Arts & Literature

What Makes a Folk Tale?

Latino artists’ illustrations come from close to home and far away.


Tuesday, May 07, 2013
illustration copyright 1994, Leovigildo Martinez (see end of article)

What makes a folk tale a folk tale? As a form of folklore, it’s distinct from an urban legend, which spreads virally, rests on the illusory authority of a friend of a friend, and is usually false, although plausible enough that it could be true, or horrific enough that listening is like gazing at a train wreck.

The prom queen who appears annually at the site of her own fatal car crash; the different versions, malevolent versus benevolent, of the vanishing hitchhiker; the exotic miniature-breed dog that turns out to be a large rat—these are the stuff of urban legends.

But folk tales tell a story with more tenderness towards human foibles (even when dealing with talking animals or witches and ogres). These stories rest on oral tradition, customarily rooted in children’s songs or word of mouth storytelling rather than the anonymous warp speed of the Internet. They invite personal embellishment by each teller as stories travel through generations and across cultures. And folk tales carry a message, a moral, a lesson, or an answer to commonly posed questions, including many of childhood’s perpetual “whys” and “hows.”

Like all folk tales, the Latino folk tales, cuentos populares, illustrated beautifully by twelve Latino artists in a current exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, tap a variety of sources, close to home and far away. Some of the 63 original artworks seem to capture the memories of beloved grandparents, as seen in the sophisticated neo-folk styles developed by Amy Córdova and Felipe Dávalos-Gonzalez. Some artists look further back to the myths and legends of pre-Columbian cultures, such as Lulu Delacre, who studied the Zapotec and Aztec cultures to compile a collection of stories, and infused motifs from ancient ceramic works and architectural ruins into her illustrations.

Other folk tales spill over into a magical realm of fantasy. Illustrating a story written by Matthew Gollub, Oaxacan artist Leovigildo Martínez addresses the question, “Why is the moon sometimes visible during daylight?” Actually, I confess: I have wondered, for years beyond childhood, just why a pale moon sometimes hangs out in a bright blue sky. It feels so out of the ordinary, so special, even though spoilsport astronomers point out that the moon is actually visible in daylight nearly every day—for an average of six hours a day—except during the new moon phase or close to the full moon.

Fiction is far more beguiling. With superb artwork, Martínez conjures a charming explanation of “how” and “why” the normally nocturnal moon sometimes switches to a daytime schedule. The book’s title offers a hint: The Moon Was at a Fiesta. Still other tales spin across the globe. For example, the mother and daughter team of Gloria and Lucia Perez illustrate their version of Cinderella in Little Gold Star, adapting a story that originated in China around 850 A.D. and traveled westward—imagine Cinderella trudging across the Russian steppes, sheepskin boots replacing her glass slippers—to Europe, and then probably sailed across the Atlantic with early Spanish settlers in America.

Raúl Colón illustrates another such cross-cultural interpretation in Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel, with text by Patricia Storace, in which Rapunzel’s long blonde hair becomes a tangle of dark curls and her mother’s craving for the pungent herb rapunzel becomes a longing for sweet cane sugar. Well known as an illustrator, Colón has produced art for books that cover a range of topics, including Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops by Dr. Jill Biden, Angela and the Baby Jesus by Frank McCourt, and As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom, by Richard Michelson.

Variations of the Rapunzel story stretch as far back as tenth-century Persia and as fast forward as the 3-D Disney movie Tangled. In recasting Rapunzel in a Caribbean setting, however, Colón draws on his memories of living on Puerto Rico as a teenager, while leaning towards a more specifically Afro-West Indian flavor. “The environment, the colors, the flavor, the people—all come from my experience of living on a tropical island,” he explains. He infused colors with that tropical warmth and used traditional island festival masks as inspiration for the witch character.

A peek into his artistic practice reveals how he achieves a luminous, light-filled effect in his illustrations. Colón works on richly textured watercolor paper and combines different media in multiple layers. He starts with a watercolor wash to create an overall yellowish tone, a golden tinge. Then he sketches the composition in pencil and adds monochromatic layers of watercolor: “Half-tones and quarter-tones of browns and sepias and olive greens—I build them up in layers, maybe six, seven, eight layers on top of one another.” Next he wields his signature tool, an instrument borrowed from the medium of scratchboard, to etch into the paper itself, creating arcs of parallel lines that convey a sense of flowing movement or the convincing curl of clothing.

Then comes the color. Colón uses Prismacolor pencils and transforms the mostly monochromatic sketch into a color picture filled with the cool shades of greens, blues, aquas and indigos or the warm lights of yellows, ochres, oranges, umbers and reds. Each apparent “color” is actually composed of many hues. “If somebody [in the illustration] is wearing a brown cape, it’s not brown,” explains Colón. “I’ll be using anything from reds and greens and purples to create that brown. The colors on the bottom layers show through, and that’s why they seem to vibrate.” Of course, he adds, it took years to learn this technique and develop the color sequences to make the layers of various colors glow with optical effects, rather than turn muddy in the mix.

This look into Colón’s process helps underscore the art of illustration. In a picture book, of course, images and text intertwine to show and tell. But the illustrations are not mere depictions of characters and events in these Latino folk tales; as original works of art, they frame and focus significant moments to allow the narratives to unfold and flow.•

Latino Folk Tales: Cuentos Populares—Art by Latino Artists, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, through June 9, 2013.

Full credit for illustration above:  Tour Development by Smith Kramer Traveling Exhibitions, Kansas City, Missouri; illustration copyright 1994, Leovigildo Martinez.

Credit for cover illustration: copyright 1996, Lulu Delacre. Tour Development by Smith Kramer Traveling Exhibitions, Kansas City, Missouri.

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