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The passion of one woman

SANTA FE, N.M. — Judy Espinar put magic into the Folk Art Market

Judy Espinar remembers sitting on the front porch of her parents’ home, weaving baskets at the age of five. The craft would prove good preparation and a kind of prophetic meme for her life’s passion as a founder of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

That enthusiasm coalesced when Espinar flew to Mexico City as a Cornell University graduate student to visit her sister. A bustling city folk art market was the first stop on their itinerary.

Espinar glimpsed what was then known as “tourist pottery” —— red ceramic jars emblazoned with decorations and the word “Mexico.”

“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I was never around things that were hand-made. I had never heard the words ‘folk’ and ‘art’ together.”

She would cradle that bowl throughout her two-week stay.

As Espinar talks, her excitement is contagious, as if she is sharing a precious secret with an unknowing audience. Her hands flutter, then open as her voice rises and falls, fueled by her mind’s images of the artwork she loves.

After a 30-year career in fashion, Espinar turned back to her first love. Her colleagues say she put the magic into the Santa Fe International Folk Market.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Folk Art Market originated as “Focus Folk Art” inside Espinar’s old Lincoln Avenue store the Clay Angel. She ran the business for 16 years, educating her customers about design origins dating back centuries.

“The whole idea was I wanted people to share with me how exciting it was to use handmade things in a contemporary world,” she said. “And to understand it’s not a plate, it’s a piece of history.

“People started to look at pottery the way I did,” she continued. “These are the voices of the people who made them.”

‘Market’ a must

When Espinar mentioned her dream to then-Museum of New Mexico Foundation president Tom Aageson, he suggested she lead a “folk art walk” around the city’s shops. “I just looked at him and said, ‘It has to be a market’.”

And so it was.

At its debut, the 2004 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market brought 61 artists from 36 countries to Museum Hill’s Milner Plaza. Espinar and the market’s other organizers were unprepared for the deluge of buyers who showed up.

“We looked out from the top of the stairs,” she said. “As far as the eye could see, there were people.”

Market volunteers were so overwhelmed by the flood that it became impossible for them to distinguish between the early bird tickets and regular admission, let alone count the customers.

“I had a booth,” Espinar said. “I was sold out in 45 minutes. People wanted the quintessential pieces.”

She recruited business consultant Joni Parman to “handle the money,” Parman said with a laugh.

“She’s the kind of person you can never say no to,” Parman said. “She’s the entrepreneur and the visionary in this.”

At the market’s debut, Parman’s job was to collect the $3 admission tickets. Market-goers bombarded her with everything except singles.

“You have to have a ton of change,” she said. “I remember stuffing my T-shirt with the (bank) bags and running over to the Indian Arts & Culture Museum and I would just dump it there and say, ‘Give me all your ones.’ I even went to grocery stores and begged, ‘Give me your ones,'” she continued, laughing. “Nobody expected what happened. But it was wonderful.”

“When (Judy) describes the market, she makes it come alive,” Parman continued. “I don’t think anybody else is capable of that. The passion, the energy she put into it made it something that would continue.”

Parman said she has seen similar personalities in the entrepreneurs she consults.

“It’s a particular personality that never gives up,” she said. “She really doesn’t know how to slow down. There are all kinds of roadblocks, but they never believe they’ll stay there. And they surround themselves with people who can break down those roadblocks.”

Like 1,500 volunteers.

The collaboration between the volunteers, the artists and public officials could only happen in Santa Fe, board member Keith Recker said.

“Because of Indian Market and Spanish Market, people understood very quickly why this should happen,” he said. “I’ve been active in this crafts sector for over 20 years and there is nothing else like it.”

The founder and editor of Hand/Eye magazine, Recker has known Espinar since they both served on the board of Aide to Artisans, an international development nonprofit.

‘Fearless’

“I think she’s been fearless,” he said.”There’s a core group of people who want to engage with artisans. To have artisans go home with a year’s worth of income is amazing.”

Markets have always been key to Espinar’s magic kingdom.

This grand open-air market now lures hundreds of traditional artists who show and sell their work across a two-day weekend. Slated for July 12, this anniversary year will draw 190 artists from about 60 countries bringing basketry, beadwork, carving, ceramics, drums, glass, jewelry, metalwork, mixed-media, paintings, sculpture and textiles to Santa Fe’s Museum Hill in a mass-produced world. In the past nine years, 650 artists from 80 countries have taken part in what has become the largest market of its kind in the world, generating $16 million in sales, 90 per cent of which has gone home to help their families and communities.

It all started with the passion of one woman.

“For me, craft became my window at looking at the world,” Espinar said. “It was like kids saying, ‘Let’s do a circus.’ It had that kind of feeling about it and we were having fun.”

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