For the past 15 years art lovers and buyers from around the world have been streaming to Lake Chapala for the best folk and indigenous art show in Mexico, the Feria Maestros del Arte.
The brainchild of local resident Marianne Carlson, this arts festival will display the work of some of Mexico’s most talented artisans at the Chapala Yacht Club in Chapala for three days, November 10 – 12.
“We started with just 13 artists and now they come from all over Mexico,” Carlson said. “This year we will have 85 artists showing at the festival. Where else can you find some of the finest art in Mexico in one place for an entrance fee of just $70 pesos?”
Carlson has lived along Lake Chapala for nearly two decades and has been a Mexican citizen since 2001. She was born and raised in Washington state but lived most of her life in California, mainly in the Pismo Beach area south of San Luis Obispo.
“All of my vacations were in Mexico,” she said. “I fell in love with the country because there was something in me that said this is where I belong. Back in the ‘70s, I sold everything and moved to Cancún for a while with a girlfriend but eventually returned to California to work.”
She worked at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Avila Beach, a little southwest of San Luis Obispo, until she was laid off 12 years shy of retirement age.
“When I got laid off I decided to move to Mexico, so I sold my Mazda MX6 and bought a US$400 1970 vintage VW van that I painted with Maya and Aztec drawings,” she said. “My van was very well known around the area. People would wave at me when I would drive by.”
She arrived in Ajijic in 1998 and sold the VW van last year for $50,000 pesos because Volkswagen no longer makes that model.
“I felt like I was coming home when I returned to Mexico,” Carlson said. “Initially I worked with local authors to get their books ready for publishing. I also started collecting Mexican dollhouse miniatures, which transitioned into painting intricate dollhouse rooms on the inside of gourds. They sold like hotcakes, which led to starting a gallery called ‘Avant Gourd’ with several friends.”
Carlson and her friends began making trips within Mexico to meet artists who they thought might have something interesting for their gallery and discovered that many were unique and talented but had no outlet for selling their art.
“It just broke my heart to think this art would disappear,” she said. “I asked them if they would come to a show in Chapala if we put one together for them and they said yes. I knew I was a good organizer so we put together a little art show in 2001 with 13 artists. All of them sold out so we knew we had something.”
The first Feria Maestros del Arte was held at a local hotel and Carlson arranged for the artists to stay with her friends, rather than sleep in their cars. She paid for everything for the first four years, but funding and running the event by herself became too much.
“I put an ad in the paper and 19 people I didn’t know walked through the door and a lot of them are still with me,” she said. “I honestly thought I was the only one in Mexico who cared about this art the way I do. It brings me to tears to think of some of the art going away and the next generation or the generation after that only being able to see it in a book or a museum.”
Carlson has stepped down as the festival’s president but still serves as the founder and sits on the board of directors.
“The Feria Maestros del Arte is a non-profit organization,” she told us. “All the money from the admission fees goes to paying for the venue and the security we have to hire to watch the exhibits at the Chapala Yacht Club and handle parking. We have hundreds of volunteers that generously contribute their time and energy to making the annual festival a success.”
Both consumers and buyers from art galleries and retail stores attend the festival each year, many from countries around the world.
“Instead of traveling all over Mexico,” Carlson said, “a buyer can come and buy things from almost anywhere in Mexico in one location and meet the artists at the same time. Buyers mainly are from museum stores and art galleries or are art collectors. This year we even have a group coming from Australia. The local hotels are fully booked for the festival already.”
A unique feature of the Feria Maestros del Arte is the pricing of the art. Prices are supposed to reflect what an artist would charge if he/she were selling it at their home, since they pay no expenses for displaying their work. All revenue from what they sell at the festival is pure profit because the festival pays for their transportation to and from Chapala and local volunteers host them at their homes, eliminating food and lodging costs.
“Every artist who attends the festival has a dedicated page on our Feria Maestros del Arte website,” Carlson said. “You can see who they are and what they create, online. Artists are listed under the category of art they create, beginning with Alebrijes (brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures) to art created from different types of wood. All art shown at the festival is one of a kind.”
For example, Alfredo Vilchis Roque, one of the last remaining Mexican masters of ex-voto retablos (devotional or votive paintings), has promised to exhibit at the Feria Maestros del Arte next year.
Carlson said the festival specifically looks for artists who are creating things that have been done for a long time in Mexico in the traditional way. Whether it is baskets, weavings and rugs or ceramics, authenticity and craftsmanship matter most at this festival.
If you are planning a trip to Lake Chapala to attend the festival, it will be open Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m to 5 p.m and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.