My mind was being assaulted with unexpected visions of devil masks and Picasso pictures; flashbacks of peyote-induced yarn paintings.  My friend and I were completing our second day in Zacatecas and we were both suffering severe cases of PMED – Post Museum Euphoria Disorder.

Like the city where I live, Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s colonial “silver cities”.  The people are super friendly.  The weather is perfect and it is home to some fabulous art collections.

Museum Rafael Coronel

The Museo Rafael Coronel is reason enough to make a trip to Zacatecas.  Ruins of a 16th century convent hold this incredible collection of Mexican folk art.  Pre-hispanic pottery, musical instruments, incredibly detailed puppets and drawings by Diego Rivera are among the attractions.

Marco Paköeningrat's photo of the museum grounds, Zacatecas, Mexico.

The grounds are reason enough to visit the Rafael Coronel museum. Photo by Marco Paköeningrat.

But the main reason people go to the Museo Rafael Coronel is to see the amazing compilation of masks.  Indeed, it is often referred to as the “mask museum”.  There are literally thousands.  Masks made of wood, leather, hair, even of armadillo skins.  Faces of men, animals and devils look back at you.  Generally speaking, the masks were created to be used in dances. Some, especially the animal masks, are used in indigenous ceremonies.  However, many of the masks and dances – such as the dance of the Moors vs. the Christians, reflect the Spanish heritage. (This epic battle, La Morisma, is re-enacted every year in Zacatecas during late August or September.)

nmarritz' photo of devil masks in the Rafael Coronel museum.

The devil on the wall…Photo by nmarritz.

Contemplating a collection of devil masks, I concluded that the modern image of the devil must have evolved from the Greek god Pan.

Museo Pedro Coronel

Entering the Pedro Coronel Museum, we passed through a library of old books.  Really old- some were brought here by the Conquistadors.  But books aside, the overall flavor of the Pedro Coronel Museum is modern.  And it can stand with the best modern art museums of the world.  This 17th century former Jesuit college holds a fabulous collection; Picasso, Miró, Chagall, Kandinsky, Ernst, Dali.  Wandering gape-mouthed through the halls, I couldn’t help but thinking, “What is this doing here?”

Marco Paköeningrat's photo from the Pedro Coronel Museum.

Painting by Pedro Coronel. Photo by Marco Paköeningrat.

Museo Zacatecano

Keeping up with the high standards of the other Zacatecas museums, the Museo Zacatecano also has an intriguing collection focused on the history, archeology and art of Zacatecas.  The museum has a lot to offer, but we had come with a purpose – to see Huichol folk art.  The Huichol are an indigenous group who live in north-central Mexico.  Best known for their peyote-based spiritual system, the Huichol transplant their visions into incredible works of art.  Millions (there is a piece in the museum which contains over two million beads) of vibrantly colored, tiny beads are pasted on boards, egg shells or animal shapes to form brilliant mosaics.  Intricately embroidered cross-stitch decorates the clothing they wear to cross the desert.  Yarn is wound back and forth and pasted onto wood to make brilliant  “paintings”.

Along with examples of all these handicrafts, the museum offers up a peyote-simulation experience. (Unless, you are a Huichol, the use of peyote is illegal in Mexico.) Holograms and a small tunnel allow you to better imagine what a peyote trip is like.  I cannot speak to the accuracy, but I enjoyed the museum.

Patti Haskins' Huichol yarn painting

Huichol Yarn Painting. Photo by Patti Haskins.


Other Sights in Zacatecas

There are two other art museums in town that I still need to visit.  A converted seminary is home to the Museo Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez which specializes in work by Felguérez and is said to be excellent.  Another fine art museum, the Museo Francisco Goitia, is housed in an old Governor’s mansion (which we were told was built as a replica of Tara from the Gone With The Wind, but who gives a damn).  Other popular sight-seeing activities include taking a cable car to the top of “Cerro de la Bufa” to enjoy a spectacular view of the city, and touring the El Edén Mine (which is a bit on the cheesy side, but still fun).

I’ve been to Zacatecas three times and I can’t wait to go back – a first rate destination for any art lover!

Fabulous beaches, pre-Columbian ruins, fresh guacamole… one can think of so many reasons to visit Mexico.  Don’t forget the art.  During the first half of the last century, Mexico enjoyed one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world.  The legacy these artists left is in itself a compelling reason to go to Mexico.  Here are some tips for appreciating the Mexican Murals:

  • Mexican Muralism was a movement, not just an art fad. Prior to this movement, art tended to be stuffy; portraits of rich people, landscapes and still-lifes and, of course, religious themes. The Mexican muralists believed that art should be public and idealistic. They used their talent as a means of social protest and made art for and about the masses.
  • The Mexican murals are true frescos, meaning that the painting had to be done while the plaster was still wet.  The artists not only had to ascend an elaborate scaffolding in order to do their work, but they had to do so under the time pressure of drying plaster.  Keeping this in mind as you view the murals makes their accomplishments seem even more remarkable.
  • There are murals everywhere, not just the famous ones.  Pop into the Town Hall of many a Mexican city and you’ll likely see a mural which either celebrates a triumph of the people or laments their suffering.  That being said, things become famous for a reason and you do not want to miss out on seeing the work of the “Big Three”.

Mural from the National Palace. Photo by Darij & Ana

The most famous Mexican muralist, and probably one of the most famous Mexicans period, is Diego Rivera.  His work can be seen in various places around the country, but the best examples are in Mexico City.  Some folks may feel intimidated by a mega-tropolis of this scale, but Mexico City is safe (it has a lower crime rate, including a lower drug-related crime rate than Washington DC), has an excellent Metro system and boasts at very least three “must see” items, including the Diego Rivera Murals, the National Museum of Anthropology and Teotihuacán.

The murals Rivera painted in the National Palace are the most famous and my favorite examples of his work.  However, I recommend saving these until after you have seen the murals in the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) building. Visiting the SEP first will allow you to view some of Rivera’s early work and therefore see his artistic development. More importantly, it’s a reminder that the true father of Mexican Muralism was not a muralist at all, or even an artist, but rather a bureaucrat. Jose Vasconcelos, who served as Mexico’s Secretary of Education in the 1920s, commissioned artists to decorate numerous public buildings.  It’s likely that muralism movement would not have happened without his support.

Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace. Photo by Joaquín Martínez Rosado

Rivera’s paintings celebrate traditional Mexican life and the Mexican Revolution.  The noble “trinity of the revolution” – farmers, soldiers and factory workers- is a recurring theme.  Rivera was not one to be shy about his politics and if you scrutinize his paintings you may notice that the background on the left side depicts a more bountiful landscape than the background on the right.  Of course, you can only see that in the paintings that actually have a background. Rivera tended to pack his murals full of people, often well-known public figures whom it can be fun to identify.  The best example of this is his Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda – a painting so revered that even an earthquake showed it respect (leaving the painting intact while the building around it crumbled)!

Travel to Guadalajara to see a smattering of public buildings adorned with the work of Jose Clemente Orozco.  His image of Hidalgo is iconic.  (I think Lonely Planet actually used a photo of it for the cover of one of their books once.) When I went to the Hospico Cabañas, I was lucky enough to see another visitor lying flat on his back on a bench, staring up at cupola overhead.  When he left, I followed suit.  This was the perfect angle from which to view Orozco’s masterpiece Man of Fire.  Seen from below, the painted image truly seemed to be ascending through the ceiling.  Orozco literally executed these paintings one-handed, having lost his left hand in a childhood accident.  Orozco was less enamored with the Revolution than Rivera.  His images explore themes related to suffering and the dark side of humanity.

Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural of Hidalgo. Photo by Liz Saldaña

Orozco’s Man of Fire. Photo by Sachavir

Final among the “Big Three” and probably the most political we have David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Compared to Rivera and Orozco, Siqueiros painted in a more futuristic and abstract style.  He used an airbrush and overhead projector.  Having studied architecture before turning to art, Siqueiros refused to be bound by two dimensions, as seen in the mural The People to the University, the University to the People which covers the side of the National Autonomous University of Mexico  (UNAM) in Mexico City.  His work shows a fascination with angles and movement and geometry.

The People to the University, the University to the People by David Alfaro Siqueiros. Photo by Mr. Theklan

I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point out that the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City is a great place to see the work of all three masters.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to go home and paint a mural on one of your own walls!

Triathlon training generally involves six days of exercise—two days a week for each sport.  Over several months, even with the variation, the routine can become a bore.  This particular day was a cycling day, and it would turn out to be one of the most memorable of any, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the actual ride.

The purpose of the ride was speed, so there weren’t to be any tough climbs in the scenic mountains; only a dull flat out burn through small towns and rice fields.  The sun was baking.  For an hour or so, my partner and I sped along until at last I heard the words I was itching to hear.  “Let’s take a break.”

We were in Nantou County—central Taiwan.  It’s a fairly mountainous county, tea farms abound.  An offshoot of that industry, Pottery, is also popular in the area.

My partner said, “Let’s take a good long one.  I know a guy here you ought to meet.”

I agreed, and we rode a short distance of the main rode to a large house with a terracotta roof. A small workshop was off to the side.  My partner shouted out a greeting, and soon after a thin Taiwanese man with long curly hair popped his head out of the shop.  Right off, he looked like an artist.

He grinned and walked out to greet us.  Then he walked us into his studio.  It was filled to the brim with stylistic clay pots, tea kettles and cups, sculptures, and awards.  He started brewing tea.

“This is Liao Hsi-Li.  He is quite popular here in Taiwan.”

Hsi-Li spoke some English, but most of the conversation was translated.  We sat there, Hsi-Li smoked cigarettes, we drank tea and listened to him describe his craft.

For most of his adult life he’d made his living making and selling pottery.  He had gone to school for it, and established a reputation for his skill.  For a long time he worked his craft in the traditional Taiwanese style.  But seven or eight years ago he got bored.

“Traditionally, Pottery was a craft with practical purposes.  Here in Taiwan there were craftsmen doing the work, but it wasn’t art” he said.

He, and some others, began to experiment; mixing traditional methods with his own influences from life and modern art.  He started making art that you could use—“Practical art.”  The traditionalist thought he was wasting his time.

At first they belittled the effort, but over time they realized that Hsi-Li was not only skillful, but innovative too.  A “New Modern Pottery Art” trend began to spread.

His particular style involves using the old style keen and pure raw materials.  His most famous works are made from a mixture that he invented—he calls it “Paper Clay.”  And I am telling straight, from the look of it, you would think it was paper that had been crumbled up until it was cloth like, but to the touch it was as hard and sturdy as any I’ve come across.

“They thought this was a silly idea too,” he said, grinning as he pointed to his 2010 Taiwan Craft Competition award.  He came in first with his new style.  Some of his work is even on permanent display at the New Taipei City Ceramics Museum.

“Those same people are now teaching this technique in the art schools here,” he said.

Two hours later, as the impromptu studio tour was coming to an end, Hsi-Li handed me a small clay pot.  It was dark and round. The top handle was made from a bit of tree limp.  The sides of the pot had irregular indentions on either side.

“This is for you.  It’s made out of clay from Sun Moon Lake.”

And then he said something that has served as food –for-thought ever since.

He said,” You see these indentions.  Some people might see them as mistakes or flaws, but I put them there on purpose.  And you see this top.  It’s made from wood far up in the mountains.  It is the only one in the world with this shape.  Machines and factories can put out millions of perfect tea cups, but this piece is like us, you see, it’s unique.  It’s imperfect…but beautiful.”

Yeah, I like that.

We readied for the ride back, said thank you and goodbye, and Hsi-Li welcomed us to come back anytime.  His words and gift made for a quick and easy ride back and still serves as a reminder of the unexpected joys that lay and wait for you when you deviate from the set routine every now and again.

Good Journeys!