Arte de La Vida Comes to Tucson

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A yellow china hutch baroquely adorned with hand-carved faces on the doors sealed the fate of James Goodreau and Kevin Pawlak as passionate collectors and curators of vintage Mexican folk arts. Scouting estate sales in search of ideas to decorate their newly merged households, James ran into the oddly beautiful piece of furniture at a Phoenix-area home about ten years ago. He and Kevin had been looking for a new style for their shared home; they looked at the usual Southwest style offerings –- Mission Revival, Craftsman. But Mexican folk art –- especially the vintage pieces that represent the pinnacle of Mexico’s artisanal production “golden age” (roughly from 1910 to around mid-1950s) won their hearts over.

Co-owner of Arte de La Vida James Goodreau poses before a selection of the store's vintage textiles.
Co-owner of Arte de La Vida James Goodreau poses before a selection of the store’s vintage textiles.

“It’s not like we had not seen it before,” said Kevin. Faithful fans of Day of the Dead celebrations, they had come across a lot of wonderful simple, beautiful objects over the years. But something entirely new about the depth of craftsmanship, clever improvisation, social commentary, and unadulterated love of color caught their eyes anew. The rest, as the cliché says, is history. James and Kevin began collecting in the fashion that all collectors do: a sweet obsession that is rewarded with each new marvelous find. Over the last decade, each developed their own niche of expertise, looking at books, reading up on the history of Mexican “artesanias” and “arte popular,” and of course buying.

“Kevin is partial to glass and clay; he absolutely loves the Virgin of Guadalupe blown glass bottles,” said James as he pointed to a handful of these original glass icons sitting on a high shelf in their new Tucson store. “My interests are tin and wood.”

A year ago, they decided to pack their belongings and move to Tucson. A few months later, on September 1, 2012, they opened their shop, Arte de La Vida, at 37 N. Tucson Blvd, almost corner with Broadway. When BorderLore asked James whether their move to Tucson had resulted from a careful business plan analysis, he says determinedly: “We came to Tucson because we wanted to get out of Phoenix; we want to live in a place that has soul.”

Since arriving in Tucson and opening their store, they have been overwhelmed by the warmth with which the community here has received their vintage offerings. In only a few months, some people are already crediting Arte de La Vida for reviving the long-established, but somewhat dormant as of late, community of Mexican folk arts collectors in the Old Pueblo. The vintage nature of the objects in the shop is what distinguishes Arte de La Vida from the many other wonderful folk art shops in Tucson.

Hand painted glass pitchers, circa 1940.
Hand painted glass pitchers, circa 1940.

“Vintage objects of folk art, as opposed to the more commercial offerings that have populated the market in the last thirty to forty years, have two distinct educational advantages for scholars of Mexican history and society as well as for folklorists,” said TMY Program Director (and on her spare time, Mexican folk arts specialist) Dr. Maribel Alvarez. “They exemplify the height of artistic craftsmanship that lives in the eyes, hands, and minds of Mexico’s indigenous and working class communities — many of the same communities that now call the U.S.A. home. And they are a reminder that when the arts are supported by policy and markets, they can really flourish and give people a dignified alternative to earn a living.”

Tucson Meet Yourself has already started conversations with Kevin and James to see how we can partner to incentivize and support some of the Mexican and Mexican-American folk artists that have long been associated with the TMY festival. Here’s hoping that our joint love for ordinary beauty will lead us to some exciting projects in 2013!

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