CRAFT IN AMERICA: BORDERS Artists Bios
CRAFT IN AMERICA: BORDERS
Premieres on PBS Friday, September 29, 2017*
Ofelia Esparza, educator and lifelong artist, is an “altarista”, a master altar-maker who teaches the meaning and history of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and creates the altars that commemorate loved ones who have passed away. She began this work in 1979 at Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles, CA, alongside founder Sister Karen Boccalero. Ofelia’s strong commitment to keep the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos alive in the U.S. is visible in the heartfelt beauty of the community altars that she and her family erect annually for the celebrations at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.
“We all suffer three deaths. The first death is the day that we give our last breath, the day that we die. Our second death is the day that we are buried, never to be seen on the face of the earth again. And our third death, the most dreaded death of all, is to be forgotten. For me, my loved ones will not suffer the most dreaded death of all — that is: to be forgotten.”
– Ofelia Esparza
J. Isaac Vásquez García, master weaver and dyer in Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico, pioneered the revival of the use of pre-Hispanic Zapotec and Mixtec natural dyes on pure wool by the local weavers in the 1950s. Isaac’s three sons, five daughters and their families take great pride in keeping this tradition alive despite the more time-consuming and expensive nature of these methods when compared with the more modern use of chemical dyes and acrylic fiber. They perform all steps by hand, taking the raw wool to finished rug: carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving. Their designs are drawn from both modern and Zapotec sources.
Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg, botanist and anthropologist, is the Director of the Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, Mexico, established in 1993 with the help of artist Francisco Toledo. Also a knowledgeable textile scholar and curator at the Oaxaca Textile Museum, Alejandro recounts the history of cochineal, the highly prized red dye, considered one of the great treasures of the new world, and how it brought tremendous wealth to Oaxaca during the Spanish Colonial period. He has had and continues to have an important impact on the development of arts and culture in Oaxaca.
Jim Bassler, weaver and teacher, was introduced to the craft traditions of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia at an early age. The ethnic textiles that inspired him during these early travels became the foundation for his work. Over the years, Jim has continued to incorporate techniques from various ancient cultures, especially Navajo, pre-Columbian, Andean, and Mexican textile traditions into his artistic process.
For 25 years Jim taught textile art at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Arts and Architecture. He helped to establish the fiber/textile program at the Appalachian Center for Crafts in Smithville, TN, has taught at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN, and the Penland School of Crafts in Spruce Pine, NC. With the help of the Mexican government, he initiated a weaving cottage industry in the isolated community of Capulálpam de la Sierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. His work has been exhibited in the U.S. and abroad and is held in numerous public and private collections.
Ceramic artist Veralee Bassler first took clay in hand around the age of 15 in a favorite high school class, ceramics. Several years later, she graduated from UCLA Art Department with a concentration in ceramics. Veralee then began a 25-year career of teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District and currently, with her husband, Jim, has chosen to live an intensely creative life.
For four decades, Kiff Slemmons, artist/jeweler has celebrated nonprecious materials in her distinctive jewelry. She describes her inspirations as, “Tribal jewelry of Africa and the Arctic, writers like W.G. Sebald, artists like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Inca stonemasons, and hand-activated tools and devices.” In 2000, Kiff was invited by Francisco Toledo, Mexican artist and cultural activist, to design jewelry for his paper workshop, Taller Arte Papel Oaxaca. Collaborating with local artisans to create jewelry using local plants like majahua, agave and cotton, and traditional dyes such as indigo, cochineal and ochre, this practice refers to the long history of paper-making in the region and holds a special significance in Mexico.
Slemmons is represented in numerous museum collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Arts and Design in New York, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA; Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC; Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House, Honolulu, HI; and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
Francisco Toledo, known in Oaxaca as “El Maestro”, is regarded by many as Mexico’s most important and provocative living artist. He has been instrumental in building a series of highly successful public cultural institutions in the city that he calls home, Oaxaca: the IAGO—a graphic arts museum and library; the MACO, a contemporary art museum; the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo; the Francisco de Burgoa Library, a rare book library in the recently restored Convent of Santo Domingo; PRO-OAX, an environmental and cultural protection nonprofit organization; El Pochote, an art cinema; Taller Arte Papel Oaxaca, begun in 1998, in San Agustín, Etla, Oaxaca, using native fibers and renewable resources; and the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, an ethnobotanical garden that tells the history of the co-evolution of the plants and people of Oaxaca. In an effort to enhance public education and preservation of the environment, Toledo feels he is fulfilling a duty to the future of the people of his country. www.franciscotoledo.net
CRAFT IN AMERICA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing original handcrafted work through the Peabody Award-winning documentary series on PBS nationwide and the free-to-the-public Craft in America Center located in Los Angeles, which offers artist talks, exhibitions, workshops and a library. With seventeen episodes produced since 2007, CRAFT IN AMERICA takes viewers on a journey to the artists, origins and techniques of American craft. Each episode contains stories from diverse regions and cultures, blending history with living practice and exploring issues of identity, ritual, philosophy and creative expression. Our websites craftinamerica.org and pbs.org/craftinamerica provide all episodes, hours of online videos and interactive learning materials, as well as object exhibitions, artist information, and the Random House book Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects and other Craft in America publications.
For more about Craft in America:
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Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Claffey, Denise Kang, Mark Markley, Carol Sauvion
Please contact for art and interviews: (310) 659-9022
Carol Sauvion, Executive Producer: carolsauvion@
Beverly Feldman, Press: beverly@
Additional images of all the artists’ work are available on Dropbox: www.dropbox.com/s/mgpqgxmr5sm12vj/BORDERSpress.zip?dl=0