Book Reviews of Tapestries in Sand.

1. Author Interview: "Sand painting is an ancient Southwest Indian art--part of a sacred healing ceremony. Through the years, it has been performed by Navajo medicine men, called Singers, who have let the sands flow through their sensitive fingers in spiritual design. In preparation for this high art, the medicine men go through a period of self-purification and abstinence while collecting sands, roots and bark to be used for the paintings. The ceremony, which includes long prayers to attract other 'spirit people,' lasts from five to nine days and nights. Because the rhythms of day and night are different, sand paintings begun at sunrise are finished and destroyed by sunset. Conversely, paintings begun at sunset are destroyed by sunrise. Destruction means gathering the sands on a blanket or buckskin and transferring them to the body of the patient who sits in the midst of the 'spirit healers' and is the focus of their divine attention. When the last chant is sung, all the sands are gathered onto a buckskin and with a gesture to Father Sky and to Mother Earth, are tossed in the directions from whence they came.

"David Villaseñor Otomi-Spanish artist whose poetic and artistic soul belongs to today, first observed this sacred Navajo ritual when he was sixteen. He came under the spell of sand painting and vowed to master the art. His objective was not to become a healer but rather to find a way to preserve sand paintings without desecrating the ceremonial--without tampering with the 'beauty of the Indian spirit.' To David this was an art that spoke a language of its own--equivalent to beadwork and basketry and pottery. However, it was many years before he was able to fulfill his hope.

"Ask David Villaseñor about his background and training and he replies, 'I owe my success as an artist to my underprivileged childhood.' He says it proudly. When he was seven years old, his parents fled Mexico for political reasons and left David in the care of a Boys' Town in Hermosillo, Mexico. There he was well cared for and was taught the practical arts of living. He learned to bake bread, to tan leather, to make moccasins, to build furniture, to turn ceramic pots and to whittle wooden figures. He became quite self-sufficient and was able to face the world when he had the choice, which--at age sixteen--was either to join the Mexican army or go out on his own. He chose to find his own way, and headed for Arizona.

"He spent a year in Tucson as a helper to a Catalonian artist, Luis Urgelles. He was paid in room and board and free time in which to visit the Indian settlements and to observe the Navajo sand-painting ritual which made so deep an impression. This was the one thing he wanted to learn to do, but the need to earn his keep forced him into odd jobs: He taught juvenile delinquents whittling, thus helping them to use a knife constructively. He also served time in the U.S. Army as a medical artist. Finally, he was free enough to perfect the technique of sand painting. The mechanics of his work are disarmingly simple. He selects a piece of plywood of a desired size, brushes it with a mixture of glue and water and coats it with sand. He repeats the process until he has the desired surface. He then 'paints' his design, painstakingly applying glue and colored sands--one surface on the other, waiting for each layer to dry. He uses the same technique on canvas. The results--beautifully delicate wall hangings--are exhibited in museums throughout the country.

"Now, David Villaseñor lives and works in the foothills of Glendora near Los Angeles. He explores the neighboring woods for rocks that he grinds into sand--vibrant green malachite, deep blue azurite, black mica. Sometimes he travels great distances to find other natural earth samples for his paintings. Yellow sand from Arizona, red sand from Utah, white sand from Pacific beaches, yellow, blue, and brown marble dust from Sonora.

"Indian lore is the basis for his designs--the rainbow's path of beauty, the rhythm of the sun, the moon and the planets, the dramatic signs of fire and water. David has spent years inquiring into Indian beliefs. He has studied the wisdom of the Great Spirit and the three levels of meaning that are part of man: the physical level expressed by fasting and dancing; the mental level--good thought expressed in chants; the spiritual level, which makes the body worthy (for one cannot talk to the spirits with a corrupt body).

"In his friendship with Indians, David has learned much about their ways. Ask an Indian man of wisdom a question and he may sit deep in thought for a long time, or get up and make an expressive gesture, or even dance a bit. He will expect you to pick up your answer from his action, and if your quest for an answer is sincere, even if you don't understand his indirect reply, you'll keep coming back to him until you are satisfied. The Indian believes that the truth has four corners. A wise teacher gives one corner; the student finds the other three. David has found his corners in the joy of work. 'I have to be enjoying what I do,' he says. 'When I feel I'm drudge-working, I quit and do something else.'

"One of his distractions is a dramatic, unfinished wood sculpture that stands, tall as a tree, in his backyard. It is a statue of Chief Sequoyah, who created a Cherokee language and made it possible for red men to communicate with each other. Inspired by the white man's books, which Chief Sequoyah called 'talking leaves,' he invented eighty-two language chants which he taught to his people. David Villaseñor has been whittling away at Sequoyah for five years. It is a labor of love and learning. In the process of his research for the figure he has discovered much about the dress, habits, and history of the Cherokees. Ah-Yo-Ka, Sequoyah's young daughter and disciple, sits at his feet. The chieftain died in Mexico in 1843 while searching for a mother tongue that could be used by all men for universal communication.

"One day, David will finish Sequoyah and will have to find another distraction from 'work.' He may have to turn to the divine source of the Great Spirit for inspiration. But considering David's resourcefulness, he may just find a new project by himself. In the meantime, he continues to sift the sand through facile fingers in the designs that symbolize an ancient spiritual heritage." (Francis Ring, "Symbols in Sand," Westways, Nov. 1972, vol. 64, no. 11, pp. 38-41)

2. "Art lovers and connoisseurs of the Pasadena and Los Angeles area are already familiar with the artistry of David Villasenor, whose reproductions of Amerindian sand paintings have been exhibited in the Los Angeles County Museum, Descanso Gardens Hospitality House, and other galleries. Now...he explains the spiritual culture, wisdom and beauty of the philosophies embodied in the symbolism of the Indian sand paintings. All cultures have their various holy books. The ritualistic sand paintings are like a holy book to the Navajo, and to some extent to the Hopi Indians.

"In Tapestries in Sand the author has included 16 color photographs of his reproductions in natural color sands of authentic sand paintings....He also spent several years striving to find just the right technique for preserving reproductions of sand paintings. He has now perfected a method which enables him to hang these 'tapestries in sand' in various museums and galleries around the nation. This technique is explained in the book. Also his authentic reproductions are acceptable to the American Indians, and several Indian artists have expressed a desire to learn this method of preserving permanently their own sand paintings.

"Many art and craft schools and other groups have adopted this manner of sand painting for teaching the art form. David Villasenor also personally teaches children in summer camps and craft schools. He was a well-known wood sculptor before he took up his sand painting art work. Though Tapestries in Sand is written in prose form, it has a charming, almost poetic beauty in its descriptive information on our Amerindian heritage." (E. B. Johnson, Independent Star-News, December 29, 1963)