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Fired by imagination

What started as a whim blossomed into an obsession with Mexican trees of life. Inspired by a show at UCLA's Fowler Museum, a collector recalls the crafts' gradual, irresistible lure.

May 18, 2003|Deirdre Bair | Special to The Times

Collectors are crazy people. When the bug bites, they often don't feel the sting until they are well and truly hooked.

Mine bit about 30 years ago in a shop off the beaten track in Tijuana, when a friend held up a glowing red-orange ceramic piece covered with exotic birds and garish flowers in vibrant greens and blues.

"This is just about the wackiest thing I've ever seen," she said, "which means you will no doubt love it."

She was right. I bought it at once.

A foot tall, heavy and obviously handmade, its whimsy was irresistible. It held candles and brought a splash of light to my San Diego home, along with smiles and questions in equal part from everyone who saw it.

"What is it?" they asked.

I said what was obvious: "A candelabra."

I found the next one several months later. I was in Denver for an academic conference and wandered on my one free afternoon into a hippie secondhand shop where I spied acrobats perched on painted branches that rose into a kind of a cheerleading pyramid. The little men had smiles on their faces and birds on their heads, tiny flowers and fruits dangled from their arms and feet. I had to have it.

Then came Paris. Walking down an alley in search of Samuel Beckett's first Paris apartment (I was finishing my dissertation in comparative literature), I glanced into a gritty junk-shop window. There among piles of fussy French bric-a-brac stood another candleholder of obvious Mexican origin. Three feet tall, 27 inches wide, it portrayed Adam and Eve with an apple, a serpent, and a tree full of lions, tigers and monkeys.

I was a poor graduate student in those pre-credit card days, but in my then-primitive French, I persuaded the shopkeeper to hold it with a deposit of a few francs. I scrimped for the rest of my stay and bought it the day I flew home. Heavy, huge and awkward, it sat on my lap through most of the seven-hour flight until a cabin attendant took pity and strapped it into her seat so I could have a meal.

Now I had three, but I still didn't consider myself besotted. The mania only truly ignited after I moved to the East Coast, in New York City. No. 4 was all flowers, none resembling anything real, and all painted in dull polychrome greens and tans with an occasional flash of saffron yellow.

I scarcely heard the shop owner as she explained what it was -- an arbol el vida, a tree of life -- and compared it to one in Nelson Rockefeller's Latin American art collection. Instead, I thrust money in her direction, seized by the irrational fear that someone might rush in and steal it away.

And that was that. I was hooked. Multiply the first four times 10 and you'll see where it led: a New England farmhouse crowded with vibrant mermaids and frogs, tigers and kangaroos, angels and saints, Satan and his demons, skeletons and skulls, curling into tree trunks, perched on branches, floating amid clay leaves.

A combination of cultures

MANY legends surround arbols el vida, but the one I like best has it that these creations are an indigenous response to the Spanish conquest, a combination of Christian iconography and Mexico's native color.

Many of the older trees have an incense votive at their center and all of them hold candles, which argues for a religious purpose. St. James, St. Isidore and St. Michael the Archangel are regulars in the tree-of-life casts. Their figures usually form a sturdy trunk whose branches are often decorated with creatures gleaned from the morally uplifting books the Spanish foisted on the Indians: Pliny's tales of sea creatures and mermaids, for example. But that's just a beginning; almost any object or creature can end up decorating a tree of life.

I bought indiscriminately until well into the 1980s, going anywhere I could in pursuit of trees and, ultimately, knowledge. I saw much of Rockefeller's collection ensconced in the San Antonio Museum of Art (a close cousin of my New York tree is, indeed, in the collection). Occasional vacation trips to Mexican beach resorts changed to frequent excursions to shops in Mexico City that specialized in the trees.

A dealer I discovered in Philadelphia pointed me in the direction of villages south of the Mexican capital where many of the trees were made: Puebla and Metepec. (Izucar de Matamoros and Tzintzuntzan are other points of origin.) I consulted books, but information about the trees was spotty and brief. About all they said was that creating the trees was often a family industry, with every member contributing, from children who gathered clay to elders who painted the finished product.

The more I saw, the more I learned. The trees are often unsigned, but their lineage still shows. My acrobats, for instance, were most likely crafted by a well-regarded potter in tree-of-life circles, Heron Martinez Mendoza of Acatlan. The Castillo family of Izucar was responsible for my Paris Garden of Eden. I also have trees by some other well-known creators: Rosendo Rodriguez, Candelario Medrano, both of Jalisco, and the Soteno family of Metepec.

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