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Folk Lure : Handmade crafts from Mexico and Central and South America are popular for their beauty and practicality. They make themselves right at home in Orange County.

October 29, 1994|VALERIE ORLEANS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fanciful animals in teal, red and yellow take on myriad shapes and forms. Tin boxes sparkle. Blown glass catches the light. Carved wooden figures, earthen pottery and colorful weaves all speak of cultures close to the land.

The folk art of Mexico, Central and South America is increasingly finding a place of prominence in homes, offices and galleries in Orange County and throughout the United States. The growing interest reflects the increased connection between the cultures and a broad resurgence of appreciation for native arts and crafts.

This art defies easy categorization. The designs are often particular to a specific region; some pieces carry the imprint of outside influences, ancient and modern. Commerce has entered the fray too. With increasing demand, families and sometimes entire villages devote themselves to designing and producing specific styles of hand-crafted folk art.

"We're seeing a tremendous increase in the popularity of Mexican, Central and South American art," says Carol McDonough, an interior designer and owner of EtCetera, an Anaheim Hills-based gallery and shop that specializes in imported items.

"What's great about Mexican and South American arts and crafts is that there is such diversity. Even if you don't like a particular style from one area, there's bound to be something else that catches your interest. And the work comes in all price ranges. We have customers who are living in million-dollar Spanish-style homes, and they adore the little $10 pieces of pottery. It's that sense of vibrancy and history that they are after."

Much of the folk art has a practical side as well as an artistic one--there are bowls, boxes, blankets and musical instruments as well as sculptural objects. Some pieces are religious, some political, some just playful. Media include wood, clay, paper, cloth, tin and iron.

Many pieces are tied to holiday celebrations, such as El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and Navidad (Christmas).

Here's a look at some of the Latin folk art styles available in Orange County:

Day of the Dead

In Mexico, death is seen as part of life, and the dead are never forgotten. It is believed they return each year to be with the living.

El Dia de los Muertos artwork typically features skeletons, tiny coffins and tableaux of skeletons in everyday settings: wedding couples, soccer players, bar patrons, movie watchers.

It is believed that the spirits of those who have died return on Nov. 1 each year and depart on Nov. 2.

Offerings of food and drink are given, and candles and incense burners are lit. Flowers are also used. Strong scents are encouraged because it is believed that the dead take the aroma with them.

According to gallery owners who carry Day of the Dead art, there is a growing appreciation and understanding in this country of this work.

Arpilleras

Although much artwork from Mexico and Central and South America is spiritual, some is political in nature, such as the arpilleras of Chile.

According to Sue Fenwick, one of the managers of Third World Handarts in Orange, a nonprofit organization that sells the art of cooperatives throughout the world, the arpilleras tell the story of village life in Chile as well as political turmoil.

"About the 1973 coup of General Pinochet, people who wereconsidered threats were taken and 'detained.' There would be no record of their disappearance and no help provided to their families in locating them."

The village women began stitching scenes of abductions, beatings and police brutality in their arpilleras, the Spanish word for the burlap that serves as the backing for these works.

The pieces often feature soft, doll-like people appliqued onto a background of village life and scenes include farming, sporting events and schoolyards.

Oaxacan Figures

Rapidly gaining in popularity, these imaginative creatures are identified with the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where they are made. The carved wood figures are brightly painted, often playful animal images. Sometimes the figures combine parts from different animals, such as a zebra body with a lion's head and dragon's tail.

"Oaxacan animals started being heavily marketed about 10 years ago," says Jane McCauley, an interior designer and art collector. "Now they are a big collectible.

"The villagers call the figures 'magic in the trees.' They are carved from tree branches, and they take on different forms. The men usually carve the pieces, while the women paint them. They started out simply, but now they're more fanciful."

Not all the figures are small, however, says Mal Miele, owner of Galleria del Sol in Fullerton, which specializes in ethnic art.

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