I've walked past the tall white adobe home a thousand times. When I'm walking to Ralph's grocery store, or the pharmacy, or the Goodwill store on the corner of Bath and Carrillo streets, I've wondered at the history of the place. I've admired the authenticity of the Early California style - the white, white adobe home and the surrounding wall with the rustic wooden gate that hung crookedly on its hinges; the crushed granite yard bisected by a brick walkway, ending in a deeply shaded, narrow portal, porch, along the front of the home; the tall, weathered, very old cactus planted in the yard.
In the past few years, I've noticed some changes: the gate hangs properly now; the casa seems to have been freshly painted; there is a bright Mexican flag displayed on the wall; and sometimes, there is a sign out front that reads, "Casa Dolores - Center for the Study of the Popular Arts of Mexico."
While I have been intrigued, it seems the time has never been right to investigate further. Until this past Saturday.
I entered the courtyard and approached the front door. I was greeted by Gabriel Ramirez-Ortiz, who is the Exhibits and Events Coordinator. He invited me in to the casa. Transitioning from courtyard of bright, sun-washed adobe to the cool interior, I was captivated by the immaculate central room whose white walls are covered with vibrant masks in electric colors: angels, devils, wise men, animals, saintly ladies and comedic ghosts. Some of the masks are carved, painted, some are covered with a pave of bright, tiny beads. All are the stuff of dreams - or nightmares - or, as Gabriel told me - depictions of religious or moral themes.
I learned that the house itself is a historic treasure: built in 1843, it is the only remaining two-story adobe home in Santa Barbara. From 1843 until 1969, this was the Botillier family home. It was purchased a couple of years ago by Linda Cathcart, an art historian with an incredible curriculum vitae, who recently retired and moved to Santa Barbara.
Ms. Cathcart saw the Botillier home when it was up for sale in 2008, and envisioned it as museum with rotating exhibits, an educational and research center, a repository for a wide variety of popular arts from Mexico.
Today, visitors are welcomed up the brick walkway, and are invited to be dazzled and inspired by the variety and quality of the artistic creations displayed within the thick adobe walls.
Ms. Cathcart has also created "La Tiendita", a little Mexican store full of representations of arts and crafts offered throughout Mexico. There are statues, carvings, ceramics, and fabric arts. You'll see tiny skeletons of papier mache - they are festive representations of the dearly departed who are remembered during Dia de los Muertos. There are Mexican shirts, blouses, and skirts, all are colorful, and some are embroidered, and glittering with sequins.
There are hand-painted pottery dishes, stringed puppets, and traditional pinatas (burros and stars) in sweet confectionery colors. There are more modern pinatas (skateboards) on display, and puppets (Pink Panther). Gabriel explained that these various crafts that were once only available in Mexico have been embraced by the world at large - and reflect the various interests of different cultures.
There are exhibits throughout the house, including the kitchen and on the second floor. Visitors climb up the narrow wooden stairs, as the Botillier family did for over 100 years, to rooms that display more treasures on heavily carved tables that rest on dark old wooden floors.
You'll see a collection of alebrijes, phantasmagorical animals and imaginary creatures carved and painted in other-worldly colors and designs. There is silver jewelry from Taxco, and pottery from Talaveras. There are traditional costumes, glassware, and more. The ambiance of the museum is warm and welcoming, and my guide, Gabriel - estaba muy amable.
Admission to the museum is free, and all visitors are offered an individual and guided tour of the home and collections.
But the museum is not just a place for passive viewing of traditional arts. The Center for the Study of the Popular Arts of Mexico offers visitors the opportunity to become engaged in the creative process.
Cooking classes explore the culinary traditions of Mexico and Spain. Recently, participants learned to make Mole Negro, a traditional dish from the state of Oaxaca. On June 25, aspiring chefs will learn to make four varieties of "Salsas de Mexico". And in July, just in time for Santa Barbara's annual Old Spanish Days celebration, Chef Monica will prepare a traditional Spanish paella - with ingredients like ajo, chicharos, azafran, camarones - it will be an unforgettable, joyous evening of fellowship, food, and fun.
(I borrowed the photo from the Casa Dolores website.)
And this summer, special workshops are planned for children from ages 3 - 12. Classes will explore a variety of traditional Mexican arts and crafts: jewelry, paper flowers, painting, and traditional folklorico dancing. Classes will be bilingual, to help children learn and practice Spanish.
Whether you live in Santa Barbara, or are just visiting - you are cordially invited to partake of the Casa Dolores experience.
Check their website, and see if there is a class you might enjoy. Classes are offered as fundraisers, to enhance and maintain the collection and museum, and to expand into the future to include research and study opportunities. Or, become a member of this non-profit museum, or a benefactor - help to insure that this very special museum with over 6,000 items on display will remain a cultural and artistic resource for the community. It is the only one of its kind between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Casa Dolores is located at 1023 Bath Street in Santa Barbara. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 1:00pm - 4:00pm. Admission is free.