Published: May 21, 2019
By Laura Beach
SANTA FE, N.M. – “There are collections within my collection that reflect my personal passions. My favorite is undoubtedly the grouping I call ‘The Ladies.’ These hand-built beauties represent a vanishing ceramic tradition of figurative work,” says Judith Espinar, the pottery goddess who is the animating spirit behind the exhibition “A Gathering of Voices: Folk Art from the Judith Espinar and Tom Dillenberg Collection,” on view at the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) through September 8.
“The Ladies” might also be Espinar’s sly nod to her adopted home. From Georgia O’Keeffe and Mary Cabot Wheelwright to Agnes Martin and Ali MacGraw, northern New Mexico has long attracted artistic, independent women who leave their cultural mark. Espinar – who lives in a low-slung adobe residence styled by the early Twentieth Century restoration architect Kate Chapman, across from the former home of Leonora F. Curtin, who sponsored Santa Fe’s Native Market when it debuted in 1934 – is conscious of the lineage.
“A Gathering of Voices” features more than 200 examples of ceramics, woodcarvings, textiles and metalwork selected from the much larger collection formed over the past half century by Espinar with the blessing of her former husband, Tom Dillenberg. Writing for New Mexico magazine, Kate Nelson called the show “an amuse-bouche for the full collection,” a promised gift to MOIFA, known for its joyful celebration of global craft traditions.
“This show is all about collecting, about how you live with folk art,” says the museum’s director, Dr Khristaan D. Villela, placing the display within MOIFA’s tradition of “collector’s eye” presentations. “Our exhibitions are generally rich in context, but this is context of a different kind. It’s about the social life of these objects as they circulate in the world of collectors, outside their communities of origin.”
Espinar’s folk art affair, as she calls it, began in Pittsburgh, where one of her earliest engagements with art was at the Carnegie Museum of Art. She studied art history, design and fashion and did graduate work at Cornell University before the Peace Corps called her to Peru as a volunteer in 1963. There, she says, she participated in the group’s first crafts development project in the Andes, helping indigenous women place buttons and adjust sleeve lengths. The collector’s decades-long career in fashion began in 1968 when she joined Gimbels. She rose through the ranks and later held executive posts at Vogue, Butterick, Evan Picone Design Studio and Murjani International.
A 1961 trip to Mexico ignited Espinar’s interest in ceramics. “I studied countless casserole pots, getting intimate with their animated patterns, dynamic brush strokes and bright, primary colors. A fresh aesthetic spoke to me. I both saw, and felt, a new and joyous kind of beauty. Why, in all my years of schooling, had I never heard the words arte popular, or folk art? How could I buy something so beautiful for under $2? Why had I not been introduced to this extraordinary and accessible genre of work?” she remarks in the collector’s statement accompanying the show. Over the ensuing years, business travel afforded her more opportunity for visiting markets and craftsmen. Back in New York, Espinar and Dillenberg bought and displayed Arts and Crafts-era ceramics and were particularly interested in George Ohr, whose work Espinar credits with teaching her much about the nuances of ceramic expression.
The couple moved to Santa Fe in the late 1980s. Espinar threw her energies, talent and experience into The Clay Angel, which opened in Santa Fe in 1992 on Lincoln Avenue, a block from Santa Fe’s historic plaza. There, Espinar showcased traditional pottery and other handcrafted domestic objects from around the world, drawing attention to exceptional artisans previously little known beyond their communities.
“Santa Fe was beautiful and known for its cultural diversity. I knew The Clay Angel would be at home here. I wasn’t just selling plates, I was sharing artists and cultures,” she explains. The former Peace Corps volunteer had good reason to feel at home. In 2016, the city ranked fourth on a per capita basis among metropolitan areas in sending Peace Corps volunteers overseas, according to the National Peace Corps Association.
Espinar co-founded the International Folk Art Market in 2004. As the collector recalls, Tom Aageson, then executive director of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, was a frequent visitor to her shop. “I was standing in the doorway discussing with him the phenomenal success of Focus Folk Art, a recent Clay Angel event, and Tom said, ‘Maybe we could make this part of a folk art gallery stroll.’ I replied, ‘It has to be a market.’ Santa Fe already had two cultural markets, Indian Market and Spanish Market. Here was an opportunity for a third market. I showed work by two important clay artists at the first market, Angélica Vásquez Cruz from Oaxaca and Juan Almarza from Ubeda, Spain. Angelica sold all of her expensive pieces by noon on day one.”
The International Folk Art Market returns to Santa Fe on July 12-14. The juried presentation, which features more than 150 artists from more than 50 countries, some representing cooperatives and group workshops, has been recognized by UNESCO, the World Crafts Council and Fomento Cultural de Banamex, among others. While traditional folk art remains its dominant emphasis, the market this year welcomes 29 innovators in the categories of Eco Folk, Urban Folk and Folk Contemporary.
“Preserving traditions, supporting working artists, increasing economic development by means of art – these are some of the key values of the International Folk Art Market. But the market also has a very well-working vetting system for accepting artists. It is very carefully curated and that is above all one way to characterize Judith Espinar’s collection. It is a curator’s collection,” says Dr Villela.
Espinar follows in the footsteps of MOIFA’s main benefactors: Florence Dibell Bartlett (1881-1954), who founded the museum in 1953 and collected mainly between the 1920s and 1940s; Alexander Girard (1907-1993) and his wife, Susan, who were active from the 1940s to the 1970s; and Lloyd Cotsen (1929-2017), who bought mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. Strongest in ceramics, the Espinar-Dillenberg trove consists of works made over the last 30 years. Dr Villela observes, “Judy purchased objects close to the time they were made and very frequently from the artists themselves. She went to ceramics studios around the world in search of the best work. She is known for looking at 1,000 plates and buying the 20 best ones.”
The exhibition’s title, “A Gathering of Voices,” summarizes Espinar’s thoughts on living with folk art. “These pieces speak to one another. They are my friends,” she says. As she told El Palacio magazine, “I wanted to surround myself with things I loved, things that I wanted to wake up to each morning…I see brush strokes. I see color. I see rhythms because of the way I put things together. It makes me happy…”
Espinar’s approach to design is intuitive. She selected two shades of pumpkin for the walls of her house by painting sheets of paper, then studying the samples throughout the day. “When the sun is in the room, the room is flooded with light. It’s wonderful,” she says.
The museum’s design team replicated Espinar’s signature pumpkin walls for “A Gathering of Voices,” whose most distinctive feature is a series of vignettes inspired by actual groupings in Espinar’s home. Her favorite vignette is “The Hearth.” She says, “I always begin my ‘gatherings’ with an architectural element. In the far corner of my living room, for example, the vibrant walls of a painted fireplace I never used were empty – calling for adornment. I covered the fireplace mouth with an old Mexican shrine. That decision set the stage for additional spiritual objects, from wood and clay saints to metal candle sconces. The grouping is dominated by crosses, a particularly meaningful symbol of my early years in the Peruvian Andes, where visiting churches awakened my attraction to spiritual environments.”
Espinar’s love of Latin American folk art is timely. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is currently exploring the subject in “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular,” on view through June 19. Like Espinar, Kahlo (1907-1954) collected vernacular art objects, including decorated ceramics, embroidered textiles, children’s toys and ex-voto paintings on tin. A circa 1940 photo of Kahlo in Diego Rivera’s living room shows the artist surrounded by pottery figures, and she often referenced folk art in her paintings. In search of a national artistic identity, Kahlo and her fellow Mexican Modernists embraced arte popular as an expression of “mexicanidad.” According to the show’s organizers, the term arte popular was used publicly for the first time in 1921, one year after the end of the Mexican Revolution. It is perhaps noteworthy that the Old Mexico Shop – an import store featuring Mexican handicrafts – opened in Santa Fe in 1927.
Espinar served on the board of Aid to Artisans, has advised USAID and UNESCO, and in 2010 spent two weeks in Kyrgyzstan on behalf of the US Department of State. What’s next for the woman the Santa Fe New Mexican in 2005 named to its annual “10 Who Made A Difference” list?
“I just got back from a trip visiting potters and weavers in Oaxaca and I’ve been invited to participate in a project in Mexico City this summer. It’s all very exciting,” says Espinar, whose passion is undimmed. “My biggest role is to be out in the world finding new artists. I’ve traveled all my life and want to continue. Keeping artisan culture alive is something I really want to stress.”
The Museum of International Folk Art is at 706 Camino Lejo, on Museum Hill. For more information, 505-476-1200 or www.internationalfolkart.org.
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