts, strode through the crowd and took the band’s microphone.

Yescka with ASARO stencil crew in Azompa
Yescka with ASARO stencil crew in Azompa

The gist of what Yescka said was, “If our music disturbed our Azompa neighbors, we apologize, but WE WILL NOT STOP PAINTING! We will NEVER stop exercising our sacred rights to free expression guaranteed under the Mexican Constitution!” He pumped his fist in the air. “Viva Mexico! Viva la Revolucion! The Revolution Continues!”

The crowd roared in agreement. Yescka went on to say that he was thankful so many important “observers” from Mexico City from other countries were filming the event and nodded to me and cluster of French hipsters with telephoto cameras. Yescka’s speech saved the day. The police commander got on his walkie-talkie. Then he told his men to stand down. By nightfall, there were 20 new murals extending for over 100 yards along the cinderblock walls of Azompa’s ballcourts.

For more info on ASARO: Princeton University’s Library has a great collection of ASARO prints. I wrote about that collection here. If you’d like to know more about ASARO, I have several essays at Commonsense2.com. ASARO maintains a blog, that is occasionally updated. Yescka is on Facebook as Yescka Guerilla Art, here.

New Street Art in OAXACA

Reflejos de Huida, stencil, 2013, Lapiztola.
Reflejos de Huida, stencil, 2013, Lapiztola.

MACO,The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca has an exhibition of street art on its walls. Does street art belong in a museum? Well, MACO’s Hecho en Oaxaca spills over into the streets. The artists came from all over the globe, Swoon, The Date Farmers, How and Nosm, MOMO, Retna, Saner, StenLex, and Vhils. Oaxacan artists Yescka, Dr. Lakra, and Lapiztola round out the show curated by Pedro Alonzo.

Lapiztola Collective's birds seem escape onto the street
Lapiztola Collective’s birds seem escape onto the street.

I am fond of Lapiztola’s work. I’ve met them, in fact they once let me hitch a ride home with them from a birthday party in the hills. Their stencils are always crisp graphic statements, often they relate to musical themes. I was not familiar with L.A. artist Retna. Retna’s blue wall at MACO (below) titled “Somos los ninos de las manos manchadas” translates as “We are the children of stained hands.”

Art by Retna, 2013 Acrylic.
Art by Retna, 2013 Acrylic.

His work resembles Arabic calligraphy. I thought Retna also painted the front of ASARO’s studio, Espacio Zapata, home to a gallery and the cafe,”Atila Del Sur.”  A reader informs me it is the work of Sanez.

Retna, Espacio Zapata, Studio of  ASARO collective, # 519 Porfirio Diaz. Van artist unknown.
Wall by Sanez, Espacio Zapata, Studio of ASARO, # 519 Porfirio Diaz. Van artist unknown.

Dr. Lakra has an untitled mural in the exhibition. It looks to be inspired by Hollywood, Bollywood and cheap whiskey. In Lakra’s case, I prefer his simpler ‘dragon woman’ mural on a wall near Espacio Zapata.

Dr. Lakra, untitled, acrylic and spray paint.
Dr. Lakra, untitled, acrylic and spray paint.
Dr Lakra, Street mural, Porfirio Diaz. Oaxaca.
Dr Lakra, Street mural, Porfirio Diaz, Oaxaca.

Swoon’s project is among the largest artworks in the museum. Like many old public buildings in Mexico the museum was once church property until it was seized by the government. Swoon worked around fragments of painted wall decoration which may date from the 17th century. She turned a high-ceilinged room into a temple of intense female figures. To borrow a phrase, the walls reflect both “agony and ecstasy.” Overall, her imagery evokes a suggestion of hope. I first saw Swoon’s work on a wall in Braddock, PA. She is an inspiring artist.

Swoon, detail, showing fragments of colonial wall decoration.
Swoon, detail, showing fragments of the colonial wall decoration.
Wall by Swoon at MACO, Oaxaca.
Wall by Swoon at MACO, Oaxaca.

Swoon’s outside murals were on prime real estate in the historic center of Oaxaca. I was told the building houses Dr. Lakra’s painting studio. Her works are woodblock prints on kraft paper which are pasted to the walls with wheatpaste. In some places they call these works “throw-ups.” The street artist can unroll the work and throw it up on a wall in a matter of minutes.

Oaxaca Street Art by Swoon, complete with a museum label on right edge.
Oaxaca Street Art by Swoon, complete with a museum label on right edge.

I will leave you with an image that includes art by Swoon, but it looks to be a collaboration with Retna and perhaps the blue skull is by Dr.Lakra. Next post I will share work by my old friend Yescka.

Oaxaca Street art, Swoon, Retna, and maybe, Dr. Lakra.
Oaxaca Street art, Swoon, Retna, and maybe, Dr. Lakra.

Felt Art at CASA, in the state of Oaxaca

20130715-144414.jpg In 2006, when all hell broke loose in Oaxaca, and the streets were filled with tear gas, Jesus ‘Chucho’ Martinez was a founding member of ASARO, a radical printmaking collective. Today he works 6 days a week in what may be the most beautiful location for an art workshop. CASA’s Taller de Fieltro, the felt studio, is located in the power room of an old textile mill near Oaxaca. One entire wall is open to the mountain view.

20130715-150214.jpg CASA or the Center for the Arts at San Augustin was founded in 2006 by Maestro Francisco Toledo to be Latin America’s first center for ecology in the arts. The 1883 factory was lovingly restored by architect Claudina Lopez Morales. It has galleries and classroom spaces surounded by reflecting pools and breathtaking views. Even if there is no exhibition it is worth the 20 minute taxi ride from downtown Oaxaca. For those who read Spanish, more info on CASA can be found here.

20130715-151901.jpg Below is a photo of Alejandra Salgado mixing pure white and blue wool for a felt painting. The taller is working with noted artists including Guillermo Olquin, Irma Palacios, Francisco and Miguel Castro Lenero, Paloma Torres and Jan Hendrix. Also participating is the always outlandish Dr. Lakra, who I wrote about once before. Hey, I just realized Dr. Lakra rhymes with Oaxaca.

20130715-153734.jpg Chucho told me they use the finest lamb’s wool including that from Merino sheep. In keeping with CASA’s code the dyes must be nontoxic. They keep a color chart of over ninety different hues that they mix like paint pigment to match the artist’s palette.

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Below Chucho and a colleague work out the material list based on the color charts. Despite the lovely surroundings, clearly this must be a demanding job, working with such important artists.

20130715-170918.jpg Here is detail from Dr. Lakra’s project, a tattoed man. Then following is Lakra’s larger work. Following that is glimpse of Oaxaca artist Guillermo Olquin’s art. All copyright on the images belongs to the original artists. I close out this post with a sampling of the remarkable views surrounding the workshop.

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I believe these remarkable felt artworks will be exhibited in Puebla, Mexico in the near future. When I learn the details of the exhibition, I will update this post.

NOTE: I am blogging from Mexico with my Ipad. It is wonderfully portable, but has its disadavantages. I have trouble adding the accent marks that should appear on some Spanish names. I also can’t caption the photos as easily as I might from a laptop. Sorry.