The Bitter Taste of Grief: Art and Healing

mexican art

“Take the bitter taste of this night and move on…” This evening, I read this phrase in a New York Times article “Mexico Earthquake, Strongest in a Century, Kills Dozens.”  The reporter spoke with a man named Alberto Briseño, and this Mexico City earthquake survivor managed to share words of hopeful resignation amidst the chaos. “Moving on,” Briseño said, “it’s what Mexicans do so well.”

By a strange conjunction of events, the day of this historic earthquake, September 8, 2017, was already marked on my calendar. Weeks ago, I’d written “Rocky Behr’s estate sale” there. I’d wanted to go to the estate sale, which was happening at the Folk Tree shop in Pasadena, but I didn’t make it. It was strange because the two events were so poetically linked: loss and echoes of loss for the same zone of Mexico. For decades, Rocky, this doyenne of Mexican folk craft supported countless artists and artisans in that zone and had been a kind of folk hero for me as well.

I barely spoke to Rocky, but she was mythic to me. I’d often see her behind the counter of her shop, which she ran for three decades. I was maybe just another customer there, but her death hit me deeply. In her death was a loss of my own. I could almost not come close to describing what the shop has meant to me over the years. It certainly had soul, filled to the brim with traditional and contemporary arts from various regions to the south of LA—and beyond.

I had haunted the galleries on this corner for most of those 30 years. In this time, I somehow ended up with a habit of stopping in and always left with a few miniature collectables or some larger-scale works. They were made by Angeleno, Mexican and South American artists. Some were signed by the artists, but most of them were not. I nurtured this collection and each time I went to the Folk Tree, I stood in a kind of revery. Coming to see the work of countless Mexican craftspeople that lined its every wall and surface was like a pilgrimage for me.

I housed the smaller works in a built-in cabinet of our 1936 Spanish style home, with various items interspersed on the shelves: miniatures, skulls, good luck charms and tiny Dia de los Muertos objects, tops, notebooks with wrestlers, tin Christmas ornaments and upcycled Loteria iconography and other ephemera. This cabinet has long housed other relics and toys, miniature items from various sojourns of mine. They advertise a kind of jumble of widely divergent sacred traditions. Juxtaposed with Ganeshas and Buddhas, are other items you’d find in a doll’s Anthropology museum. These objects from different cultures and wisdom traditions are symbolic, I suppose, of my roving life. They intermix with archives from my personal life: photo albums and my daughter’s drawings and other special gifts from friends and family.

When I heard that Rocky had died, I didn’t want to disturb her family, her widower, or even her ‘shop family,’ but I also longed to know more about her life. I recognize this as an impulse to grasp what is disappearing with your heart and mind — to hang onto what must pass away and give it more permanence. I suppose that is universal: we see it in the many memorials that dot the world. Yet, my tongue-tied shyness in certain situations made me less outgoing when I saw Rocky in the shop. I should have told her how much I admired her and how much I pined to go on one of the trips to Mexico she led. Given all these emotions of mine, it seemed natural and certain that I would go to the estate sale and then write about The Folk Tree and Rocky Behr for this blog.

This place will always be a part of my history. When I started a learning vacations business in 2008, I egotistically likened myself to her: I was going to be following in her footsteps — if only somewhat — by concerning myself with artisans and being on the road. I wanted to help uphold cultural traditions, too.

Once I contacted her to find out if she would let us include a behind the scenes tour of her Pasadena galleries — to piggy back on her work. Perhaps we could have folks come visit the Mexican paper mache artisan who was in the area who, like other artists, would come up to California to do workshops and commissions here.

Here meant Pasadena. Pasadena? A friend once asked me what I saw in it. The town’s faded luxury? It actually did have a glamorous past as a place where stars from the Hollywood silent film era could study ‘voice.’ Not everyone thinks of this zone as part of the film industry, but in the past had things been different it might well have become what we now call ‘Hollywood.’

How sad I bet Rocky would have been to hear that on the same day as fans, friends and collectors picked her wares to the bone, the earthquake had hit not far off the coast of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Last September was the last trip I would take there, my last pilgrimage. It was hard. They were in the last weeks of being open. I had to restrain myself; I was tempted to go wild. I felt compelled to pull something from every room display. I guess I wanted to own some of its history, some of her life. I chose what I could afford.

As I write this, I look at the black clay Madonna on this table — that my brother brought back from his trip there for me. My brother described buying the Madonna at the home of its maker where he also toured the gardens where they grew the plants they made dyes from and tended sheep whose wool they dyed. On one wall hangs a tin mirror that belonged to Rocky that I got in her shop but that had once been in her home. On our mantle are a tin cross topped by a rooster along with terra cotta clay bowls I have owned since I was a child.

I don’t know who made these objects– these treasures certainly weren’t made by “anonymous,” and yet so many are devoid of signatures. Rocky would have known some of their names simply by the telling details of their crafting.

I would have loved to have gone to her estate sale. Yet, was it for the better? Part of me can’t imagine witnessing that building being emptied of its soul. I can no longer go to the shop, so I will enjoy my collection. This will allow me to revisit The Folk Tree that once was. Those visits allowed me to tap into other worlds, other ways of being, of seeing, of creating meaning.

There are plenty of galleries not far from where I live, where I can see the work of arts and artisans and ‘lick the windows’ as the French say. The Folk Tree was a dear place and will always have a hold over my heart. I’m sad, too, to recognize that a part of my life is over.

For more than a quarter century I made frequent stops in Pasadena; it became a place where I would check in with myself, watch my life progress from my 20s and 30s and after marrying and having a child. When I heard of Rocky’s passing and the Folk Tree’s closing I could only think: the town has lost one of its wonders.

This week, my heart is heavy with the odd conjunction of so many poignant and cataclysmic events: the marking of the close of an era for many. Hope is there for new Rocky Behrs will rise up to take on the special work, to wear the curatorial mantle she once wore. And, I mourn for Oaxaca and Chiapas and its many points in between—and their many losses. Yet there have been so many acts of love and generosity too, in this year of loss after loss, I will take the advice from one Alberto Briseño, I will take the bitter taste of this night and move on.

 

Katherine Relf-Canas

More Articles Written by Katherine

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing, teaching and editorial projects while volunteering for Kids & Art, a nonprofit that provides art workshops and other support for families facing pediatric cancer. She has written for blogs and contributed to print magazines since 1996. She has been writing about the healing power of art for this site since 2012, and dedicated the project to her mother, Connie Relf, who worked as an artist and died in 2010. In 2000, she received a Masters Certification in Intuition Medicine® from Academy of Intuition Medicine® in Sausalito, California.

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  • Amanda Parsons says:

    I just came across this at a time when I am most missing Rocky’s presence and saddened that her personal collection ( as eclectic as she was) is being dispersed. I hope that those who purchase her pieces are strengthened by their connection to her and her process of collecting, the joy it gave her.

    Yours is lovely tribute to a fascinating woman. Thank you.

    Rocky followed her own dreams fearlessly and supported Mexico’s artisans and culture with passion and commitment, while also pursuing an interest in all the world’s folk artisans with her travels and writing.

    I am proud to have called her a dear friend, although readily admit that she could be prickly. Perhaps a trait that enabled her to focus on the things, people and cultures she most treasured?

    I miss her profoundly and so respect the insight that she brought to anyone who entered her store or took one of her trips of exploration and discovery. She would have loved to talk with you, I am sure. She loved to meet those who saw themselves and others in cultural artifacts. She would be proud that you valued them—and her. Every object held a story for those who appreciated its beauty, symbolism and/or artisanship —its embodiment of cultural worth.

    Her mission was to encourage others to appreciate and learn from the lives of others as represented by the objects they create. It sounds like you were touched by that goal of hers. We grieve her passing. A unique light passed from the world. But her spirit lives on in those objects she collected and passed on to others as windows into cultures in all forms. She would be proud that she made that impact on you.

    • Katherine Relf-Canas says:

      Amanda,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. It makes me feel good
      to know that my tribute found you. You have made writing this tribute
      all the more meaningful to me. Good to connect with you, and to hear back
      from someone who knows how unique an endeavor the art and culture pursuits
      launched at the Folk Tree. My condolences for your quite personal loss.

      My very best,

      Katherine