Leonor Chacón Vera greeted me at the door of her former home, now studio, wearing a Yucatan-style huipil and apron. The initial impression is that of a middle-aged housewife, but she is much more than that.
Chacón is a survivor, an artist and fierce fighter for nascent artists in the state of Durango.
Like most artists and artisans, she discovered her talent and passion early. Growing up in Durango, she did not have dolls because of her family’s economic situation. So she began drawing dolls and clothing for them from cardboard and paper, discovering that she liked using her imagination. At preschool age, she was given a “marvelous” gift, a set of colored pencils. The use of color and range of colors has captivated her ever since.
Her teens and early adult life were wandering years, filled with challenges. Problems with her authoritative family over her behavior, such as participation in sports, forced her to leave her parents’ home, live with several friends and even be homeless for a short time. A sympathetic brother found her sitting in the bus station to escape the cold and managed to get her to an aunt’s house in Aguascalientes, also paying for her schooling. Chronic pain in her legs led to a doctor’s diagnosis of a “rare illness” that gave her only a few years to live, depressing her to the point that she thought about suicide.
Despite this, she graduated high school and married an agricultural engineer, whose work took them to various parts of Durango, Zacatecas and eventually Tabasco. The union produced two daughters, which helped Chacón will to live although the pain was spreading to other parts of her body.
Although she had no formal training there, her years in Tabasco were a formative period for Chacón, discovering the joys of rural life, in particular alternative medicine and the use of local materials that the Earth provides. Locals recommending apitherapy for her chronic pain, she began working with bees, eventually becoming a successful beekeeper. In the meantime, she was stung “in every part of her body” considering every sting to be a “blessing.”
As a child and young adult she had had no artistic training. But in Tabasco, she learned about natural pigments, using clays and plants to produce colors and painting on whatever paper, cardboard, etc she could find as art supplies were nowhere to be found in the extremely rural, interior part of the state.
Due to the breakup of her marriage and other family concerns, Chacón eventually decided to return to Durango with her growing daughters. There was a stint in Mexico City, where she took open classes at the National School of Painting. Later, after several problematic starts, she managed to get a degree in visual arts from the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts in the city of Durango.
Chacón’s formal training means that she can and sometimes does, produce the kinds of paintings one expects from an artist, still lifes, portraits often realistic. But these are not her passion. Her life experiences have led her and her art to embrace native spirituality.
It would be extremely unfair to call it New Age, as the term has taken on a negative connotation, plus Chacón’s spirituality is also highly nationalistic. Although she is from Durango and with northern indigenous blood, she identifies more culturally and spiritually with the center of the country, making regular pilgrimages to Teotihuacan and other sacred sites in the region. She is also an integral part of Durango’s temazcal community, which comes together to celebrate ritual steam baths for both physical and emotional purification.
Her most important artwork also reflects these beliefs, depicting pre Hispanic gods, sacred animals, stylized landscapes and indigenous ceremonies. All elements in these paintings have specific significance and their style is more purposefully “rustic” rather than the refined Western styling of work asked of her by patrons.
Chacón states that as a woman, it is very difficult to break into Durango’s extremely small art world. After graduating from the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts, she found doors closed to her because she had not had exhibitions anywhere else previously. Her answer to this was to form her own art associations with people in similar situations. Her first was a group of women artists in Durango, which succeeded in negotiating the staging of collective shows in venues in the city, allowing the women to have something on their CVs to gain access to more traditional events. After a number of years with that group, she left to form a mixed-sex group, Yolotl (heart in Nahuatl), which she continues with to this day. The group has staged nine major shows over the years with the tenth in the planning stages… negotiating support from European sources. All shows are open to all artists, regardless of their exhibition experience, only their artwork needs apply. They even set up sections for children to exhibit.
All this while working a full-time job with the state government, from which she only recently retired.