Featured in Borders Episode
Ofelia Esparza, educator and lifelong artist, is an “altarista”, a master altar-maker who teaches the meaning and history of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and creates the altars that commemorate loved ones who have passed away. She began this work in 1979 at Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles, CA, alongside founder Sister Karen Boccalero. Ofelia’s strong commitment to keep the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos alive in the U.S. is visible in the heartfelt beauty of the community altars that she and her family erect annually for the celebrations at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.
J. Isaac Vásquez García
J. Isaac Vásquez García, master weaver and dyer in Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico, pioneered the revival of the use of pre-Hispanic Zapotec and Mixtec natural dyes on pure wool by the local weavers in the 1950s. Isaac’s three sons, five daughters and their families take great pride in keeping this tradition alive. They perform all steps by hand, taking the raw wool to finished rug: carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving. Their designs are drawn from both modern and Zapotec sources.
Jim Bassler, weaver and teacher, was introduced to the craft traditions of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia at an early age. The ethnic textiles that inspired him during these early travels became the foundation for his work. Over the years, Jim has continued to incorporate techniques from various ancient cultures, especially Navajo, pre-Columbian, Andean, and Mexican textile traditions into his artistic process.
Ceramic artist Veralee Bassler first took clay in hand around the age of 15 in a favorite high school class, ceramics. Several years later, she graduated from UCLA Art Department with a concentration in ceramics. Veralee then began a 25-year career of teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District and currently, with her husband, Jim, has chosen to live an intensely creative life.
For four decades, Kiff Slemmons, artist/jeweler has celebrated nonprecious materials in her distinctive jewelry. She describes her inspirations as, “Tribal jewelry of Africa and the Arctic, writers like W.G. Sebald, artists like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Inca stonemasons, and hand-activated tools and devices.” In 2000, Kiff was invited by Francisco Toledo, Mexican artist and cultural activist, to design jewelry for his paper workshop, Taller Arte Papel Oaxaca. Collaborating with local artisans to create jewelry using local plants like majahua, agave and cotton, and traditional dyes such as indigo, cochineal and ochre, this practice refers to the long history of paper-making in the region and holds a special significance in Mexico.
Francisco Toledo, known in Oaxaca as “El Maestro”, is regarded by many as Mexico’s most important and provocative living artist. He has been instrumental in building a series of highly successful public cultural institutions in the city that he calls home, Oaxaca: the IAGO—a graphic arts museum and library; the MACO, a contemporary art museum; the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo; the Francisco de Burgoa Library, a rare book library in the recently restored Convent of Santo Domingo; PRO-OAX, an environmental and cultural protection nonprofit organization; El Pochote, an art cinema; Taller Arte Papel Oaxaca, begun in 1998, in San Agustín, Etla, Oaxaca, using native fibers and renewable resources; and the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, an ethnobotanical garden that tells the history of the co-evolution of the plants and people of Oaxaca. In an effort to enhance public education and preservation of the environment, Toledo feels he is fulfilling a duty to the future of the people of his country.