Thursday, July 14, 2022

Adventures in Chiapas, Mexico

My family recently went to Mexico to celebrate the marriage of my son, Jonah and his bride, Alondra. Alondra's mom, Norma planned an amazing 10 day trip for us. I learned a ton and loved it all! Chiapas is the state in Mexico that touches Guatemala. It is the home of magical cities San Cristobal, Teopisca, and Comitán.

Waterfalls such as Misol Ha and Aquas Azueles were beautiful. We also visited El Chiflon and went zip-lining over Angel Falls there. Other touristy sightseeing included shopping at the markets of San Cristobal, taking a boat tour of the Canñon del Sumidero, climbing the pyramids of Palenque, and visiting the zoo in Tuxela Gutierras.

The wedding party itself was a cultural experience with customs such as burning incense, beating on a drum, and joining the couple with loops of beads. All of our clothes were hand made to fit our measurements. The white shirts and black dresses were hand embroidered and even the buttons were handmade from amber. The reception included a mariachi band and folk dancers. The bouquet toss was more active as the bride stood on a chair, the groom holding the veil out behind her, and all the single ladies dancing under the veil and around as the bride would wave the bouquet before tossing it. The person who caught it would return it to the bride and she'd continue to toss it again and again for the duration of the song. There was no garter toss (thankfully) but the men did carry the groom around on his back to the death march (funny) and then toss him in the air. RIP single days.

The Temple of the Inscriptions: largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid

Palenque is a Mayan archeological site with more than 1,000 structures. Thankfully it wasn't at all crowded when we went, but unfortunately it was very hot. My friend, Norma took us into the shade of the woods where there were lots of ruins. There is also a small museum with air conditioning in a small part where the red queen's jewelry is on display. Her tomb, which was found through the closest doorway in this picture in this picture, was filled with red powder.
We got up early on a Saturday morning to go to Chamula, where a one-of-a-kind church was packed with worshipers. The indigenous people have beliefs that seem to be a marriage of their Mayan ancestors and the Catholic Conquistadores who came in the1500s. The dates on the church are 1522-24. The floors are marble but they are covered with pine straw. Pine is considered sacred and pine branches also adorn headstones in cemeteries to help the deceased draw closer to heaven. the walls of the church are lined with glass cases with a sculpture of a saint in each one. Authorities from the community represent each saint after proving they can afford the position (10's of thousands of dollars must be in their bank account), since they will be providing the feasts in honor of their saint. Some wait many years for the honor. Large bouquets of yellow flowers were placed before the saints, and then candles in front of those. It seemed like the main room had about 10 large tables on each side of the room and about 200 burning candles on each one. 
There are no pews or chairs, so worshipers clear pine needles to melt their own tapered candles to the floor for their personal worship. Some had 20, some had 70, placed in neat rows of white and green, or white with green and red stripes, each candle representing a requested favor or blessing. There were probably 6 or 7,000 candles total. At the very end of the church I could hear quiet snipets of instrumental Christmas songs playing: Silent Night, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolf the Rednose Reindeer. A narrow aisle was made to walk in one side and out another, although when once we had entered both aisle were used bu authorities playing accordions, guitars and maracas. They were playing mariachi music on the square in front of the church when we came out. These were men in jeans, cowboy boots, and hats with belts holding sheepskin vests in place.  Women wear skirts of black sheep skin, which cost $250 to $500 each. They may only own two skirts. The Chamulas don't go to the doctors for illness, only serious injury. When they are sick, they go to the church, offering eggs for minor ailments and chickens for serious illnesses. A hen for a woman and a rooster for a man is sacrificed by breaking the chickens neck. I could see a woman moving the animal around the man kneeling beside her. They don't eat the chicken, but burry it later. We came at a busy time as it was very crowded; we kept moving, trying not to stare.  The sick have a shot of Coke (for the carbonation), and a shot of Pox, a local moonshine made from corn, then they burp up the bad spirit or sickness. I felt like an anthropologist or time traveler, who stepped back in time. The four people in my family were the only white people we saw in the whole town. No pictures are allowed inside.

Because we had connections with the locals (technically we're related now), we got some seriously authentic experiences that most tourists would miss. One was a dinner invite by a friend/employee of the bride's aunt. He'd caught and killed a couple of feral chickens and his mom made a traditional soup with them and home grown veggies, in a big pot, over a fire in her semi-outdoor kitchen. She grows flowers and food and once made 3,000 tamales for a catering job.
We were also offered a temezcal experience by a friend of a friend. This is a sweat lodge ritual which almost ended when the Conquistadores knocked down all of these dome buildings, but the indigenous people built more, hidden in the rainforest to preserve their tradition. I'm very good at avoiding anything that give me bad vibes (which it probably would have if conducted by a shaman) or dangerous (which this can be if someone isn't trained), and I was also worried about being claustrophobic. But this nice health-enthusiast, told us we could leave at any point if we felt at all uncomfortable. Basically it was a sauna with herbs such as camomile and lavender. Volcanic rocks were heated in a fire, outside the building. 15 of us each took flowers into the lodge and sprinkled the petals around the pit. Water on the coals created steam; we all sweat a lot. The leader offered us water to rinse our faces, and led us in a chance to give thanks, smile at the person across from us...all good things. I think the whole thing took 40 minutes which was probably my max. It felt great to swim in the spring water pool afterwards and my skin never felt so soft.
Our final dinner in Mexico was at my friend's coffee plantation, on which she also grows mango, banana, pepper, roots, etc. We used a machete to clear a space. Tia Elizabeth cooked carne asada over a fire. We carried water in and out of this tropical paradise. Dozens of parrots flew overhead as we left. I feel so blessed to get to see the world and learn about cultures, food, and histories other than my own. 


Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Papel Picado Wedding Decorations

Papel picado, Mexican cut paper banners, make every occasion feel festive. My son got married last month and I wanted to give a nod to the bride's heritage (her mother is from Mexico), while transforming a space into something really special without breaking the bank.

My son, the groom, and my husband, father of the groom

I was lucky enough to be given a roll of white tissue paper, almost like thin paper table covering, and quickly realized that I could get 150 10" X 8" rectangles cut with almost no waste. I found some left over on a second roll and ended up making 250 total.

You can cut each piece like a snowflake by folding it in half vertically, and then half horizontally, and then half again with the center being the point, you can make an 8 petaled flower in matter of seconds. You can do it it in thirds for  six petals. I also liked starting with 3 or four vertical areas to make a scalloped bottom, with a few little cuts for hearts or flowers within each scallop before tackling the main area. There are so many combinations of shapes and lay outs that it wasn't hard to make minor adjustments each time and come up with 250 completely original designs.

It took me about 25 hours to cut 250 flags at the rate of 6 minutes each (10 an hour). I didn't realize that it would take me another 17 hours to fold and glue them to string, arranging a variety of types of patterns on each string and measuring a hand's width between each one. I put in a movie or two each night over Christmas break and that was the perfect chance to work on the project. 

After they are carefully stacked under a couple of heavy books for a few months, the fold lines almost completely disappear. This only looks good if the paper is flat. To attach to the string, I creased the top about 1/3" and used a glue stick on the crease before folding it down over the string. It's important to measure out the string to make sure each one is the same length, and I usually had 3 of them laid out at a time to make sure I was making the types of patterns change order on each one.

When it was time to actually hang them, we had to stretch wire the length of the gym and tie each string end to the wire.  We also used 3 or 4 bolts of tulle to make a drop ceiling and string lights between each string of papel picado. I used 14 strings of about 17 flags each to start, but when we realized that it was going to hang too low, I had to take a flag or two off of each string.

Other money savers was skipping the vases and floral shop arrangements for table toppers, and instead opting for a friend's magnolia leaves trimmed form his tree the day before. The leaves last a couple days without water. I used silk magnolia flowers to nestle between the leaves. We borrowed some lanterns for battery operated candles to also go on the tables.

A discarded hula hoop with eucalyptus, and wisteria hung over the food table. We used some of the golden chair ties to wrap around and give some visual unity to the room.

We also built an arch from the tree branches we just had cut off a tree in our yard. (one branch actually fell off the tree). I wired silk flowers and fresh magnolia leaves onto the arch before wrapping the whole thing in 3 strands of Christmas lights.

I also took a bunch of frames that I picked up for free at a frame shop that was going out of business. painted them gold, and we strung them on the stage with fishing line. 

My daughter and her friend took advantage of the space for a quick photo or two. My goal was to be able to have something interesting on each wall so that no matter what direction people were facing for pictures, there would be something to activate the background, something as a reminder that it was a special day. 

It WAS a special day. It was worth the two days of setting up and 2 hours of tearing down to set this time to let the bride and groom know that we want to celebrate their union. I don't think any party is worth going into debt for, but there's nothing wrong with sending the couple into marriage knowing that we believe in them and wish them the best.

Summer Camp for the Blind: Wild About Learning Animal Masks

Paper shipping tape used to build and smooth the forms
The theme for Georgia Academy for the Blind's summer camp this year was Wild About Learning, with a safari twist.  I taught four Art and Literature classes a day. Students made paper maché animal masks and each group learned about animal related literature, such as the Caldecott book "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears." They ended up writing a haiku about the animal that that they chose for a mask.

We also went on a field trip to Dauset Trails Nature Center, which is like a free outdoor zoo with rescue animals such as bears, otters, and eagles as well as a farm animal area. I'm always happy at the end of the week, getting to know the students in a relaxed environment where they can learn without the pressure of credit and grades.

A student with her fox mask
Students with goats at Dauset Trails


Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Fine Arts Summer Intensive

 My first act of summer is always working Wesleyan's Center for the Arts, summer intensive. It's camp, but with real professors and real art projects using real equipment. It's a taste of college for students who have a special interest in the Arts. As the co-director, I get to attend each class and learn from my stellar colleagues.
Every student had classes in ceramics, printmaking, photography theatre, and music. Students were put into groups to write original songs by the end of the week, and they learned some choral pieces and bells. They also had workshops in Chinese paper cutting and a cooking class in which they learned to make Chinese dumplings.
Theatre games was a great way to start each morning because it helped kids step outside their comfort zone and get to know each other. Each camper also had a chance to take private lessons in the afternoon in voice, piano and acting.

By the end of the week each teen had competed 9 original pieces of art: cyanotypes, transfer drawings, monotypes, and ceramic tiles. We spent Friday night on the town: back stage tour at the local theatre,  walk in a sculpture garden, a gallery walk, artist talk, and all we could eat Indian food. It's an exhausting but worthwhile week of art!