Last Thursday I had one of those moments of surprising myself. I suddenly took stock of my surroundings: standing on a green-waste pile full of rotting flowers on the top of a mountain overlooking Real del Monte on the edge of a cemetery days after the Dias los Muertes festival.
There I stood, with my 4 young Mexican friends, half my age- sorting through the flowers and salvaging seed heads and flower petals to dry for a workshop. It was one of those moments “who could ever have explained to my 20 year old self that this is who I would be as a grown up”? Those are curious moments I find, a keen awareness and reflection that I have done something- or many things- right (but not always easy)… To be allowed these opportunities and experiences in life. AND, the awareness that this is what I do for a living, this is my work- this is not a holiday, but a culturally rich and significant time to connect with others- both artists and non-artists, and to share experiences with each other and learn with one another. How lucky is that?
The theme for FRONDA this year is PLACE, and my work as usual is very much about this place in this time- and the plants that grow here, or the green-waste materials to be found. I have done by rough count close to 100 variations on a project I call a seasonal mosaic– often this takes the shape of a community built maze- and the palette is always based on what the locations landscape currently provides in either the botanical seasonal offerings or an urban centre’s green waste. I am aware that if I was at home in Vancouver I would have been gleaning from the annual beds alongside the city gardeners as they prep the beds for spring bulb planting. Instead I am in Mexico, surrounded by the hot orange of marigolds- a flower only ever used to honour the dead.
The season of the festival was an incredible thing to witness; I saw individual alters and shrines built to both call back and honour loved ones who had passed, as well as large civic displays including the one at Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Hidalgo in the biology dept. that honoured species that are now extinct and scientists including Darwin.
I am struck by the similarity in the seasonal mosaic project that I host with groups as a contemporary socially engaged artist and how closely tied it is to the cultural roots here. I have a conversation with my ongoing workshop group ( whom I think of as my cultural advisors)and ask them if people will be too struck by the meaning of the marigold flowers to reuse them, and after a conversation it is agreed wholeheartedly that the reuse is fine- it is the context and location that matters- people agree to bring me the flowers as the shrines from both their homes or nearby are cleaned up so I can sort them for use- and also suggest a trip to a cemetery- as that is where the majority of piles of debris will be. This is how I found myself picking through a pile of rotting flowers and decaying shrine components on a Thursday afternoon.
My week was spent in large part taking over the outside area of the studio as I pulled apart, sorted and dried a variety of flowers for Saturday’s “Laberinto efimero.” I have clocked more hours than I can count pulling flowers apart- but never ones with this much meaning imbued in the petals- I suddenly was struck by the idea that when we leave flowers on a grave, or give flowers to someone in mourning we are giving them a small beautiful package that holds the seeds of the next generation so to speak- there was something very moving about separating all of these flowers that had been left as offerings in memory of so many people in the town and exposing the seeds hidden within.
The mosaic on Saturday went incredibly well- we spent the first part finishing the material preparation of separating petals, stems and seeds, and talked about the similarities between a tree and the internet- the group consisted of an amazing cross section of people from the community including Alejandro who deals with systems creation for the internet and Veronica who is a biologist
A wonderful group to introduce the idea of building a network using positive/negative space, creating a circle around ourselves and then collaborating on pathways to our neighbours to create the cellular network for moving through. In true Mexican Time Tradition the 3 hour workshop became almost 5 hours, and we all worked almost silently as a collective, no one seemed rushed or anxious to get anywhere else and everyone commented on what a wonderful break it was from our modern life of being plugged in. It was commented by one participant that never having built an alter before, now the tradition suddenly made sense as he could see what a powerful experience it would be as a method of remembering those that are lost. A wonderful moment was having the security guard come up and ask if he could have the seeds when we were done- as he would plant them: the cycle continues.
Earlier in the week I had connected with Claudia and Maria Teresa for the panel conversation which went very well- the idea of artists and scientists working together is almost unheard of here, and the crowd was about an even split between biology students and art students- there were many, many questions afterwards, and I went home with my head ringing from listening to the Spanish questions while my translator whispered English in my ear, there seemed interest in seeing how different areas could begin connecting in some way- so it will be interesting to see where that goes. Both my regular group of students and Claudia had recommended the same place to go and gather Junko (cattails) they are invasive here and Tecocomulco Laguna- an hour away- is choked out with them. So Sunday 3 cars, 17 adults and children headed off on an adventure to gather with me- honestly, I was just pulled along behind, but the purpose of the day was to survey for invasive species we could use and do a harvest. On arrival I was stunned at the amount of Bulrush apparent- no cattails to be seen… I had a flash to my botanist friend from England that shakes her head at how in Canada we call bulrush what is commonly called cattail in the UK, and vice versa… I learned the term Junko for Cattails in Spain and suddenly wondered if the European continent Junko name was the same as cattails in Europe but bulrush in Mexico! I really must learn more Latin names for plants… Latin rooted English words have often been my saving grace in trying to find the right word to communicate in Española- it is amazing how one can take an English word, and pronounce it with a Spanish inflection and get close enough to the mark to be understood!
So here I was faced with acres and acres of bulrush- A plant I have never had the opportunity to work with as it is tenderly encouraged to grow in areas where the invasives outcompete it at home- but I know that the Coast Salish and other coastal First Nations used it for weaving everything from sleeping mats to walls for seasonal homes. What Joy!
My luck here continues… After getting one of our cars unstuck from the mud we headed for the only shade in the area- only to discover piles upon piles of Junko- yes, I mean “Canadian Cattail” that have been ripped up and ready for burning. Of course, we had to jump another fence to get at it- but this seems to be an almost daily occurrence for me here now, and like the locals I don’t bother to hesitate… So now I have healthy piles of both Junko ( cattail) and Tule( bulrush) in the studio to work with. The mind reels at the possibilities.
Before calling it a day we went for a boat ride for a mere 15 pesos a person around the lake- it is indeed choked off with bulrush, and it was an odd feeling going by boat down these long narrow pathways literally cut through the lake, as the local authority tries to maintain the lake and not let it turn to solid bog of bulrush.
But I must say, it was the healthiest area I have seen so far for wildlife- the first time I have really heard birds here, and we saw cormorants, various ducks and storks ( I think they were storks) and the local fish monger seemed to be doing a solid trade in carp that looked very large and healthy. The plants may be taking over, but I dare say they are doing a swell job in filtering the water and providing sanctuary for many birds.
There are such strong collectives of weavers here working, and using everything on the land is such a big part of this culture, it seems odd to me to see these big burn piles of potential resource and no business spring up for what to do with the Junko and Tule- If I had more time there just feels like such a potential to link the materials with appropriate techniques and weavers- a Mexican Urban Weaver program? Maybe this will bring me back here.
This morning as I entered the studio I was overwhelmed with ideas for installations- suddenly all of this stimuli that has been coming at me: books on cellular structures, the red Ixtle from Eric, Jose Daniel’s crocheting, the Nopal cactus skeletons and the structural cracks on the walls of buildings all collide mentally into a sculpture I can see so clearly on the back studio wall- if only I can pull it off in time. Now the remaining 5 weeks don’t seem like enough to do everything I feel a pull to accomplish. And let’s not forget the Junko and Tule now soaking in the semi-filled fountain out front.