Tuesday, March 25, 2014


            In my 15 years in business and my even more years of collecting, hundreds of thousands of pieces of arts and crafts have passed through my hands.  These pieces are made from every material conceivable and come from all the corners of Latin America:  from the frigid south of Chile to the windswept llanos of Venezuela to the humid jungles of Belize.  I have pretty much seen everything.  Most of these items – upwards of 90% - have no signatures and bear no mark of the person, village or co-operative responsible for their creation.  They come to the customers as anonymous ambassadors of culture, time and place.

            In one of my first paid speaking gigs back in 2008 I was called to talk on the nature of folk art, with a specific emphasis on Mexico.  When I was asked to give this lecture I had no idea what the level of interest in the subject would be and was happy to walk in to 50 attentive people greeting me.  The nature of folk art is based in the “commonness” of the items, I explained, and that the forces that create the art come up from the traditions and folkways of the people.  Unlike fine art, for the most part folk art is ephemeral and not made to last, physically or otherwise.  The pieces and styles may or may not endure while the traditions and cultures behind them continue.

            In American culture we’ve grown up with the idea that a signed creation is a better creation and that if it’s a “name brand” the quality of whatever we are buying is superior.  I haven’t understood how this branding can been applied to folk art, and the thinking seems as contradictory as having a yoga competition, but I guess our culture will take ways of thinking towards one thing and apply it to another.  In the past 20-30 years there has been a growing movement of collecting “masters of folk art” and pieces with signatures and marks on them.  A clay market figure sold by a street vendor in Oaxaca might not be of better quality than another, but we know that anything made by the Aguilar sisters is superior.  Where does that come from?

            Some of this excitement or “demand” has been created artificially by importers or stores that carry the work.  With the exclusivity of “the masters” they can jack up prices and have more sales.   I started to figure this out on a trip to Peru when I arrived at a town that was supposedly dominated by a crafter family (with a common last name) that has been pumped up by a large importer in Texas.   The craftspeople in the town had not even heard of this family.  One of my customers who claimed to collect pieces from these great Peruvian folk artists was somewhat disappointed to hear this story (and was even more disappointed when I did not return home laden with signed pieces).    

To this day I have customers asking for name brands and I do carry some pieces from well-known crafters and workshops partly because they are appealing to me but mostly to cater to the wishes of the customers.  I have had many “label queens” walk through my doors and I myself even fell under the spell of one of the Aguilar sisters, the bright-eyed Guillermina, who was gracious enough to visit my store and conduct full-house workshops in my back room back in 2003.  So, maybe I’m not even immune to being star struck, to some degree (or dropping names?).

My own law of collecting has always been “collect what you like.”  I always say that my business came out of a “hobby that went berserk,” but as a businessman I do have to cater to the desires and needs of the customers, which change over time.  There has always been room for the label queens but I am glad to say that my warehouse space is dominated by the unsung heroes who busy themselves happily in their faraway workshops anonymously.


  1. This is a topic that is fraught with contradiction and irony. The modern mania for naming and signed pieces has to do with the western tradition of fine art. For us, art is a proprietory thing. In many small scale folk societies it is very different and, often, artisans scratch their heads in wonder at the mania that "interested parties" show in finding out the artistiic origens of terrific folk art. People, however, are very smart and I applaud people like Maria Martinez of San Idlefonso Pueblo in NM, Juan Quezada of Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua, and Juan Orta of Tocuaro in Michoacan in that they were able to understand and exploit the fact(s) that they were "maestros" in their folk art tradition and that they had names amenable to comodification. The fact is, however, that all art is derivative. All artists learn from other artists and "great art" is, actually, one of the variations on a theme that emerge naturally in a lively, (and derivative) expressive culture. I am always interested in the anonymous folk art (Robert's unsung heroes) that persists along side of the art that the folk celebrities create. But, I have to admit - I am conflicted in that I think that folk artistry is as fine and credible as art emerging from the "fine art" tradition.