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Throughout this beautiful world, wherever coconuts grow, people make art from their shells. Be it Hawaii, the Philippine Islands, or Mexico, you’ll find coconut shell art in those locales. And thankfully, some of that art is exported for sale to cities such as the one I call home, Seattle, Washington.

I love Mexican folk art. To me, folk art simply means hand-crafted art which is made from material which perhaps would be discarded — left to go to waste, were it not for the ingenious mind of the artist. — The coconut masks seen above and below are a much appreciated part of my collection.

Circa 1981, I visited the home of a much admired Seattle artist who was born in Mexico City, Arturo Artorez. When I stepped into his Capitol Hill apartment, the first thing to capture my attention was an amazing array of Mexican masks, displayed in his entry way. I said to myself, “Someday, I’m gonna do that”. And I did. Within a few years, I really got into collecting folk art. And I started collecting these.

While many Mexican masks are made and worn for ceremonial purposes,  coconut masks are purely decorative. Made from the inner shells of coconuts, they are a Guerrero State tradition. It’s fine with me that the masks have no ceremonial purpose. Because for me, the ceremony of Life requires that art be one of its major components. — Here we go, with a look at my masks, plus a couple of related objects.

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The oldest.

This beat-up clown mask is my treasure. I’ve had to retouch the paint; I’ve had to glue parts back on. It’s old. Old is relative; this could be from the 1950’s or 60’s. Factoid: the circus is huge in Mexico.

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The newest.

No, this is not a tiger. It’s a jaguar mask. (A funny fact, though: they’re actually known as “tigre” masks.) I found it new, in the early 2000’s, at Milagros, in Seattle’s wonderful Pike Place Market. I thought it was just beautiful. I bought it for a very good price (under $15). — I previously owned a tiny, carved jaguar mask which had little hairs attached to it, which represented whiskers. I lost it during my last move. I still look for it. It drives me crazy….

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She’s coming unraveled.

This poor little lady’s braids are unraveling. And I don’t know how to braid, so they will stay that way, as they have for a good twenty years.

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The rescued one.

When I go to a folk art/handicrafts store, I first head for the bargain table, or the table where distressed items can be found. I’ve found many pieces which simply needed a dab of Elmer’s glue to make them good as new. (Which I wish I would stop doing, because my collection contains too many “rescued” items. When reselling this type of art, condition can count for a lot). This mask was on the sale table at Milagros. Apparently, it was broken in a fall. So I got it for about two bucks. I fetched my trusty Elmer’s glue, and my crayola paints, and fixed it. It will never be perfect; but it’s pretty! And someone made it to be appreciated.

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The moon.

Watch out for the edges of this mask! I believe material from the hard, outer husk of the coconut is used here, to make the edge of the mask. Those little points are  dangerous! I’ve poked myself a time or two. And they don’t just poke you; they grab hold of you and try to draw blood.

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The sun.

A fantastic interior design store sprang up near Seattle’s Lake Union, in the 2000’s. It  featured art from two countries: Mexico and Thailand. While I didn’t pick up any of their marvelous examples of Thai woodcarving, I got this mask at a special price, as it was sort of their store “emblem”. I love it. It’s quite large, due to the sun-rays which extend from its core. While I like to display my masks in a grouping, I’ve occasionally put this on a wall by itself. It provides that pop of color, in a big way. It’s such a happy thing.

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The sun and the moon.

I love how this mask represents both the sun and the moon. Night and day. Light and dark. I actually have two of this one, because I found a broken one for a dollar. — Can’t have too many….

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The “ugly” one that my friend thinks is pretty.

I wasn’t going to mount this one, because I wasn’t particularly attracted to it. I showed it to my friend Shelly. She liked it. So, it’s on the wall. Because she liked it, I like it. And, hey: it’s got some age on it. The older, the better. With folk art, the patina of age just adds to the attraction.

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The one that was thrown in.

When I bought my clown mask, and the “ugly” one, together at the fabulous Fremont Sunday market in the 1990’s, the young people who were selling their mom’s art (at her request; she was thinning out her collection — something I’ve had to do) threw this one in, because I think they wanted to see the masks stay together. Well, they have. (And, I’m sure they sensed my obvious enthusiasm and love for the masks.)

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The mermaid.

Mermaids are very popular in Mexican folklore. If you go seeking Mexican art, you will undoubtedly find mermaids. To paraphrase La Sirena Mexican Folk Art store’s blurb, the mermaid is a popular icon, representing beauty, femininity, and the sea. Mermaids are part of the music, the art, the culture of Mexico. They are goddesses of the sea, in a simple, folkloric form.

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Yes, this is also a coconut shell.

Now, here is an interesting twist on the coconut mask. In this case, the shell has been flipped over, and the inside becomes a tub for this lovely mermaid.

Related, but different:

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The hand-modeled clay mermaid.

I picked up this Guerrero lady in the 1990’s at Primo, a wonderful Mexican folk art store in Pioneer Square. Unfortunately, I got it at their going-out-of-business sale. For half-price. I was very sorry to see the store go; I bought as many things as I could.

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The fragment.

While the photo gives another impression, this is a very small item. It’s the head of a bull, and it’s made of clay. It’s a fragment. I have a feeling it was part of a little scene; perhaps a bullfight scene. It broke off from the rest of the piece. I found it sitting forlornly on a shelf at Value Village. I couldn’t stand to see it lying there. I picked it up, examined it, and saw that it had no price tag. I carried it to the cash register, and asked the cashier, “How much?” She said, “Let me get the manager”. A few minutes later, a scruffy guy walked up to us, looked at the little bull head, and said, “79 cents”. — It has a home….

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The earthenware mask.

Here is a fragile mask, made of earthenware. I had several of these. I don’t know what kind of clay they are made from, or how they are fired (or not fired); but they’re so fragile. All but this one broke. Someday this one will break! I found it for ten bucks. When it breaks, I’ll go looking for another one, to take its place on my wall. When this style of mask is presented on the www, the text almost always reads, “Mexican folk art mask”. Nowhere does it mention the origin of the mask. However, the website mexicanartdealing.com states that these are examples of Talavera pottery. If so, then my  mask came from the state of Puebla.

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I do have three smaller earthenware masks which haven’t broken yet! Their smaller size actually contributes to their durability. I appreciate their colorful designs.

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The one that isn’t.

While I’ve found photos of these on the internet, describing them as Mexican masks, masks like this are made in Guatemala. Carved of wood, this piece has some age on it (I’m thinking 60’s-70’s). I paid $40 for it, circa 2001. That makes it my most pricey piece. I think some people are confused when they see these, because similar ones are carved in Oaxaca, Mexico. I had one. It’s one of the few things I let get away, and boy, am I sorry now! It had marbles for eyes.

Bonus Coverage:

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Photo depicting a miniature tigre mask. Not my missing one; but one just like it.

I intend to do a story featuring my hand-crafted Mexican candlesticks one of these days. Stay tuned. There are more Mexican-related stories on my blog. You just gotta poke around…. One of them is an essay on the Mariachi Sombrero — a very symbolic piece of head-wear.

To Learn More:

I pulled one or two minor facts from this site. Having collected Mexican folk art since 1987-ish, I have just about all the factoids I need right up here in my noggin. But, I recommend this site, if you are wanting more info: http://www.mexican-folk-art-guide.com/Mexican-masks.html#.V3rvWKLop6q

For more on mermaids, try this: http://lasirenanyc.blogspot.com/2014/11/la-sirena-more-than-just-name.html