Last year, I gave a college lecture on my 30-year passion for collecting folk art. Afterward, a student approached me with a question: Would I ever quit?
It seemed like a reasonable enough query, considering that I’d just told the audience that my house is filled floor to ceiling with more than 2,000 pieces from 75 countries. Even our closet doors have been pressed into service as art space, for heaven’s sake.
But I couldn’t keep the disbelief out of my voice when I responded: Quit collecting? Not if I can help it!
And sure enough, there I was once again, in a remote corner of the Guatemalan highlands that summer, crammed into a public minibus with my wife, Freddi, our 18-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and about 20 Ixil Maya commuters, all headed to a village named Chajul. We three foreigners on board were well into our latest folk art collecting adventure — this one, ferreting out fine examples of the handwoven Mayan woman’s blouse known as the huipil (pronounced wee-PEEL).
Across Guatemala, a Tennessee-size nation of 14 million where the 6 million indigenous Maya speak more than 20 languages, the designs woven into huipiles vary from town to town. Some are decorated with human figures, others with animals, flowers and birds, including the brilliantly colored quetzal. All are made from two or three woven panels with a hole cut in the center for the neck.
I’d seen photos of the huipiles made in Chajul — some are embroidered with whimsical double-headed creatures — and thought that they deserved a spot on our walls. (OK, so we don’t have any wall space left. But that’s my problem.)
Our journey to Chajul — a mere 80 miles northwest of Guatemala City as the quetzal flies, but a full day’s drive on winding mountain roads — would be rewarding. Before heading there, though, we would make stops in a half-dozen other towns in the highlands, soaking up culture and scenery while pursuing our passion.
Guatemala is one of my favorite collecting destinations in Latin America, along with Mexico (especially the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas), Peru (Cuzco and Ayacucho) and Bolivia (La Paz, Sucre and many other towns on the altiplano, or high plateau). What these nations share are large indigenous populations that have clung to tradition, especially in their dress. The finest weavings from these regions enrich museum collections around the world.
For us, the thrill of collecting goes beyond the hunt for stuff to hang on our walls. Just as enthralling is the insider access it gives us to the communities we visit. Over the years, we’ve been invited into the living rooms of mask-makers in Indonesia, painters in Haiti and basket weavers in Ethiopia, to cite just a few examples. We’ve met these artisans’ spouses and kids and smelled what was on their stoves (or charcoal pits) for dinner. Even though, in most cases, we didn’t speak their languages (I know a bit of Spanish and Gabriela is fluent), communication has rarely been a problem. At times, we’ve been helped by a bilingual guide. But usually the artisans’ work — and our obvious interest in it — speaks for itself.
Finding the good stuff in Guatemala can be as easy as strolling into an upscale shop in Antigua, the cobblestoned tourist hub, or as challenging as taking a muddy trek (or a crushing minibus ride) to a far-flung village. And there’s a wonderful compromise: the outdoor artesania markets that seem to be everywhere in Central America’s largest country, most famously in Chichicastenango, an easy 2 1/2-hour drive from Antigua.