A pair of wizened eyes observe in silence. August and unchanging, they take in the wisps of incense and gentle stirrings of people at ease. Candlelight toys with the gold leaf of its irises, as it does with the rest of the ornate statue of Guru Rinpoche.
The statue is one of only 26 of its kind in the world. This one finds its home in Palri Pema Od Ling, a Tibbetan Buddhist temple nestled between duplexes on 45th Street. It celebrates the sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 700s.
The value of the 13-foot-tall figure? Priceless, in the eyes of Palri’s resident lama, or teacher.
“He is my guru,” Lama Lobtsul said without affect, embodying the dharma that has been passed down from the revered master for over twelve hundred years.
The guru instilled in his 8th century students an appreciation for balance, self-knowing and compassion for “all sentient beings.” He is so respected that followers call him Buddha, the “enlightened one.”
And to the Buddhist way of thinking, enlightenment knows no bounds.
As a universal well-wishing, the Austin statue’s 25 counterparts are scattered across the globe, grounded in Spain, Australia, and Bhutan, among other countries. They are part of the Padma Global Project for World Peace, an Indian teacher’s endeavor to scatter concord through the earth via Rinpoche statues.
“Whoever has faith in [Guru Rinpoche] should do their utmost to create and spread images of him,” said Khenpo Namdrol, the founder of the project.
The point is to have a positive impact by helping to bring about universal peace.
The impact is seen in the intimacy of Palri, where the noble statue oversees everyday people pursuing the Buddhist lifestyle. From his lofty vantage point, it might appear that:
The world slows down as worshippers enter the space, barefoot and composed. Smiling, they settle onto cushions laid out in rows.
Sunlight casts rainbows on the stone floor as it shines through glass window ornaments, and candles wink up at tapestries thick with colored thread.
A gong sounds.
Blue eyes flash from behind a swath of purple fabric as Kimberly Patterson, a local acupuncturist, takes a cue from Lama Lobstul and fans incense through the temple.
“Buddhism is like medicine,” she says. “Your life is your practice.”
In a row further back, Sheila Yeo, a Central Austin resident, sings the lilting mantras chosen by Lama. Her tone is dulcet and has a way of sweetening the air around her.
“The goal of all this meditation is to have a changeless mind. Then everything is just a blessing.”
All the while, Lama Lobtsul patters cymbals against each other from his elevated place in front of the worshippers, carrying on the practices he learned in person from the Dalai Lama.
Thought not fluent in English, his Tibetan chants are as rippleless and throaty as the deepest of wind instruments.
“Guru Rinpoche says, ‘Follow me.’ Rich or poor, I follow,” he later said from his small kitchen beneath the shrine room.
Actually, his modest residence is set right beneath the guru’s statue on the upper floor. It seems that the gold figure is a compass for his living, every detail pointed toward the age-old teachings of the Chinese instructor.
And above the kitchen table, there is a secret weight, a heavier burden than just a gold-leafed statue; within the golden body are hidden bone relics, gems, and recovered writings gathered from throughout the centuries. A wealth of tradition, knowledge, and compassion.
So behind the statue’s eyes, a heavy burden is contained, and before his eyes, the burden is lived out:
DZAM LING CHI DANG YUL KHAM DI DAG TU
At this very instant, for all the people and nations of Earth,
NED MUG TSHON SOK DUG NGAL MING MI DRAG
Let not even the words “disease,” ‘famine,” “war” and “suffering” be heard,
CHÖ DAN SO NAM PAL JOR GONG DU PHEL
But may virtue, merit, wealth and plenty increase
TAG TU TASHI DE LEG PHUN TSHOG SHOG
And auspiciousness and well-being ever abound.
56-year-old Austin taxidermy business is a time capsule on South Lamar
AUSTIN – A Hooter’s sticker, saws, assorted child-sized shoes, some knives, action figures, super glue, a princess cup… Along with an array of in progress animal pelts and height marks of all their children on the door, the workroom of Martinez Brothers Taxidermy clearly belongs to a family. Step inside, and the lack of technology and fingerprint of all things handmade is a blast from the past.
The family’s patriarch, Alejandro Martinez Senior, has been doing taxidermy work for 56 years. Being that the man himself has been around for 71 years, that makes him just 15 when he started. After doing a two-year hitch in the Marine Corps, he came back to taxidermy and never left.
Stints in the armed forces are a common theme for many men of his age, but taxidermy? Though it may not be one’s first assumption about a taxidermist, Martinez said that typically those who do this work were first hunters and anglers.
“I’m a Native Indian so our heritage goes back thousands of years. A lot of the things we do just come naturally. I loved to hunt and fish as a kid so I was very interested in taxidermy,” said Martinez. “This is the kind of job that doesn’t feel like work because I enjoy it. I’m lucky to get paid for it.”
He certainly does get paid for it, having done work for Lyndon B. Johnson, the Kennedys, McNamara and assorted other politicians. He additionally makes mounts for museums such as the Smithsonian. Though he has made quite literally large contributions, namely one rare Antiquus bison, Martinez said he often is in the dark as to where his works end up, finding out when others recognize it.
To be displayed in a museum is just one reminder that taxidermy is seen as an art form. In fact, the word “stuff” that many people use to describe taxidermy is a derogatory term in the industry given that it likens the technique to stuffing teddy bears or dolls. The proper term is “mount” according to Martinez, and in reality the mounts’ insides are mannequins sculpted with potter’s clay.
Though Martinez learned the ins and outs of terminology at a young age, it takes quite some time to develop the degree of skill he has. He learned much of his technique during the time in which he apprenticed with one of the top taxidermists of the time, W.D. Pascal. He apprenticed until he was 21, learning the craft from the building right down the street from his current shop, which he bought from Pascal after 18 years of working together.
Even though Pascal taught Martinez the same way he learned, and Martinez has done the same, change in the industry is inevitable. It seems even though art changes over the years, that taxidermy would not, considering the fact that these animals look the same over many generations. Unavoidably, even such an old vocation cannot be shielded from the effects of time.
“It’s just like the pony express, it’s kind of a dying art, a dying field,” Martinez said. “At one time in Texas, I could tell you who the taxidermists were. Not anymore. There are hundreds in the state of Texas.”
Furthermore, those potter’s clay mannequins inside Martinez’ mounts are few and far between these days in other taxidermists’ work, Martinez estimating that maybe only one in a hundred actually sculpt their mannequins anymore. Nowadays there are taxidermy supply companies and one could even learn on YouTube or from a DVD.
“Things are done in a hurry now. To find a shop like us is hard,” said Martinez. “In the olden days if you used somebody else’s mannequin that was his work, his sculpt, his job. You were stealing his skills. Today, many mounts all basically look the same.”
This doesn’t mean that Martinez has stopped passing on his method of sculpting. He has taken many apprentices over the years, stating that anyone who learns from him can get a job anywhere. Unfortunately, his apprentices often find the job so difficult that they quit. Martinez touches back on the art aspect, noting that not everybody can paint or draw or sculpt.
One such person who can is his son. Alejandro Martinez II is 33 years old and is the day-to-day operator, manager and owner of Martinez Brothers Taxidermy. Though there are three other siblings that frequent the shop and do their own work from time to time, he followed the closest in his father’s footsteps. He too was 15 years old when he decided to become a taxidermist. And just like his father, he believes in the old method of sculpting a mannequin yourself.
“I think the taxidermist loses their style and technique in that mount when they use polyurethane prefab mannequins versus building one themselves by hand and making the mold,” said Martinez II.
“You don’t have to have as much talent these days,” he added, saying that the industry used to be so secretive that no one could go back into the workshops to see how the taxidermist made his mounts. Though he has such strong beliefs, Martinez II has a more fluid view on the change.
“I can say that I’ve seen the change. I’m part of the change. I’ve had to adapt and change some of the traditional techniques that we used to do on a day to day basis that I was taught, that my father was taught, that a master taxidermist taught him,” said Martinez. “I think with life and any kind of business there’s always change and you have to learn to change with the way of life.”
Taxidermy is a large part of the Martinez family’s way of life, and there is a lot of pride in what they do. The family does not view what they do with morbidity, but as a way to make these animals look as alive as possible and preserve their liveliness forever. Martinez Senior said “the challenge of being able to take something Mother Earth did, something that comes from nature, and to be able to replicate it and make it look as alive as possible… that’s my pride.”
The pride he has was undoubtedly handed down to his son. Martinez II described their occupation as something with charm and beauty, that he can go into the next room and admire a deer mount that he has memories of from when he was six years old, sweeping up after his father. He said that the traditional way he was taught compared to something mass produced is the main reason why their mounts are so special. “They are all different, truly unique and one of a kind.”
The Martinez father/son duo evolves in their own way as the industry itself does. Martinez Senior admitted that it took him longer and longer to craft mounts because the better he got, the more particular he became. Martinez II said “your heart, your soul, your sweat, your blood goes into manufacturing these mounts traditionally.”
The family’s heart and soul is scattered throughout their shop. Though there is clutter, not a thing is out of place, neglected or unused. Change is inescapable, but the Martinez family holds onto the one thing that will never become irrelevant—family ties.
When you walk into the Arabic Bazaar on Duval Street, you are greeted by golden glimmers of light dancing off elaborate mirrors and mosaics. Sunbeams spill into the small space and flicker off the handcrafted jewelry resting on glass shelves. It’s as if you’ve traveled 7,000 miles to “the soup,” or flea market, to store owner Zein Al-Jundi’s hometown of Damascus, Syria.
Al-Jundi, a Syrian architect gone radio show host gone belly dancing teacher gone music producer gone internationally renowned singer, is just as eclectic as the shop itself.
“The goal of the store, the goal of the classes, the goal of the shows has always been about bringing to the Austin community a part of a culture that’s really been very underrepresented,” says Al-Jundi. “I take great pride in really being able to take credit for a lot of that happening in Austin.”
Al-Jundi put on the first Arabic music show at a regular nightclub and bar in Austin, formerly La Zona Rosa. She was also the first Arabic artist to perform at a state-owned property in the city. She brought belly dancing to venues as big as the Long Center and as prestigious as Paramount Theater.
These achievements, however, were born out of tragic circumstances.
Al-Jundi’s original dream of becoming an architect came to a screeching halt after a car accident rendered her incapable of using her hands to do her meticulous sketch work in 1988. She was finishing her masters in Urban Studies at the University of Texas at Austin at the time.
“Being in a lot of pain and seeing life kind of changing, you’re unable to do the things you planned on doing.” Al-Jundi said. “I was kind of digging deeper and deeper into depression, and to keep myself busy to defocus from the treatment and the injury and all of that, I started doing a program on KOOP Radio.”
The architect turned radio host dug into her singing and dancing roots as a child and teenager and began hosting a world music show. She began to plant the seeds of Arabic culture into Austin’s mainstream music and art scene.
Her new radio job pushed her to hop from local world music shows, ranging from African to Latin genres, where she interviewed each performer, eventually rekindling the passion for music performance she once had in her youth.
“After the car accident, I started dabbling with the idea of singing again,” Al-Jundi says. “I realized I’m happiest when that part of me exists.”
Inspired by the music she surrounded herself with, Al-Jundi went on to release two Arabic music albums and was the sole producer of her second one.
Although the musician has since put that part of her life on pause due to its demanding schedule, Al-Jundi has shifted her focus to the Arabic Bazaar and her dance studio.
Customers, like Kelly Samuels, credit the shop with fighting stereotypes.
“The name ‘bazaar’ always conjures in my mind a little of the bargain bazaar of my youth with purse knockoffs and cheap silver,” first-time bazaar customer Kelly Samuels said. “Now it will evoke in a brightly colored shop, jingling bangles, elaborate lighting, bejeweled costumes – essentially a shop full of the mystery and beauty of the Arab world.”
Al-Jundi’s shop of Arabic “treasures,” as she calls them, opened in 1999 and later added a belly-dancing studio space where she teaches classes three times a week.
“She understands the music so intimately,” said two-year belly dancing student Geraldine Mongold. “I’ve never had another instructor do this. She’s instructing you to understand the music and really hear the music in a way I’ve never really had a teacher emphasize.”
Al-Jundi never intended on becoming a belly-dancing teacher. Almost 20 years ago, she was teaching a World Music Dance fitness class when a young Egyptian woman’s persistent requests to be taught how to belly dance finally convinced her to give it a shot.
Since then, the belly-dancing scene in Austin has grown considerably, shrinking her class size. She says there were three or four belly dancing teachers in Austin when she began teaching and now there are as many as 30 instructors in the city, including some of her former students.
Al-Jundi’s diverse body of work demonstrates her continued persistence to expose Austin to Arabic culture.
“I continue to bring on continuous spaces for Arab culture, or part of it, to anyone who is willing to receive,” Al-Jundi says. “I’m still in business because I’m very stubborn about wanting to do that.”
One cartoon shows a skeletal likeness of Mickey Mouse tramping through a city Godzilla-style. Another shows a black mother embracing her child, fretting over what could happen during his walk to the grocery store.
Though cartoons, they are weighty in meaning.
Lalo Alcaraz, the name behind the pen, is a 21st century king of ethnic cartoons. Hailing from Los Angeles, he continues the tradition of mid-1900s artists like Gus Arriola, whose sepia comic strips served as an outcry of the Chicano community.
Influenced by Arriola’s work, Lalo, too, has risen up to represent. He has laid hold of the baton and continues the fight for the comedic Chicano voice.
“[Alcaraz] has always embraced the word pocho,” Ruth Samuelson wrote in a Columbia Journalism Review article, referencing the term for an American-reared Mexican.
As such, Lalo has a foot in both worlds.
The first nationally-syndicated pocho cartoonist with his strip, “La Cucaracha,” and a FOX network show on the way, his sphere of influence is vast – starting with an objective approach.
Clearing the Throat
“A good comic strip has a lot of characters, so you can spread personality traits among them,” Lalo said during a Q&A in Austin, Texas.
And he indeed has a sundry array. Part of his method is to have a multifarious lineup of personas to carry the weight of his message – like the roach, taco vendor, and slew of timeworn señors out of “La Cucaracha.”
“I like to think that my work pulls people in and makes them think about the issues of the day,” he said. “Stuff we’re not discussing, but should be.”
Lalo also spreads his characters across a varied cluster of mediums and forms. He is encyclopedic in his approach: print, online content, satire, political cartoons, and even network television, with “Bordertown” premiering in January.
In the current event realm, he takes trendy news and gives it his own touch, making a meme or a quick scribble out of political flare-ups.
For example, Lalo’s portrayal of the Charlie Hebdo attack bulleted across the web – an attacker pursued by the angry ink pens of united cartoonists.
“If I see something super viral, I’ll jump on it,” he said. “That’s what cartoonists do; we follow.”
Bobbie Moore, retired professor and illustrator at The Village Voice in New York, defined what an effective cartoonist looks like:
“As a successful illustrator, bring your point of view as strongly as possible – with humor – to whoever wants to see it.”
Through his myriad of channels, Lalo does just that, putting an imaginative twist on hard news.
The Build Up
Though Lalo’s speech bubbles are rife with political content, his artistic style also conveys a message.
“My philosophy for comics is that if you can explain it visually, that’s your best goal. I put thought into how my characters look and why they look that way.”
Bobbie gave modern ‘toonists a good poke in the eyeball, commenting that she often sees dissonance between comic-speech and the drawings they’re paired with.
“A lot of times, the style doesn’t fit the message. Meaning has been torn away from the visual content,” she said.
But Lalo’s illustrations are bug-eyed and colorful with simple aesthetics. And the backgrounds of his strips are busy with houses and street scenes. These two elements make sense for heavy implications imparted by jokey characters.
As a contrast, Charles Schulz of “Peanuts” is minimalistic, with fewer characters in each frame, and a mostly empty background.
Bill Watterson of “Calvin and Hobbes” is wordy and philosophical, with planets and dinosaurs jutting in at strange angles.
In his essay, “The Theory of Comics and Sequential Art,” Will Eisner made a pithy statement: “Comics communicate in a ‘language’ that relies on a visual experience common to both creator and audience.”
Lalo works out the linkage between words and pictures, and also between himself and readers.
The joining ligament? An engaging social and political context.
The Punch Line
Flashback to the 40s, Arriola was cartooning when the flood of Mexican immigrants came to labor in American wartime industries. According to the Library of Congress, the country was developing its attitude and policies towards Chicanos during that era.
In light of recent events, it would appear that in some ways, the U.S. is still determining its reaction.
Nicholas Gonzalez, the voice actor for Ernesto, one of the main “Borderland” characters, articulated the situation that Chicanos are navigating in the 21st century:
“It’s something I deal with constantly: racism. Assumptions about me.”
So in both his network cartoon and newspaper strips, Alcaraz is cartooning his way through El Chapo, illegal immigration, and quips from Donald Trump. Like his predecessor, he is scribbling his way through a social context.
“I think art should be about important things,” he said.
It’s like the takeaway from Ernst Fischer, Austrian journalist: “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay.”
But even decay-laden art can affect others in a positive light.
The Ensuing Laughter
Lalo is emphatic when he states his purpose: to draw attention to the Chicano situation, but in a way that eases the audience.
“I hope that people would loosen up about ethnic humor,” he said. “That they’d engage in racial humor not just for the sake of it, but to have a point. So that it’s worth something.”
Gonzalez hopes that the audience would be exposed.
“When you laugh at something, it shows who you are. That’s why people bristle.”
Bobbie, devoted college professor for 20 years, is pro-illustrative education.
“I know there are gaps in everybody’s context or thought. We need to bring some new perspective.”
For all these reasons, Lalo’s work fits in with the rich lineage of political cartoonists and social artists coming before him. Having snatched the baton from Gus Arriola, he is rounding the bend, running the race for freedom of speech, social awareness, and a hearty guffaw.