An Urban Idea: Preserving the Finery of Folk Art : Art: Contemporary Chicano artists rely on tradition in collaborating on an altar for the Virgin of Guadalupe.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The only way you're going to see folk traditions in 50 years is in the work of contemporary artists. It's up to us to keep them alive," says Frank Romero, a prominent Chicano artist who has created folk-based installations in conjunction with two major folk art shows--one at the Craft and Folk Art Museum and the other at Cal State Northridge Art Gallery.

Romero worked alone on his Northridge installation: a 12-foot-long wooden version of a low-rider--a purple 1948 model Chevy. But for the Craft and Folk Art installation, he enlisted eight other top Chicano artists to work collaboratively on a 12-foot-tall contemporary altar to Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"This altar is about urban folk traditions--all these people are really working traditional forms, but then again they're not," said Romero of his collaborators, who often rely on folk-art traditions, such as retablo paintings on tin, carved wooden sculptures and glazed ceramic works, yet exhibit as fine artists and not folk artists.

"We need these traditions, and artists doing something like this is the only way it's going to last--the people are tired now and they don't want to do it (art) anymore after they've been out farming all day."

Among those who worked with Romero on the altar are such Chicano art leaders as:

* Gilbert (Magu) Lujan, who made the altar's painted wooden dogs and a heavy paper sculpture;

* Margaret Garcia, who painted saints and other figures on tin;

* Teddy Sandoval, who created brightly painted ceramic candle holders and religious figures;

* Alberto Oropeza, a recently transplanted Oaxacan tin worker who cut intricate skeleton-themed Day of the Dead candleholders out of Coca-Cola cans.

Also contributing were neon artist Michael Flechtner, woodworker Howard Swerdloff, traditional paper-cutter Olga Ponce Furginson, and painter Nancy Romero.

Rather than remain completely within Mexican tradition for the altar, the artists made a point of inserting their own observations as Chicanos living in a mixed culture--reflected by urban elements such as Romero's trademark cars, Oropeza's use of the Coca-Cola cans as a popular icon, Lujan's clothed and humanized dogs, and Garcia's selecting Mexico's only black saint, San Martin de Porres, for one of her largest pieces and choosing to paint other figures with biracial features to reflect the melting of cultures.

"We're a product of both (traditional Mexican and urban American cultures), so we interpose influences from the South and our lives here. We incorporate things that are used (in Mexico), but translate them to an urban society," said Lujan, who creates anthropomorphic animals in an effort to draw people into his art by beginning with a familiar animal motif.

"The commentary is about everyday life--my dogs are a way of talking to people about the importance of folk art, even though I'm not a folk artist," he said.

Romero said he drew inspiration for this particular altar--which is surrounded by Flechtner's neon lines--from a Virgin adorned with a crown of neon that he saw at a cathedral in the Mexican town of Cholula. But he also drew heavily on his own experiences as a Chicano boy growing up in Los Angeles.

"The idea is based on a little altar we had when I lived in East L.A.," Romero said. "We all had these altars when we were growing up. The local church had a saint that went from house to house. She traveled--so I designed my altar the same way. The Virgin is in this box, and you close her up and she goes traveling."

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