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A Mexican Folk Art Fantasy

A pair of collectors are drawn to vibrant and vintage folk art from south of the border.

By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Tom Spitz

It all started with a candlestick. Kevin Pawlak and James Goodreau had always admired Mexican artwork—like many Arizonans, they owned a few Day of the Dead pieces. Then one day in the mid-aughts, Goodreau, who worked at a consignment shop, brought home a ceramic candle holder made by Héron Martinez. “At the time, I didn’t know who that was,” recalls Pawlak. “I did a little internet research and realized that he was an important Mexican folk artist. Instantly, I knew I had to have more pieces like it.”

The couple began scouring thrift shops, estates sales and antique stores throughout the greater Phoenix area as well as in Tucson in search of similar works. As their collection grew, they turned to selling the items, first on eBay and, following a move to Tucson in 2012, at Arte de la Vida, a store they opened up a few months after relocating. Today, they are considered among the region’s top experts in the field.

Unlike fine art, folk art refers to the creations of craftspersons or indigenous people with no formal artistic training. Works often incorporate a functional purpose and are usually identified by the locality in which they are made. “The genre encompasses

Kevin Pawlak (in purple) and James Goodreau pose with their dogs, Arturo (left) and Jack.

pottery, tin, wood, glass, religious icons and much more,” says Goodreau, who’s main area of interest is textiles. Pawlak is especially knowledgeable about ceramics.

The couple’s 1940s-era adobe-style home in northeast Tucson is chock-full of treasures. Every surface overflows with examples of folk art dating as far back as the early 1900s. Arranged on chunky, hardcarved wood furnishings are intricately embroidered textiles, colorful sculpture and small carvings. A large credenza displays a trio of tall rainbow-hued trees of life, or “arbols de vida”; punched-tin lamps; and metal figurines. Bookcases and shelving units burst with wood “santos,” or saint icons; primitive nativities; and ceramic statuettes.

LEFT The “Señor de Naranja” (Lord of Orange) dance mask was crafted by renowned artisan Victoriano Salgado Morales. It measures 41″H by 29″W from its chin to the top of its tin headdress. ABOVE One of the collectors’ prized pieces is this ceramic goose by Héron Martinez, 16″H by 14.5″W. Made in the early 1950s, it is adorned with designs inspired by Mayan glyphs.

A wall behind the dining table is engulfed from floor to ceiling with decorative plates. Many of these dishes are Tlaquepaque pottery, a product of Mexico’s early tourist trade. “We used to collect and sell a lot of pieces from the 1940s and ’50s, but nowadays serious collectors are looking for items that are from the 1920s or earlier,” says Pawlak. “These plates were made for maybe 10 or 20 cents each, and now they’re fetching up to $1,000 or more. The reason they’re so desired is because they’re hard to come by. They were simply ephemera and often discarded.”

In a back room, which the pair refer to as “the mask room,” an assemblage of elaborate masks hangs on terra-cotta-hued walls. Used for ceremonies and dances, some are as large as 3 or 4 feet high. A rounded fireplace hearth is the perfect resting spot for a grouping of “Reys y Reinas,” or kings and queens. These statues from Tolimán, Querétero, were traditionally given as wedding gifts.

No objects are hidden away. Miniatures and delicate pieces are protected in glass-enclosed curio cabinets. Colorful linens and serapes swathe sofas and guest beds. The look is reminiscent of a busy mercado, or marketplace, but each piece is appreciated for its style and visual appeal. “Folk art needs to be seen,” says Goodreau. “You don’t want to buy stuff that you put in an archival box and only take out a few times a year.”

One of the couple’s most prized finds is a ceramic goose by Martinez, which is proudly displayed on a shelf near the home’s entry. “I don’t ever see myself selling that,” says Pawlak. “It’s one of the only pieces of his, that we know of, that is signed,” explains Goodreau, who adds that signatures are rare with Mexican folk art. “Even the famous people never signed their work.”

From a single candlestick to a collection that has taken over their home—“We need a bigger house,” jokes Pawlak—and their work, Mexican folk art has become an all-consuming passion—and the couple show no signs of limiting their treasure-hunting. Pawlak explains, “There’s an outsider quality that I like about Mexican folk art. It has a naiveté and a sense of wonder, and it’s so visually creative. When I look at it, it brings me a lot of joy.”

ABOVE A cluster of Virgin of Guadalupe bottles from Tlaquepaque, circa 1940-’60s. RIGHT Midcentury brass-and-malachite dishes by Pepe Mendoza. “Mexican Modern is very hot right now. It’s expensive, but I don’t think it’s going to decrease in value,” says Pawlak.

BUILDING YOUR COLLECTION

Kevin Pawlak and James Goodreau share their Top 6 must-have pieces of Mexican folk art.

  • Trees of Life “Every collection should include a large ceramic tree of life,” says Pawlak. Traditionally depicting Biblical scenes, the most sought-after pieces come from Metepec, where the tradition of sculpting them has been handed down through generations.
  • Alibrejes These brightly colored carved wood animals and fantastical creatures, based on earlier papier-mâche iterations, originated in Oaxaca. Fans will want to see “Oaxacan Folk Art from the Shepard Barbash and Vicki Ragan Collection,” which opens at the Tucson Museum of Art on Oct. 3. (tucsonmuseumofart.org)
  • Dance masks Unlike decorative masks made for aesthetic purposes, these disguises were used in celebrations and ceremonial dances. Human faces, animals and devils, crafted of clay, wood and papier-mâche and painted in brilliant hues, are many times accented with animal fur, fabrics and metal.
  • Mexican Modern Seek out cloissoné-type furnishings and accessories by Pepe Mendoza, paintings and sculpture by Sergio Bustamante, and tin works by Gene Byron.
  • Ex-votos These small-scale devotional paintings, often on tin or other metals and measuring less than a foot in length, offer thanks to saints for favors or miracles received.
  • Vintage milagros Religious charms, typically made of tin, silver, wood or gold, were traditionally used as votive offerings or carried for protection and good luck. “Take four or five bigger pieces and frame them,” suggests Goodreau.

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