April 13, 2021 Taos, New Mexico

The Harwood Museum of Art

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Saturday, October 2, 2010 - Sunday, February 20, 2011

Calaveras Suite

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“I hope these Calaveras help to further that singular irreverence we all need for mustering the courage to flip a bird at the executioners.” John Nichols

John Nichols is best known as the author of the Milagro Beanfield War, but deep within the secure recesses of the Harwood Museum of Art lies a carefully wrapped glassine covered treasure: twenty-two pen and ink drawings made by Mr. Nichols.  The drawings have been transferred via a photographic gelatin onto plates, resulting in “soft-ground” prints. The etchings were made for the production of his book, The Magic Journey, after Mr. Nichols had been disappointed by the quality of the artwork presented by the book's publishers. To resolve the problem, Nichols decided to create the illustrations himself.

Nichols was born in Berkeley, California, and traveled most of his youth. His father was a language and psychology professor; his grandfather was the curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. During his early years, Nichols became attracted to Marxist-Leninist social philosophy - which eventually led him to settle in Northern New Mexico among Native Spanish speakers (mostly septuagenarians) who were at war with the United States government over the preservation of their water rights. In those years he had three visions for himself: to write, to play the guitar, and to draw cartoons.

This exhibition demonstrates Nichols' gift of drawing. The etchings, printed by Dayspring Graphics of Albuquerque in 1979, consist of twenty-two images of dancing calaveras figures. The word calaveras translates to “skull,” and often refers to the use of skeletal figures during “Day of the Dead” ceremonies. Oddly, calaveras can also be translated as “folk print,” a type of wood block print (also used for stamping textiles) that is a natural folk medium for making prints. The work is done in the style of Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada’s wood block images of “Calaveras” created c. 1912.

The printers at Dayspring Graphics took Nichols' pen and ink drawings, which had been processed through a photo-sensitive contact process and reproduced on copper plates, and created editions of fifty. At least three complete sets can be located today. The exhibition will feature the set belonging to the Harwood Museum of Art, which was a gift by the artist.

According to Nichols, “Representing ideas and people as skeletons therefore fits my mood and attitude: I float through this world accepting existence as simultaneous great joy and powerful disaster, and I try hard to have no fear of either…” “I think the Calavera tradition—from Latin America and from our own country—is accepting of our inevitable mortality by mocking it and satirizing it, even as we make an art of its symbolic manifestation. I think that tradition helps cut through the sterility that a fear of death can impose on being in love, on painting a picture, on irrigating the back field, on fighting to change the world.”