UCLA Spotlight

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Trees of Life

  • By Cynthia Lee
  • Published Oct 1, 2003 8:00 AM

A current exhibition at the Fowler Museum, “Ceramic Trees of Life: Popular Art from Mexico,” has developed strong roots in several Los Angeles communities and borne fruit in the form of neighborhood art projects.

The exhibition showcases the artistry of three potting villages in Mexico, where generations have produced elaborately decorated candelabra-like ceramic trees. Their branches are embellished with minutely sculpted flowers, tiny figures and a plethora of lifelike and imaginary creatures. Many of the trees tell a personal or Biblical story, memorialize the dead, celebrate a wedding or honor a tradition.

Realizing that the rich imagery of the trees could fire the imagination, the Fowler, led by Director of Education Betsy D. Quick, decided to partner with three L.A. community art organizations to involve neighborhoods and schoolchildren in, first, seeing “Ceramic Trees of Life,” and then using the tree metaphor to create artwork that tells their personal stories.

The result is “Family Roots/Community Branches,” a museum outreach program involving the Ryman Program for Young Artists, Inner-City Arts and ARTScorpsLA. The project, an overwhelming success, produced enough artwork by community members, guided by artists, a poet and museum educators, to fill an adjacent gallery as well as the Fowler’s lush courtyard.

Weeks of workshops, classes and even “tree fiestas” in a neighborhood art park culminated at the end of July when 150 community members — many transported in two buses chartered by the museum — saw their artwork displayed.

“For them to come to this beautiful place, this museum, to see their work displayed — it was such a big deal to them,” said ARTScorpsLA artist Katrina Alexy, who worked with adults and children from an area west of downtown Los Angeles of predominantly immigrant families from Mexico and Central and South America. “A lot of these families don’t even have cars so the children don’t often get out of their neighborhood.”

Standing in the courtyard are two 10-foot-high “trees” they fashioned from wooden boards and decorated with painted wood cutouts of flowers, bottlecaps, lids and other found objects. Anchored to sawhorses, the trees are hung with giant, hollowed-out, egg-shaped globes made of papier-maché, molded with help from a local piñata maker. Each globe holds a miniature tableau made of found and clay objects, reflecting the lives of its makers.

“We had a good feeling from the start that this was going to take off,” Quick said. “From the beginning, we saw that this would provide lots of options and opportunities for the community to work with the material. It’s exciting to see how a museum exhibition can be the centerpiece for learning and self-discovery, for gaining an awareness of new ideas and places.”

There’s one more way the “Trees of Life” will be linked to community concerns. In November, in conjunction with a UCLA conference on the maquiladora murders, a Day of the Dead memorial altar to the victims of these serial killings will be unveiled at the museum. Created by MujerArtes, a women’s arts cooperative in San Antonio, Texas, and artist Veronica Castillo Hernandez, the altar will have as its centerpiece a “Tree of Death,” with roots that portray a factory, a trunk that resembles a smokestack and branches that allude to the limbs of its 320-plus known victims.