Written by Rosalie Robles Crowe
Condensed by Native Village
Choosing the wood begins with a prayer. “We ask the Creator (to guide us) when we take the wood," he says. "To me, the wood has to be special. It talks to me -- it wants to be carved." But some wood is not to be. It doesn’t want to become a mask, "so I leave it."
Louis usually knows before-hand what he will carve from chunks of wood. He prefers the softness of cottonwood from the area around his Empire Ranch near Tucson.
The wood is cut into suitably sized blocks. He uses a machete to begin forming the face he sees in the wood. With a file, he shapes the wood into an oval and smoothes any rough edges. Then he uses a utility knife to form the features and a chisel for the eyeholes and mouth.
It is the painting that is time-consuming. The wood is sanded, and a base coat -- usually black -- is applied. Then comes the design in white and red, possibly other colors.
Each element has meaning, as do the colors. The artist has freedom to create, but within cultural constraints.
Yoeme mask symbolism
Valenzuela carves masks for use in Yoeme ceremonies. Others are carved for exhibit or art collectors only. Those sold strictly for art are not "blessed". Nor are they used by a pascola -- "the old man of the fiesta." Pascola masks may only be touched by the pascola. Valenzuela does not charge for those.
It was Montoya who taught him the basics: "to mix paints, to mix colors. He saw my talent when I was a kid," Valenzuela says. “He would give paintings to other kids who would help him, but he wouldn’t give one to me, even though he picked me as his assistant. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘Because you are going to be a great artist,’ he said."
When he was 25, Valenzuela began working with Acuna. Acuna "would carve the mask, and I would design them with my art. But I was curious, and I wanted to carve, too. He said, ‘You can do it; just put your mind to it.’
“The first mask that I carved looked like a Frankenstein," Valenzuela says. Then he starts laughing. "A woman bought it."
Valenzuela, 46, has been a painter, sculptor, and mask carver for 36 years. Today his art is flourishing. He is involved in his community and finding ways to reach others, particularly children, who show an interest in art. He also teaches children at Hohokam Elementary School during its end-of-the-year camping trip.
Background: Robert Kaufman Fabrics: http://www.robertkaufman.com/
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