The Wood Is Like Magic: A conversation with Louis David Valenzuela

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Making ceremonial masks from cottonwood is a special and spiritual practice. Yaqui/Yoeme artist Louis David Valenzuela learned the artform from traditional pascola maskmakers in Tucson’s Pascua Yaqui communities. Also a painter, sculptor and dedicated teacher, Valenzuela is a recipient of a 2018 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award. He spoke with BorderLore about his early artmaking days, his longtime struggle with addiction, and the art of woodcarving.

Louis David Valenzuela, a Pascua Yaqui man with medium dark brown skin, wearing a gray sweater, medicine beads, and a carved figure.
Louis David Valenzuela
What led you to woodcarving and art?

Forty-three years ago, when I told people I wanted to be an artist, they said I was crazy, that’s the dumbest thing.

I started doing art in 1974. I started to sketch and do symbolism from our tribe and from other native work. I love indigenous art. I got into Arizona Highways. My idol that I read about was one of the best painters from Navajo Nation, RC Gorman. I started to see his work and read about him. My aunt Amelia “Mini” Kaskirkum Valenzuela, a storyteller, introduced me to Arturo Montoya, who is known for his sculptures. He was my mentor. As time went on, I became his assistant. Minimum wage was $2 or something, but he was paying me $10. He was teaching me about the deer dancer.

A Yaqui Deer Dancer figure of a man with a black skirt, medium dark brown shirtless skin, a bandana over his eyes, and a red deer atop his head.
Deer-dancer by Louis David Valenzuela

Then I sat down with my  great uncle Anselmo Valencia and I really started understanding my culture, the stories behind the deer dancer. I used to go to the ceremonies, but as time went on, I learned the knowledge and skills. In 1980 I met Mr. Jesus Acuna. They were making pascola masks in Tucson. I told them I wanted to make one, and so they gave me a piece of cottonwood and a machete. It looked like a Frankenstein. Later I learned to use chiseling tools and utility knives. But I still use a machete. Of all the woodcarvers I met in the early stages, Mr. Acuna never wanted his name out there. He would send me out with his masks, and I would sell them, but he never wanted people to recognize him. By then the other pascola mask makers were already gone. Only Frank Martinez from Pascua Viejo was left. We were going to plan a show together at UA, but then he passed away.

Masks by Louis David Valenzuela
Masks by Louis David Valenzuela

I lived on the reservation, in New Pascua and then I went to Chicago. Before I went, my uncle said, “Mijo, I know you’re heading from reservation to big city, but one thing, promise me never forget your roots.” And I never did. At the Art Institute of Chicago, I made pascola masks out of clay. I didn’t like glaze, and I was sitting by myself away from the glazing part. I got my acrylic paint, red, white, and black. My instructor didn’t like me, for nothing. He got disappointed with me. I started to paint. One student came over and asked me what I was making. I was making the traditional masks in clay. You can’t cut a tree in Chicago. That student sat down with me to watch, then another student came. I told them about the Yaqui tribe from Tucson and about the different symbols on the pascola masks. Next thing, the whole class was there. That teacher got so mad, he slammed the door and closed the shade. He wouldn’t face me all semester. When it was time to get the grades, that teacher threw my grades at me. It fell like a feather. But he gave me an A. He said, I never want you in my class again. I said, I never want to be in your class again. Everybody clapped. They learned about the Yaqui culture.

An altar with pictures of family, Catholic saints, and candles atop a blue, red, black, yellow, white, and orangeMexican blanket..
In memory
What can you tell us about the pascola masks and making them?

The masks are a unique part of our culture. I loved the feel of forming something I knew I could make, getting the skills. I make pascola masks for dancers. The mask should only be used by the dancer who is given the mask and no other dancer. No other person should touch them.

Mask by Louis David Valenzuela
Mask by Louis David Valenzuela

Touching the wood is like magic. The form, it’s there already. The wood talks to me. When I go get the cottonwood, sometimes I wish I could bring the whole thing. These are dead trees. We say other prayers for live trees, especially during Lent. We have to ask permission from The Creator and Mother Earth to use tree branches for purposes of lent ceremonies. Even with dead trees, I bring them back to life. Every piece of wood I get is amazing. It talks to me. In a piece of wood, I might see a bunch of pascola masks on one side, a hummingbird on the other.

Where do you find the cottonwood?

Before you could go to the Santa Cruz River. Now you have to find new locations because it’s not there. Some areas are fenced out so you can’t trespass. There are other places you can go, but you have to be careful. At Pantano Wash, there are policemen around.

horsehair as part of a mask.

I sometimes purchase from Rio Yaqui to help the families there. Horsehair, I purchase horsehair—which I use in the masks—at the Rio Yaqui, in Vicam. One time there was a person in my tribe, who said I didn’t do it traditional, because I buy things. I do a blessing to ask permission. But there are times in life that I do purchase from people from Rio Yaqui to help them out.

Mostly, I get wood now at the Empire Ranch. The BLM is flexible, and I’ve done programs for them. They let me do my thing, because I work with respect. Now I get it near Empire Ranch. When I go there, I can feel the fresh air, see the hawks, white-tailed deer.

You had some challenging years dealing with addiction. Do you want to talk about that?

I graduated from Cholla High school, I almost didn’t though, because I was using marijuana then started drinking really heavily. It tore my family apart. They saw my talent. I wanted to blend in with the wrong group. It was hard to get away from it. Addiction is a disease. It’ll tear you apart. I wasted maybe 19 or 20 years. It was a roller coaster.

A carved bald eagle perched on an American flag base.
Work by Louis David Valenzuela

One day 14 years ago, I finally decided to change my life, I was living from car to car and one of the counselors for behavioral health came and banged on the trunk. I was barely counting my money. I had the shakes.  I couldn’t even hold a cup. He said, Your family is concerned. I told him the F word and he started leaving. But at that moment, I said, Wait wait. Can you really help me? He said, Do you really want to help yourself? I said, How fast can you get me in?  By that point I was doing crack, smoking rock. I had a gun. I was giving up on everything, my art, my family, my culture. When he came, I was going to turn myself in. I went home and found my sisters were crying. They had found out our brother had cancer. I told them I was going to get help.

When I went in, they had to strap me down, I was hallucinating. My sister came to see me before detox. She said, I’m here and I’ll be here for you. After six hours, they took me in a wheelchair, but they took me to the wrong place. They took me to the psych ward! This changed my life. I was going through medical withdrawal. I couldn’t get out until the tribe authorized it. But it took them six hours. They had to pick straws to decide who would come get me. I was hateful. I was mean. They knew they were going to get hell all the way from psych to detox.

A carved red cardnal
Work by Louis David Valenzuela

They sent for a counselor, and a woman came and said, Do you want to talk here or go to my office? I looked around and thought, I don’t want to be here. People were in there banging heads at the wall. You’re gifted, she told me. You’re known for your art. Why are you doing this to yourself?  She told me to look up. I looked up and then I looked at her. What do you see? Look up. Again. She sat back. I said, I don’t understand what you’re trying to point out, can you give me an idea? Can you see it? she said. He’s giving you one more chance. You’ve been through hell, if you don’t change yourself, you might be like those people out there. You’re going to forget your family. It’s your call now. This is it. That’s where my whole life changed. I thought about my brother with cancer and my own life with drugs and alcohol. I sat there. I liked what she said because it made me realize who I was. When they took me out, I still gave that guy hell. I had waited six hours!

That was the change in my life. The ceremony was around the corner, and my focus was to get to the ceremony and then I’d start intake treatment classes. After the ceremony, my cousin asked do you still want to go to rehab. I found it was time for me to do what I had to do. I stayed sober. I went to AA, but it wasn’t for me. I see it more spiritual, between me and The Creator. After ceremony, after 12 days, I kept going. Fourteen years later, I stand high on top of the world. I just focus on what I have to do. I never pat myself on the back.

Louis David Valencia, a man with an olvie green flannel, Yaqui medicine bag, salt and pepper hair, and medium brown skin, is holding a machete and a carved piece of wood.
Louis David Valenzuela. Photo by Steven Meckler
You were awarded a Master-Apprentice Artist Award to pass on the tradition of woodcarving.  You are working with apprentices now?

They have come to me for study. They get scared once they cut themselves. They have band-aids now, but when it happened to me, I would use duct tape or paper towels. Once I work with students, they see they are gifted and they find themselves in the art spiritually. I tell all of them that you just have to find yourself. After two days, they’re the best artists, they want to go buy the supplies. I also volunteer my time for senior citizens and teach at the library. It’s never been about the money. At the stage I am, if wanted to, I could have that. But it’s not about living in a mansion. It’s about our culture, keeping a tradition going.

6 thoughts on “The Wood Is Like Magic: A conversation with Louis David Valenzuela”

  1. This inspirational story is a great testament to the power of art and the power of tradition. I enjoy reading or hearing what traditional artists have to say about the spiritual dimension of their art practice, as well as the connections to family and community that are so vital in supporting self-image and sense of place in the world.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Very inspiring. I thinking going through hardship deepens our connection to the Divine. The Divine speaks through your hands and the wood spirits. Blessings on your path.


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