By Jon Friedman
(Authors note: I recently received a phone call from Manny, one that I hoped would never come. He informed me that due to his serious medical condition, he would no longer be able to create his signature and highly desirable gourd bird feeders. He has been suffering from neuralgia for a number of years and now his nerve pain will not allow him to use his hands, as he must in order to make his utilitarian artworks. His colorful and carefully crafted gourds have been a mainstay in our store for nearly 25 years and hundreds of our customers have collected his unique bird feeders - some have even allowed their backyard birds to use them! As genuine but certainly usable folk art pieces, many pieces were collected and exhibited in homes as artworks, given as gifts, and some, I am sure, were put out in nature and actually used by birds! Manny always worked with thick-walled gourds, used high-quality paints and finished each piece with a weatherproof polymer coating.
Many of our customers who bought his work over the years returned for more pieces to either add to their collection or give as gifts. After Manny retired from a full career as a meat-cutter, it was only in retirement that he began a new career making gourds for birds. I doubt it was his intention to become a well-recognized and admired folk artist, but that is what happened. As he developed his own unique creative style over the years, his reputation as a folk artist kept pace and kept growing. Therefore, it is with great regret that we inform our readership that the remaining pieces we have in stock will be the last offered to the public. As recently as the past holiday season, Manny brought us the last gourds and decorative mission tiles he made.
Now in their eighties, Manny and Denisa will have the time to more fully enjoy each other, their children, their grandchildren and the beautiful home and grounds they have nurtured into expressions of their love of family, the environment they enjoy daily and the nature that surrounds and inspires them. We wish them well and good health in the future and thank them for many years of friendship, art and professionalism that our families have had the joy to experience.
We are reprinting this article I wrote about Manny several years ago. It should prove interesting for those readers who did not get to see it when it was originally printed. It will also serve as important personal documentation about the artist for those who have collected his work over the years.)
Manny Garcia was born in 1936, in Tucson, and is a recognized regional artist whose works are widely admired, avidly collected and cherished by collectors here and elsewhere. Manny’s works are immediately recognizable by his painting style, craftsmanship, and use of materials. He is a completely self-taught artist who fits the folk art mold as well as anyone else. His work includes creating several types of gourds that serve various purposes. He fashions gourds into practical and functional objects such as bird feeders, bird houses, and containers for storing jewelry, toiletries, spare change, salsa, tortillas, and a wealth of other household objects. Manny’s wife Denisa always has one of Manny’s unique gourds on the dinner table, with tortillas staying warm in one of his personalized container gourds. The bathrooms have gourd containers for storing bars of soap, small hand cloths, extra TP rolls, and other similar objects. Decorative, non-functioning gourds can be found both inside and outside the house.
Manny discovered his artistic talents after he retired from being a union meat cutter, or butcher, for over 35 years. (He really knows his meats and his homemade beef chorizo is on this side of heaven.) Denisa, however, suspected his hidden artistic talents early on. She told me a story of how Manny would paint a picture of a woman running to the butcher shop for a sale rather than just putting up a sale sign. She was impressed that he could convey the message without words. Well, a picture is worth a thousand words and this example demonstrates Manny’s creativity and ability to communicate visually. It is evident in all his creative endeavors. And, he does have a unique voice.
He first became aware of painted gourds after they visited one of Denisa’s cousins shortly after his retirement, over twenty five years ago. The cousin had made a few gourds that he decorated with black painted silhouettes of birds. They were made for gifts for family and friends, as well as for their own household decorations. They were simply painted gourds. They weren’t fashioned into feeders or houses or containers or for any other purpose. Yet, they fascinated Manny and inspired him to try creating some of his own. Denisa encouraged him further and the next thing he knew, he had a new hobby, which quickly grew into a new profession.
Friends, relatives and visitors all admired his unique creations. Over the next few years he perfected his techniques and a mature style emerged. He learned that thick-walled gourds were ideal for use indoors or outdoors. They were stronger and more durable than average gourds. He learned how to grow his own gourds. He learned how to open the gourds, empty out the pith and seeds, and to properly cure the gourds to avoid mold and decay. He learned how to prepare the surface and interior for the application of paints and finishes. He learned how to weather-proof his gourds for exterior year round use. He discovered that there was a lot of work in making gourds into useful and artful objects. He also discovered that it takes up to a full year to prepare a gourd before he can make magic with it. He didn’t have a mentor to guide him or teach him what he needed to know. So, as with many artists, it became a process of trial and error. It didn’t take him too long to perfect his techniques and, learning from his mistakes, he didn’t make errors any longer.
Manny Garcia’s style emerged as something of his own. His naïve or folk-style of painting reflected the objects, plants, and animals that he saw around him on a daily basis. He quickly learned to trust his artistic instincts. His imagery evolved into combining objects that shared certain similarities – such as red chili peppers and red cardinals. While the objects he paints are done in his naïve style, they nevertheless can easily be identified by species – whether they are species of birds or plants. His imagery conveys a sense of playfulness, a sense of wonderment and awe, and, always effectively communicating with the viewer.
When the curing process is complete, and before anything is done to the gourds, Manny contemplates the physical aspects and characteristics of each piece, searching for an idea of how to make the best use of each gourd. He studies them from every angle, finding that some suggest to him what they should become. He’ll hold one out at arm’s length, turning it around and around, examining it in detail until finally he declares what this one will become. Some are quickly determined to become a storage container, a bird house, or a bird feeder. Some, he determines, are more suited to becoming an art object. Something he sees in the gourd’s shape or size may help determine what it will finally appear as. Some gourds suggest they become quail. Others may become birds, snakes, giraffes, elephants, turtles, or even people. He created a series of human figures from large banana-shaped gourds that he transformed into Yaqui Fariseo’s (spiritual figures present in many Yaqui ceremonies and rituals). Years ago, he created and presented to me a sculpture he made from a similar banana-shaped gourd depicting me with a beard and wearing a straw hat feeding birds on the ground around my feet. He made a little plaque from a piece of gourd, attached it, and painted the words “Jon the Birdfeeder” on it. Manny’s creativity never fails to amaze me and this piece is among my most cherished in my collection of his art pieces.
Manny’s gourds are personal statements about the objects he sees around him in life. He provides more personal touches to his works that, again, signal to the viewer that this work could have only been created by Manny Garcia. He uses bare solid copper wire to fashion hanging devices for his gourds. But, he twists the copper wire into decorative shapes in addition to simply being functioning aspects of the work. This is true of the hangers as well as the perches for houses and feeders. He uses a painted ladybug as his chop mark, which is always painted on the underside of the work next to his signature and date the work was made. Additionally, the ladybug chop mark is also used to correctly place the lid on containers in a particular position which enables the lid to fit the container perfectly and register the painting of the container and the lid seamlessly.
The next area Manny wanted to explore was the revival of the “techas”. In Mexico, techas were presented as housewarming gifts or to mark a particular celebration or anniversary. In Spanish, the word “techa” means tile, as in roofing tiles. Traditionally, they would carry a welcome message, announce an event, mark an address or family name, etc. Simply hung beside the front door, the techa serves both a practical and decorative purpose. Generations of Mexican folk artists have made techas. Today, Manny is perhaps the last of these folk artists. Manny has made
techas for the kitchen with paintings of herbs, spices, foods, and domestic scenes on them. He made them with western themes (horses, saddles, cowboys, etc.), southwestern themes (desert landscapes, sunsets, etc.), and many that feature portraits of our most beloved birds and familiar desert dwelling critters. We have selections of all these styles, but, I have to admit, more of the birds and plants of the Sonoran Desert. The techas also demonstrate Manny’s use of the braided copper wire fashioned into hangers and they display his signature, ladybug chop mark, and date on the backside of every piece. He also provides information about each tile on the backside. Typically, it states that this tile came from the roof of a house built in mid-town Tucson in the 1920’s. Additionally, he will further personalize any techa with the gift recipient’s name, address, or greeting at no extra charge. This added personalization can usually be accomplished overnight and ready for pick-up the next day.
Several well-known locations have sold Manny’s artworks in previous years. Noteworthy among them are the gift shops at La Paloma and Westward Look, the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and Collection Mexicana (a former Mexican furniture and decorative store). Today, none of these locations sell his works. Some are out of business. Others sold the works to tourists for the highest prices. About twenty-five years ago, The Wild Bird Store began selling Manny’s works. However, he always wanted his work to be available to local residents for reasonable and affordable prices. He wanted them to be accessible for anyone to buy and appreciate. He sets the retail prices and that’s what we sell them for. As a result, our store has sold many hundreds of Manny’s works to happy customers. We’ve found that people so appreciate the uniqueness and affordability of his works that many customers return again, and in some again and again, to add to their own collection, or to present them as gifts to others. Many of our artist customers have collections of Manny’s works and are always checking in to see what’s new.
In very recent years, Manny has had some health issues that prevented him from creating gourds and other artworks. In addition to other health issues, he fell off of a ladder and broke both wrists. For about two years, we didn’t get any new products from him and worried whether or not he would recover enough to resume making his objects. He found himself unhappy when he wasn’t being creative and that provided the extra inspiration for his full recovery. He’ll readily admit that he’s happiest when he creating. This is probably a truism with all artists.
All around town, one can find his hand and mind at work when you come across a mural he painted on commission. He’s been commissioned to make indoor murals for private homes, kitchens, and bathrooms or for restaurants. Several resorts have exterior walls that have his decorative murals painted on them. Oro Valley boasts quite a few private homes that have interior or exterior murals he has created.
We’ve always enjoyed exposing Manny’s work to new and appreciative audiences. Manny’s fully recovered from his past health problems and he’s planning on a January trip to Eloy. He found a gourd farmer who understands what Manny is looking for in gourds (particular shapes with thick walls). Now, he no longer grows all his own gourds and finds this frees up his time to
concentrate on the creative aspects of his work. Next time you visit the store, spend an extra minute or two and admire this unique folk artist’s work. You may find one you can’t live without.