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Here’s the painting I started on August 19 (L) and its second stage, done today (R). The difference in color is mostly from the light in the room where I took the photos.

 

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Our last day in Mexico, last month, I took a photo of this window, whose multiple layers caught my eye. I drew it almost immediately, but could tell it really wanted to be a painting. I hardly ever paint; when I went to list the categories for this post, “art” and “drawings” and various other media were on my list, but I had to add “paintings.”I actually watched a few YouTube videos on Acrylics for Beginners (Katie Jobling and Clive5Art were helpful), then dove in today. I like the way this medium urges me to work roughly before adding details. Those will have to wait until the weekend, probably.It’s on canvas, 9″ x 12”.

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Oaxaca (7/10/19, pencil and white charcoal pencil)

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Oaxaca Zocalo (7/11/19, pencil)

After drawing the above two–and keeping up a streak of drawing daily–I fell ill with a bug whose main effect was to drain me of energy so that it was hard even to stay sitting up for long. So I didn’t draw for two days, and then tonight, it felt so good to have enough life in me to look at the passionfruit in our fruit bowl and try to convey its wrinkles.

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Passionfruit (7/14/19, pencil & white charcoal pencil))

Something I want to practice more is drawing clothed people. They always look so stiff. I tried to draw a dancer in Teotitlan the other day, and while his shadow looked lively, he looked like he was made of wood. I couldn’t capture the gesture, his sense of movement and aliveness, the way I can (sometimes) when drawing nudes. It’s all practice.

Recent sketches have brought me face to face with a big challenge in my drawing: how to portray very complex, detailed objects without showing every detail and while still conveying their general appearance. Drawing always entails decisions about what to put in and what to omit, but with some subjects it’s particularly difficult.

Last week I tackled the overhead branches of a leafy tree (known locally as a huizache; I think it’s a kind of acacia). I was rescued from this one early because Joy and Indigo wanted to go into the nearby museum, so I don’t know whether the approach I was using would have worked.

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Then there’s this, from yesterday. As with the overhead branches, the complexity of these vines climbing the wall (of the San Pablo cultural center, in Oaxaca’s Centro) is exactly what drew my eye, and what I want to get onto the paper. Yet I don’t want to draw every single line and shadow. I drew fast and tried not to get too many niggly details down, but I didn’t know how to do what I would do with a more unitary subject, such as a human nude: draw in big simple shapes and then add detail. A subject like this seems to be nothing but detail, so I’m flummoxed.

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Sorry for the glare on the paper. These are quick and dirty cellphone shots of my sketchbook.

For context, here’s another visitor’s photo of the same wall. Yummy detail, right? But how do I capture that?

I’ll keep working on it. I’m looking at nature drawings by masters like van Gogh and Monet to try to figure out how they conveyed complexity.

During vacation, I’m managing to do what I did earlier this spring for a few months, and drawing for at least a few minutes every day. Can I make a daily habit of it once I’m back into the swing of work? Let’s see.

A friend suggested that posting drawings now and then might help me, which I think is true, so here are a few.

I’ve been carrying my sketchbook with me (it’s small, about 5″ x 7″) and trying to work fast when I have a few minutes. Working fast helps me focus my attention more on the big picture and less on the niggly details, and in these four it worked fairly well. More on that challenge tomorrow.

The first two are graphite; the last two are fine-tip pen.

Black History Month, day 6

Reading about Elizabeth Catlett for yesterday’s post made me curious about Mexicans of African heritage. Catlett was an immigrant late in life, like other artists from the U.S., but Mexico does have a small population of people whose ancestors include Africans. As in the United States, many are descended from people who were enslaved, though the Spanish conquistadores brought comparatively few slaves to Mexico from Africa, preferring to enslave the indigenous population. The state my family and I lived in for six months in 2016, Oaxaca, actually has the 2nd-largest percentage of people who identify as afromestizo, people of mixed race that includes African roots, but I had no idea until now.

A significant number settled in the Costa Chica (little coast), defined here as the stretch of Pacific Coast “from the port of Acapulco, Guerrero to Huatulco, Oaxaca.” Huatulco is a beach town my family visited and loved so much when we were living in the city of Oaxaca–which is inland, a short plane ride over the mountains from the coast–that we just had to squeeze in a trip when we spent three weeks in Oaxaca city the next year. Next time we go, we’ll know to seek out afromestizo music and dance there, and not just swimming and snorkeling.

Even if you haven’t lived in Mexico, you have encountered Mexican afromestizos. The actor Lupita Nyong’o identifies that way, having been born in Mexico City and holding dual Mexican and Kenyan citizenship, though she is ethnically Luo (Kenyan) on both sides. That explains her first name, a nickname for Guadalupe, which for obvious reasons is a common Mexican name. The afromestizo probably known best to people who know a scrap of Mexican history, though, is Vicente Guerrero, a hero of the War of Independence, Mexico’s second president, and namesake of a street in probably every city in the country, as well as a state.

I didn’t know much else about him, so I looked him up. One of his notable achievements before being deposed by his vice president and assassinated: freeing Mexico’s enslaved people.

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña

Portrait of Vicente Guerrero, by Anacleto Escutia after an anonymous portrait. Chapultepec Castle [Public domain]

A Mexico first for me: yesterday, in order to get from Tlacolula (home of a huge Sunday market) to the small town of San Marcos Tlapazola, we and our friend Jacki took one of the ubiquitous tarp-covered trucks that are a cheaper alternative to taxis. I’ve ridden in Mexican taxis, colectivos, buses, moto-taxis, and–an experience our daughter remembers as one of the highlights of our six months in Oaxaca, and possibly her life–the back of a friend’s pickup truck. These transports are small pickup trucks with a bench running along each side. The rear is slats, which, like the uncovered last couple of feet, allow a view of the countryside one has just passed.
 
The ride was fun. The route to Tlapazola was dusty, and other women covered their mouths and noses with their rebozos, the also-ubiquitous long woven scarves that are used to shield one’s head from the sun or rain, hold babies, carry groceries, keep warm, and who knows what else. I have a beautiful one, but it’s wool and I left it at home on this warm day–foolish gringa! I commented to Indigo, “Otro de los muchos usos de rebozos” (another of the many uses of rebozos). I don’t know how much Spanish the woman closest to us spoke, because she was speaking Zapotec to her friend and Joy noticed later that some of the women in Tlapazola knew little or no Spanish, but she saw us covering our faces with our hands, and offered the end of her rebozo to both of us.
Tlapazola was having a feria de barro rojo, a fair to promote the red-clay pottery that is its particular art form; during the Guelaguetza most of the villages near Oaxaca hold an event like this. The woman with the rebozo had a table, and I bought a little skunk that she’d made, loving its snout and the curve of its tail. A troupe of small children–they couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, some younger–performed the Danza de las Plumas. Usually it is done by grown men, with huge feathered headdresses; the boys had smaller ones, but wow. (Girls also have a small part in this dance, but don’t apparently get to wear the headdresses or play the clowns who harass the other dancers.) Unfortunately, I can’t upload any of my photos or videos until I get back to the US, but here’s one on YouTube.

They did at least a dozen dances, standing patiently in between dances while a man told the story being acted out by the dance (and explained, every single time, that the group was from a cultural center at Teotitlan del Valle). I loved hearing the story, which was about Moctezuma and the “malos presagios” (bad omens) being told him by his advisers, as unknown people and monstrous beasts arrived on the shore. Lacking the perseverance of the children, I finally got so hungry I had to go get tamales from the food section, and missed the end of the story. I am sure it did not end well for Moctezuma. But it was very cool to hear this story of conquest, colonialization, and the culture that has withstood them, the first time I’ve heard the context for these dances.                                                                     
On the way back to Tlacolula, it was raining, which solved the dust problem. The bumpy road often adds false steps to a pedometer’s reading. This one didn’t add more than a few hundred, but my Fitbit seems to think they were all taken on stairs. It reports that I climbed 43 flights.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, matron saint of Mexico, had her feast day last week. We were eating in a restaurant known for the view from its rooftop, and heard a parade coming. It was already dark, but I got this picture of swirling skirts in the street below.

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At the time, our main course had not yet been served. We received it and ate it; walked over to the ice cream shop up the street; strolled with our nieves (ices, literally “snows”) to El Llano, the main park in the center of town, where there was a traveling amusement park; walked around, went on a couple of rides and watched a couple more (the mechanical bulls with real steam coming out of their nostrils being a high point); and, as we were leaving, saw the same parade pass by the park. The participants had been going for at least two hours. They looked a bit less peppy now, but they were still marching, playing, and dancing.

We leave tomorrow. I’m going to miss this city so much.

A random assortment of scenes around the city.


I love the Mexican architectural style that puts an open patio at the center of a building. Our daughter takes violin lessons in this one:
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There’s a lot of political graffiti around the city. My favorite is probably “La religión es el opio del pueblo” (“Religion is the opium of the people”), because the way it’s written one can easily read “opio” as “apio,” which would render Marx’s opinion “Religion is the celery of the people.” Only a powerful taboo against spray-painting a church has kept me from sneaking up to it in the dead of night and turning the “o” definitively into an “a.”

Most graffiti isn’t on churches, but unfortunately some is. I must admit the impact of this particular, powerful and somewhat disturbing graphic is magnified by the fact that it’s painted on a Catholic church building:

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Translation: “I abort obligatory motherhood.” I would love to ask the artist which forces, in their view, are most responsible for forcing women into motherhood: social pressure? coerced sex? lack of other options? lack of contraception? Contraception is widely used, Mexican Catholics having as little regard as U.S. Catholics for the church’s opinions on this point, but it’s used much less in rural areas, where the birth rate is double that of urban women. Abortion is illegal in most of Mexico, even if one’s life is at risk. So it’s not easy to avoid motherhood without embracing celibacy. Clearly, this Lucha Libre fighter is having none of it.

This hopeful message is painted a few meters along–“Capitalism and patriarchy will fall together!”:

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That church’s former convent houses the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña (Oaxacan Cultural Center), and the munchkin took art and dance classes there. I sat in this cafe one day to do my Spanish homework while she was in class. This wall says “Life is a work of art”:

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I love this mural on the adjoining wall also:

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If you wish the Christmas machine wouldn’t get cranking so early, take heart: you could live in Oaxaca, where a local supermarket set up this tent-o’-toys in the first few days of September:

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No, it never snows here, but Christmas means snow anyway. The other day I heard Christmas music in the same supermarket. I could tell it was Christmas music even before a recognizable tune came on, which is interesting. The recording with the recognizable tune was a small child singing “Jingle Bells” in Spanish and off-key. I like shopping in the mercados better anyway: collections of stalls, either open-air or gathered under one roof, selling everything from chocolate to cheese to fresh-squeezed juice to stationery.

I have written very little here about the things we’re doing in Oaxaca. In between art, Spanish, and writing projects, there’s lots of time to just be and enjoy this city. I’m going back through our months here to fill in some of the stuff we’ve done.

Only a few weeks after our arrival, we had the terrific experience of getting together with someone we know very well from home. J. is a member of our church, has traveled here with her family before, and if I recall correctly has had a teenager from Oaxaca come stay with her and her family in Palo Alto. In June, she came to Oaxaca on her own and lived with a family here awhile. We asked her for recommendations of places to go that she’d like to see again, and she suggested we meet at the Museum of Philately (MUFI). I’m really glad she did, because I probably would have delayed going there for months, maybe skipped it entirely. I mean, philately? But it’s a lovely museum. The building itself is a treat–like so many buildings in Oaxaca, it’s built around patios and courtyards–and the exhibits were interesting. For example, in connection with the release of a stamp about corn, the museum invited artists to submit pieces about Mexico and corn. Most took the form of a stamp (not actual size, but a good 30 x 60 cm or more, the way the designers of stamps draw their originals) and the themes ranged from transgenic corn, which is an economic and environmental controversy in Mexico, to the corn-husk dolls that are common folk art here.

Then we all went to Café Brújula, also at J’s recommendation, where I drank her hot chocolate and she drank my mocha for quite some time before we realized we’d swapped. I hope the caffeine didn’t keep her up all night. The café is in an indoor shopping center and office building that had an absolutely spectacular arrangement overhead of papel picado, cut paper, for the upcoming Guelaguetza.

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photo by Joy Morgenstern

Spending the day with J. was really special. When I arrived at UUCPA she was three years old; I’ve watched her grow up and into roles like Sunday School teacher and Worship Associate, and to see her negotiating another culture, be shown around by her, and just chat together outside from the context of church and family is like being on a time machine and watching the years whiz by. She’s such an intelligent and independent person–it’s a treat to hang out with her for a while.

And of course, she’s known Mookie since Mookie was a bump in my belly. When I have a long Sunday at church, Mookie often goes over to their house–I call it babysitting and pay J. and her sister, but as far as Mookie’s concerned it’s a playdate at the house with the best climbing tree in the world–and there has never been a time that J. and her family haven’t been in her life. Here the two of them are in the museum courtyard, surrounded by illustrations from children’s books (I never did figure out the stamp connection), and looking uncharacteristically serious.

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photo by Joy Morgenstern

 

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