Date: Wed, 13 Jul 2005 09:42:51 -0400
Mexican Folk Artist,
His Canvas Is
By BOB DAVIS
Yet despite his anger and terrifying
delusions, Mr. Lorenzo has become one of
Mr. Lorenzo, now around 54 years old -- he was orphaned and doesn't know his age exactly -- is part of a generation of Mexican-Indian artists from the Balsas river region, about 75 miles from Acapulco. These artists started painting in the 1960s for tourist dollars on bark paper, called amate in the Nahuatl language. Colorful amate paintings of birds and villages still sell for a few dollars at Mexican tourist sites.
Some young artists showed extravagant talent, and
attracted backers who hoped the art would one day fetch the thousands of
dollars that some Haitian folk painters get. That hasn't happened. Even the
best amate paintings generally sell for less than
$1,000. But Teresa Tate, a Smithsonian Institution researcher, compares amate artists to Frida Kahlo, who was largely untrained but became a Mexican
icon. "So too are the amate paintings becoming
a face of the Nahua people in
One group of amate
painters moved to
artists developed a harder edge, especially Mr. Lorenzo, whose figures rarely
smile and whose birds have menacing claws. In the 1970s, Mr. Lorenzo moved to
"It was medieval," says Jonathan
Cristino Flores Medino, an Ameyaltepec artist, says that the village, which doesn't
have a psychiatrist or police force, had little choice. In 1991, after Mr.
Lorenzo was arrested for assault in a nearby village, a group of artists
arranged for his release and sold paintings to pay for a round of therapy
Mr. Lorenzo fell into a distressing cycle, says Dr. Guerrero. The artist would visit the clinic every month or two and take a course of antipsychotic medication, which would calm him enough so he could return to Ameyaltepec to paint. There, he would eventually skip his medicine, get violent and wind up chained to a wall, with only a sketchpad to occupy himself. The drawings illustrate his decline: The fierce birds of the early pages trail off into simple outlines of houses a child might do.
In the Nahua culture, mental illness is seen as a force beyond individual control -- something like a curse. Traditional psychotherapy isn't useful, says Dr. Guerrero, who treated Mr. Lorenzo instead with various medications and also encouraged Mr. Lorenzo to focus on his painting. "The therapy is to give him what it takes for him to feel well," the psychiatrist says.
As Mr. Lorenzo's delusions intensified, he
has lived for longer periods at the clinic, where he often paints village scenes
including one in which a young man is courting a woman. In a shaded
courtyard, he has lucid moments in which he talks of improving his Spanish
and of his desire "to paint and sell, paint and sell, paint and
sell." Then he's off on a riff about how he's the president of
His painting has taken on an increasingly
religious tone. One painting, done in the style of Michelangelo's Sistine
Chapel painting, shows a fierce face of God, with eyes made up of other tiny
tiled eyes. A second shows a nude woman by a tree that resembles a crucifix.
"He likes the goriness of Catholicism because it depicts a kind of scary
world he lives in," says
But when his delusions are most intense, he is at a loss for themes and direction. One still life of fruit on a table, painted from an overhead perspective, is smeared on one side because Mr. Lorenzo collapsed over the work. Sometimes he takes his inspiration from small religious prints sold outside Mexican churches, says Dr. Guerrero.
Mostly, he longs to go home again, and Ms.
Stromberg, his patron, agreed to take him there by taxi late last month.
Initially pleased, the painter insisted that his imaginary musicians come,
too. Ms. Stromberg didn't blanch. She figured that if they were in his head
But the next day, Mr. Lorenzo hardly got the welcome he was hoping for. Ms. Stromberg offered to pay 1,000 pesos a month, nearly $100 -- big money to villagers -- to someone who would feed him and check to see that he takes his medicine. But his brother turned him down, as did an elderly uncle and aunt, who live in a house made of mud and straw. Even when Mr. Lorenzo stuffed the money into his uncle's hand, essentially begging for his help, the uncle told him no, switching to Nahuatl for emphasis.
But as Mr. Lorenzo stared imploringly, the uncle wordlessly relented. Once Mr. Lorenzo had left the hut, another family member explained the family's hesitation: "Alfonso can be so violent, he even hit his son's wife."
At a village meeting a week later, Mr. Amith, the anthropologist, says Mr. Lorenzo told him that he's working on a painting he started at the clinic. It's his interpretation of a Titian portrait, "Ecce Homo," showing Christ with his hands bound.
--Sara Schaefer Muñoz contributed to this article.
Write to Bob Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org