Native Village
Youth and Education news

December 2009  Volume 4

Masks reveal the maker’s inner self
Written by Rosalie Robles Crowe

Condensed by Native Village

 Arizona: Louis David Valenzuela is gaining recognition among art collectors for his Yoeme masks, made in the Yoeme traditions.

Choosing the wood begins with a prayer.  “We ask the Creator (to guide us) when we take the wood," he says. "To me, the wood has to be special. It talks to me -- it wants to be carved." But some wood is not to be. It doesn’t want to become a mask, "so I leave it."

Louis usually knows before-hand what he will carve from chunks of wood. He prefers the softness of cottonwood from the area around his Empire Ranch near Tucson.

The wood is cut into suitably sized blocks. He uses a machete to begin forming the face he sees in the wood. With a file, he shapes the wood into an oval and smoothes any rough edges. Then he uses a utility knife to form the features and a chisel for the eyeholes and mouth.

It is the painting that is time-consuming. The wood is sanded, and a base coat -- usually black -- is applied. Then comes the design in white and red, possibly other colors.

 Each element has meaning, as do the colors. The artist has freedom to create, but within cultural constraints.

Yoeme mask symbolism


White -- Candlelight; every human life. It also represents Christ’s robes and the fact that He died to bring us life.
Red -- The blood of Christ.
Black -- The death that everyone goes through.
crossA cross on the forehead -- For the Father and Son; and the four directions. It also is a blessing for the dancers and their families and everyone at the fiesta.
Triangles (around the mask’s outer edge) -- Again, the Father and Son and the beam of life that gives life to all around us. Trees and animals, too.
Triangles (under the eyes) -- Teardrops. The sadness that comes from (when the Yoeme were killed and uprooted during) the Mexican Revolution.
    Lizards or butterflies -- Nature.
Dots -- Our relatives who have passed to the "Flower World."

swirls above the eyes -- The wind.
The last things added to the mask are the eyebrows and beards "for the old man" -- made of tufts of horsehair inserted through little holes and secured on the inside.

Valenzuela carves masks for use in Yoeme ceremonies. Others are carved for exhibit or art collectors only. Those sold strictly for art are not "blessed".  Nor are they used by a pascola -- "the old man of the fiesta." Pascola masks may only be touched by the pascola.  Valenzuela does not charge for those.

Louis began his art when he was 10, learning from Mexican-American artist Arturo Montoya, whom he calls his mentor. He learned carving from Yoeme elder Jesus Acuna.

It was Montoya who taught him the basics: "to mix paints, to mix colors. He saw my talent when I was a kid," Valenzuela says.  “He would give paintings to other kids who would help him, but he wouldn’t give one to me, even though he picked me as his assistant.  ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘Because you are going to be a great artist,’ he said."

When he was 25, Valenzuela began working with Acuna. Acuna "would carve the mask, and I would design them with my art.  But I was curious, and I wanted to carve, too. He said, ‘You can do it; just put your mind to it.’

“The first mask that I carved looked like a Frankenstein," Valenzuela says. Then he starts laughing. "A woman bought it."

Valenzuela, 46, has been a painter, sculptor, and mask carver for 36 years. Today his art is flourishing. He is involved in his community and finding ways to reach others, particularly children, who show an interest in art.  He also teaches children at Hohokam Elementary School during its end-of-the-year camping trip.

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