In the seven years that
have lived in Oaxaca, I have often caught glimpses of the Maestro working in
his studio; run into him at various cultural functions; and crossed his path on
the street. His life and his works have had an affect on my life here, far
greater than our nodding acquaintance would suggest (he probably didn't even
know my name). For me, and a great many others, Morales embodied not only
Oaxacan culture, but Oaxacan civility and civic responsibility as well.
A Zapotec, born of working
class parents, in a small town near Ocotlan de Morelos, a regional market town
about 30 miles from Oaxaca city, Maestro Rodolfo rose to be a very wealthy man,
with paintings being displayed in major galleries throughout the world. Many
who have had his talent and good fortune turned their back on their roots, but
The Zapotec traditions
include a committment to sharing good fortune with others. The Zapotec word for
this social service, transliterated into Spanish, is "Tequio".
It is similar to tithing, where labor may substitute for money. In the poorest
villages, it is how the roads and the schools get built: everyone gives some
labor (or money) to a common project to benefit the community. Rodolfo gave a
lot of tequio, far more than was required, but, he acknowledged at one
project innauguration I attended, far less than was needed.
His contributions, mostly
through a foundation he set up in later years, includes the renovation of
fifteen churches and cultural spaces throughout the municipio of
Ocotlan. The flagship of this fleet is the church and ex-convent in Ocotlan
itself, a dazzling and exquisitely tasteful complex which hosts a gallery, a
restaurant, and spaces for meetings, performances and classes.
There is a permanent staff
architects and other experts overseeing all the projects, but each and every
project hires local young people, mostly women, to do the work of restoration.
We were fortunate enough to spend some time with one of these young women,
working on restoring a church in the town of Zagache, Ocotlan. When her work
with the restoration project is over, she will be a qualified antiquities
restorer, able to get work anywhere. This project has opened up the world to
Morales gave his house in
Ocotlan, a colonial house, to the Casa de Cultura (state culture ministry) of
Oaxaca. Aside from the beautiful garden, and the Maestro's studio, it contains
a computer classroom. The Maestro noted, a few years ago, that computers were
the future, and immediately bought a roomful so the local youth could learn.
Much of the house is a sort
of museum, housing Rodolfo's collections of china, stained glass, furniture and
bric-abrac; similar to Frieda's house, and Trotzky's house, and Abe Lincoln's.
The center of this obra (work) is, in fact, in back and on the second
floor: a three-room walk-through that contains the master's studio.
Every Friday morning, Rodolfo
could be found there, painting. In the far room, surrounded by tubes of oil
paint, open jars of wash, and in the last couple of years a television set, the
master demonstrated to friend and stranger alike, the techniques he used to
create the unique canvases that made him famous. We visited him there just
three weeks ago, along with a family of friends from California.
Working on five or six pieces
at once, Morales answered questions, posed for pictures, and generally played
the humble host. Only the humility wasn't put on. Rodolfo was, in bearing,
manner, and presence, a truly humble person. Walking down the street in Oaxaca,
he reminded me of a small-town grocer or hardware store owner.
All this past month, the
Museo de Arte Contemporanéo de Oaxaca (MACO; the modern art museum) has
dedicated its entire second floor to a retrospective of the maestro's works,
from a very "realistic" picture of a drunken campesino
sleeping it off on a pile of refuse, to a group of cylendrical
"pillars" of painted canvas.
"out" homosexual, he gave much to the effort to control the spread of
AIDS. Currently, some sixty of his prints are for sale by the Frente Común
Contra SIDA (common front against AIDS), having been donated by Rodolfo to help
them raise needed funds.