The Bitter Taste of Grief: Art and Healing

mexican art

“Take the bitter taste of this night and move on…”

This evening when I read this phrase in a New York Times article “Mexico Earthquake, Strongest in a Century, Kills Dozens,”  The reporter, in an interview with bar manager, Alberto Briseño, spoke to the Mexico City earthquake survivor who amidst the chaos, shared words of hopeful resignation.  “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 had put something linked geographically to this zone of Mexico, Rocky Behr’s estate sale. Doyenne of Mexican folk craft artists and artisans, Rocky was a kind of hero for me. I wished I could have gone to the estate sale, which was to be held in Pasadena at the Folk Tree shop. I could almost not come close to describing what the shop has meant to me over the years. This shop had a lot of soul, and it was filled to the brim with traditional and contemporary arts from various regions to the south of LA—and beyond. Though I was maybe just another customer there, her death hit me deeply. In her death was a loss of my own.

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 had haunted the galleries on this corner for most of those 30 years. I somehow ended up with quite a few miniature collectables and some larger-scale work made by Angeleno, Mexican and South American artists. I nurtured this collection while each time I went to the Folk Tree, I stood in worship—coming to see the work of countless Mexican craftspeople that lined its every wall and surface was like a pilgrimage for me.

I literally and figuratively housed the works. The smaller things are on the shelves of a curio cabinet: 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 also houses other relics and toys, miniature items from various sojourns of mine. There, behind glass, they are safe. They look sacred, juxtaposed with Ganeshas and Buddhas, like a doll’s museum, objects from different cultures and wisdom traditions. 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 had not wanted to disturb her family, her widower or her ‘shop family,’ but I 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 time it was me doing the grieving. I thought it would be best to wait awhile, though. If they were willing, had wanted to ask her family about her life. I wanted to shine a light on her good deeds and adventures. I didn’t go. I regret it, but now, however, I feel it is simply time to let it be.

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 I thought 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.’

Last September, I went there, pilgrimage-style — while I still could. 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, and so I chose what I could afford. 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.

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. 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.” Where are their signatures? Rocky likely would have known some of their names. 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.

I would have loved to go to her estate sale. Or, maybe it is for the better. Part of me can’t imagine witnessing that building being emptied of its soul.

Though I won’t be able to pay one last visit to the shop, I will enjoy my collection and the few photos I took the last time I was there. This will allow me to revisit The Folk Tree that once was. All my many visits allowed me to tap into other worlds, other ways of being, of seeing, of creating meaning.

While, 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, not really knowing where things go from here for us all.


Katherine Relf-Canas

More Articles Written by Katherine

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing 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. Recently she has been writing about the healing power of art for this site 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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