Thursday, September 6, 2012
A woman wanders through the Old Monterey Marketplace on a Tuesday afternoon, her eyes moving quickly from handcrafted jewelry stands to a Jamaican food truck. Suddenly she stops, turns around and walks a few paces back to a stall where a woman in a bright pink sweater is quietly assembling vibrantly colored pieces of straw. The lady looks over a large finished picture on display and squints to see the details. Then she turns back to the woman arranging the straw.
“Is this real?” she asks. The artist smiles.
It’s easy to understand her amazement. The pieces displayed look like masterful paintings, but closer inspection reveals they’re composed of thousands of tiny pieces of colored straw, broken delicately under Angie Pedraza’s fingernail and pressed into beeswax. Almost like a Van Gogh, thin lines create an elaborate scene mixing similar colors mimicking natural light. But unlike Van Gogh these lines aren’t brush strokes. They’re the same straw you’d see on a broom.
Several other passersby gawk as Pedraza sits down beside her collection of mosaics and diligently starts work on another piece. The consistent beat of straw snapping underneath her hands along with the visual of a progressing image is mesmerizing.
Hugo Perez, the market manager, has known the Pedrazas a little over a year and half.
“Their art is traditional and unique,” he says. “But I’m so amazed at their patience. The process is beautiful.”
The art is mosaicos de popote. Angie Pedraza and her husband, Rudy, have been honing the technique for nearly 10 years. They start with a sketch – recent pieces have included a simple red-roofed house and a lighthouse with seagulls – on a piece of plain paper. They then coat their sketch in a thin layer of beeswax. Then the hard part comes in: Breaking off tiny pieces of dyed millet straw and taking those pieces – some as small as an eighth of an inch – and pressing them into the landscape. The dye colors come from various plants and insects found in Mexico, including sumac berries (pink), cochineal bugs (red), and lupine flowers (blue). Since the likelihood of finding these materials at Beverly’s is low, their families send them bundles.
Part of what makes the Pedrazas natural mosaic artists is their monk-like endurance: The miniature scale of the straw bits means a 40-by-36-inch piece can take over 100 hours to create. Angie displays her focus every Sunday and Tuesday, always working on a piece for the duration of the market.
As full of colorful life as each mosaic can be, each is part of a dying art.
“There are only seven or eight families like us who practice this kind of art,” Rudy says. “We are only one of the few families who can pass this down to our children.”
Later he takes the thought a step further: “If it goes away, that’s a lot of culture lost.”
They’re not giving up, though. “We have [a student] from Los Angeles who showed us her art,” Rudy says excitedly. “She’s doing flowers in these vases and it’s really good!”
One lesson from the Pedrazas, including $25 for a straw mosaic kit, is $50. They host two-hour classes every Thursday and Friday at their P.G. studio.
“This art is from our Aztec roots,” Rudy says. “It’s ours.” The art is rarely practiced outside of central and southwestern Mexico; in Aztec times, the mosaics were used to record folk tales.
The Pedrazas also create and sell their handmade wares at the Marina Farmers Market, scenically located in Marina’s Grocery Outlet parking lot. There are a variety of finished pictures in their market stand each week. The prices also range widely, running from $10 to $2,000. A couple of loudly colored Looney Tunes portraits stick out like sore thumbs among the more complex landscapes. Sitting behind the out-of-place characters is the more distinguishable interpretation of the Lone Cypress and another urban landscape.
Rudy sounds a little nervous as he chuckles and describes the pace of business – “It’s picking up,” he says. The Pedrazas are able to support themselves through the mosaics, with a little yard work-as supplemental income here and there.
“We get people from Australia, England, and even Russia saying they’ve never seen anything like it,” Pedraza says. “It’s a satisfying feeling.”
Angie glances at a grandmother and a grandchild staring at a large mosaic of a balcony in Mexico City. She continues the piece in front of her, carefully alternating different shades of blue. She is creating a beachside landscape. It could be Monterey, or it could be another land.
Or, perhaps, it’s an ideal blend of both.
Learn more at angiescreations.info. Classes take place 5:30-7:30pm Thursdays and Fridays at 702 Forest Ave., Suite D, Pacific Grove. 383-3796.