Home Articles The Magic of Mexican Folk Art: A Conversation with Marta Turok

The Magic of Mexican Folk Art: A Conversation with Marta Turok

Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

Lake Chapala’s Feria Maestros del Arte arts festival showcases the magic of Mexican folk art again this year from November 9th through the 11th at the Chapala Yacht Club. For the past 17 years, buyers and art collectors from around the world have gathered to purchase the highest quality Mexican folk art created by the very best artisans from all corners of Mexico.

Last year, in our article “The Best Folk and Indigenous Art Show in Mexico,” founder Marianne Carlson explained the origins of Feria Maestros del Arte and its evolution in becoming one of Mexico’s premier art festivals.

Marta Turok, Mexican folk art expert and anthropologist
Marta Turok

To get a better understanding of Mexican folk art, we spent time with one of Mexico’s leading experts and a featured speaker at this year’s Feria Maestros del Arte, Marta Turok. She is an applied anthropologist and the head of the Research Center at the Escuela de Artesanías of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She is also the curator for the Ruth D. Lechuga folk art collection at the Franz Mayer Museum.

We spoke with her several weeks ago in a wide-ranging interview on Mexican folk art. Here are some of the highlights of our interview:


Robert Nelson: “How did you get so interested in Mexican folk art?

Marta Turok: “My parents were expats from Boston who moved to Mexico City right after World War II. My dad had a master’s degree in chemistry but loved photography. Soon after moving to Mexico, he decided to set-up a postcard business and was credited for modernizing the Mexican postcard. My mother had a great eye for Mexican art and opened her own indigenous folk art store in the Zona Rosa and later had a similar store in Acapulco. When I graduated from high school in 1970 I was bi-lingual and bi-cultural with a keen interest in anthropology.”

Robert Nelson: “Was that your area of study at university?”

Marta Turok: “I graduated from Tufts University in Boston with an undergraduate degree in anthropology and socioeconomics in 1974, but during my time at Tufts I took a graduate seminar in the Maya at Harvard University. That’s where I started a long relationship with a Harvard Chiapas project. I had to learn Tzotzil, one of seven languages in the Chiapas region, and do research there. I learned how to weave on the backstrap loom as part of my work. My senior thesis was on the history and meanings of traditional design elements in Maya handwoven cloth.”

Robert Nelson: “Did you return to Mexico after graduation?”

Marta Turok: “I studied ethnology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and received my graduate degree in 1978 before spending a lifetime working with artisans, art collectors and museum curators.”

Robert Nelson: “Mexican folk art spans a lot of different categories. What are the major classifications?”

Marta Turok: “I look at it from three perspectives. First, there is utilitarian, that which is made locally or regionally, like the rebozo. They are made to be sold and used for many different classes. Among the indigenous people, it tends to be more regional. Second is ritual folk art, such as Dia de los Muertos use. Then you have a large and growing group of crafts created for new consumers looking for original pieces to decorate their homes. So, there is a transition between tradition and innovation, but still in the hands of the artisans. A growing trend in Mexico is the use of designers to guide artisans to create art that buyers are looking for.”

Robert Nelson: “Are young artists learning these skills and participating in the industry?”

Marta Turok: “About 80 percent of the producers are from 40 to 80-years-old. I still see young people entering the field, though. In 2003, I did some interviews with great masters and, except for two cases, none of their kids were continuing the tradition, mainly because the parents wanted a better life for them. Now, I’m finding young men going into textiles, which was a woman’s world. I’m finding a new group who are artisans by what I call vocation, not traditional necessity, although they are steeped in tradition. These young men come with a better knowledge of Spanish, with a higher education and more marketing skills.”

Robert Nelson: “Are there specific regions of the country that are known for specific types of Mexican folk art?”

Marta Turok, Mexican folk art expert and anthropologist
Marta Turok

Marta Turok: “Folk art in Mexico is not only defined by region, it’s defined by locality or group, either an ethnic group or a Mestizo group. Mestizo would be the union of the Spanish and the indigenous. It’s very local. For Oaxacan rugs, it’s Teotitlán del Valle and Santa Ana del Valle. For Michoacán copper, it’s Santa Clara del Cobre. It gets down to the level of craft, village, the people and the makers.”

Robert Nelson: “What are the top selling categories of Mexican folk art?

Marta Turok: “We talk about 21 categories of folk art in Mexico based mainly on the raw material used, but also sometimes on the purpose of the object. For example, clay can be from low-fire to Stonewood. Clay is very big and important. Textiles are also very big and important. Wood is another big category. Then there are things like wax figures and candle making. And, of course, copper and tin are part of the broader metals category. It’s really the objects used that is most important. Masks, toys, miniatures, lots of different things. Toys are a big category.”

Robert Nelson: “What are the big trends you are seeing today?”

Marta Turok: “I think it goes in waves. In the 1970s, bigger was better. Now there is a tendency to work smaller. And within that, there are two big trends for consumer tastes. Some love the Baroque, but the younger crowd tends to like minimalism, or less is more. The new consumer is looking for something they can use and is decorative. They think of each part of their house and how it would fit in. A more utilitarian approach.”

Robert Nelson: “Are there a number of festivals and shows throughout the country for Mexican folk art?”

Marta Turok: “There are contests held all over the country, on the local, state and national level. One of the most important fairs, although it is regional, is the Uruapan Michoacán Fair, which takes place each Palm Sunday. It’s about 40-minutes north or Pátzcuaro. The whole main square is filled with artisans from Michoacán. In Pátzcuaro, they also do a big Día de los Muertos art festival. What makes the Feria Maestros del Arte so different is that the artisans are invited, their way to the festival is paid for and they stay with expats. This doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

Robert Nelson: “Finally, what general themes will you be covering in your presentation at this year’s Feria?”

Marta Turok: “One of them is sustainability, the issues that come up about the sustainability of raw materials and the sustainability of the practice, or craft production. I’ve been researching this for many years, almost 40.”


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. We leave next week for Guadalajara and will be in Chapala on the 10th for the festival. This makes us ever more eager to see it! 🙂


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