Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday in Mexico, comes around once a year. But Anne Damon’s southwest Minneapolis home is fiesta-ready year-round. It’s vibrantly decorated with handmade Mexican textiles and ceramics, whimsical figures and masks, and a large cut-paper portrait of painter Frida Kahlo.
Damon’s passion for all things Mexican started in high school, when she spent a summer studying Spanish in Toluca, a large city in the central part of the country. “I absolutely fell in love — with the culture, the cuisine, the color,” she said.
She returned to her Wisconsin hometown with a few mementos — a woven basket, a tree of life sculpture, some earrings and a pair of huarache sandals. Later, as a public health nurse working in Tucson, Damon made frequent trips across the border, and usually came back with a few handmade artifacts. Even after settling in the Twin Cities, she continued to return to Mexico every year, adding to her voluminous collection of folk art.
Damon is drawn to unusual pieces — “the things you don’t see in the tourist destinations,” she said. “I love to go to the artisans’ homes, to the markets.”
By 2008, she had amassed so many bowls, platters and table linens that she had a sale in her home. That went well, so she started doing pop-up sales, four times a year, at Guild Collective, a boutique in St. Louis Park. Four years ago, Damon decided to open her own store, Zinnia Folk Arts (zinniafolkarts.com), in a former upholstery shop at 50th Street and Bryant Avenue S. There she sells everything from sculptures to Day of the Dead ofrendas and skulls to Mexican-themed party supplies, such as papel picado (perforated tissue-paper flags) and paper flowers.
Now she travels to Mexico three or four times a year, typically flying into Mexico City or Guadalajara, then heading to smaller towns that have particular craft specialties, such as Chiapas for textiles, Guanajuato for ceramics, Olinalá for Guerrero lacquerware, which is painted then finely inscribed with a turkey quill.
One of Damon’s favorite finds was a whimsical clay sculpture of lovebirds on a swing, with devils tempting them. She found it in the town of Ocumicho in the state of Michoacán. “It’s extremely remote. I hired a taxi driver, and it took three hours to get there.”
Fanciful juxtapositions are a staple of Mexican folk art, such as figures that depict the Last Supper, with Jesus surrounded by mermaids as the disciples. “Mermaids are very common iconography in Mexico,” she said. “It’s the combination of the whimsical and Christianity. A lot of indigenous beliefs got mixed in with Catholicism.”
Damon often travels alone, and she’s frequently asked if she’s afraid to go to remote places in Mexico. “No, not at all,” she said. “As long as you don’t do dumb things, you’ll find that most Mexican are warm, kind and generous. It always helps to know some Spanish, but it’s not a requirement. Having a smile and an openness to learning something new goes a long way in Mexico.”
She’s even scored Mexican folk art closer to home — on Craigslist. She pointed to a tree of life sculpture displayed in her dining room. “It was in Rogers,” she said. “The guy’s aunt or grandmother traveled to Mexico in the 1960s and brought it up to Minnesota.” Damon immediately recognized the piece as the work of influential artist Heron Martinez. But the owner was asking more than she wanted to pay. “I was hemming and hawing, and ended up not getting it,” she said. She went to Mexico, and while she was gone, her husband drove to Rogers and bought it for her — at a reduced price.
Damon sells all over the world via her website but she scouts with Minnesota in mind. “When I’m shopping, I think, ‘How would this work in a Midwestern home?’ ” she said.
Her own home is a long way from Southwestern; it’s a nearly 100-year-old Craftsman with the dark woodwork and built-ins of that architectural style. She and her husband bought the house almost 30 years ago, and raised their two sons, now young adults. In 2005, they remodeled, updating their front entry, fireplace, kitchen and a previous 1980s addition. “When we remodeled it was with an eye to how we display the art we have,” she said.
“People ask, ‘Is your house wall-to-wall Mexico?’ I say no. I’m fairly choosy.” She’s gotten increasingly selective about what she buys, passing up carelessly painted ceramics or tablecloths that aren’t finely stitched, and zeroing in on pieces that are well-crafted. “My eye is really picky now. I’ve become educated about what’s quality and what’s not,” she said. “You see a lot at the resorts that is not painted well.”
In her home, she also exercises restraint, choosing just a few pieces for each room and using them as bold accents. “I entertain with it, especially in summer when we’re out on the patio,” she said of her collection of colorful linens and dishes. “But not all the time.”
Minnesotans tend to be cautious and conservative in their use of color at home, she noted. “People can be kind of overwhelmed” when they enter her store, with its festive hues. “They come in and say, ‘My whole house is taupe.’ One item with a splash of color in a bookcase can really make a difference.” She groups blue-and-white objects together. “People see that, and they kind of relax. That’s color to Scandinavians.”
Her own sense of color has grown more adventurous and playful over the years, she added. “For me, red can be a neutral. Blue can be a neutral. I was influenced by Minnesota back then,” she said, describing a few earlier purchases in more muted hues. “Now I let my real self out.”