I went to Mexico a few days before my December writing retreat to learn to create retablos with Judy Dykstra-Brown. I’d met Judy at our writing retreat the year before and was enchanted by her art—walls of her beach house hung with a small portion of her retablo collection. Judy creates visual stories in these small niches whose ancestry is in the Mexican “laminas,” small oil paintings on tin, wood, or copper which are used in home altars. Before I left for Mexico, Judy suggested I think what story I wanted to tell with my retablo and to bring items that I could include in the niche.
2015 was a year of the Wild Women. My book, Wild Women, Wild Voices was released in April, and much of the year centered around the book, completing the final steps before publication, the actual release, and in many months following, promoting it, celebrating it, and celebrating wild women in general. My “story” would be Wild Women and my retablo would be in honor of the book and what the idea of Wild Women means to me.
We worked off and on for two days at Judy’s home in San Juan Cosala, creating the retablo. I’m a very shy artist, not an artist at all really, and Judy is beyond talented and professional. I would learn from a master.
Before: We started here, with some of the items I brought, a tray of embellishments from Judy’s studio, a bouquet of paint brushes, and a blank retablo. A generous artist, Judy let me have at it as we dug through drawers and boxes and bins of items in her studio—birds and flowers and tiny vases and tiny people, bones and hearts of every material, musical instruments, animals, oh my—I was sent into complete overwhelm by the infinite choices.
The painting began. Layer after layer until the colors came right. This took time. Like a writer, an artist must choose and choose again and revise and edit and again once more.
After: It wasn’t until we’d returned from our three-day writing retreat at the beach in Cuyultan, that the Wild Women retablo was finally complete. The central figure is an African angel, brought back from South Africa by my friend Jill Hall, who was with me all along the journey of writing and publishing the book.
Detail: Judy created this tiny replica of the cover of Wild Women, Wild Voices. I love the collage of images of the tiny wild woman holding up the book, the egg and emerging from the egg, the bird, which flies into the image of the tree on the book cover. Pen nibs bloom out of the tiny vase of flowers. The words were among the last items placed on the retablo. They came from a set of Magnetic Poetry on Judy’s refrigerator. “Yes,” is definitely a Wild Woman word. And so is “more.”
Detail: This tiny red dress was among the items on my bulletin board during the writing of the book, and one I’d taken to Mexico with me. When Judy saw the red dress she knew it had to have a central place on the retablo. It is the jewel in the Wild Woman’s crown. The tiny scroll is a miniature copy of Kim Addonzinio’s poem, “What Do Women Want,” which I’d read to Judy when she fell in love with the red dress. Addonzinio’s poem begins, “I want that red dress/I want it flimsy and cheap” and it goes on from there.
Detail: Judy often places “secrets” on the back of her retablos and I wanted to, too. I found this red high heel among the embellishments in Judy’s studio. It seemed the perfect “secret.”
There are other stories I want to “tell” in retablos, and people I want to honor by creating a niche to remember them.
I am so grateful to Judy Dykstra-Brown for her inspiration, her encouragement, and her infinite patience. Here are few pictures of just a few of Judy’s amazing retablos. As I said in the beginning of this post, I was enchanted by her art. I think you will be too. You can see more of her retablos, read some of her poetry and prose on her blog — Life Lessons.