Thursday, July 30, 2009

Collecting and Friendship and Something Called a Mola

A Kuna Indian woman shows an intricate Mola square, incorporated into a dress.

My friend from childhood, Leslie Larson, of Cupertino, California, is spending time this week helping set up an exhibit of Molas at the San Jose (California) Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Molas are intricate cloth squares designed by the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands and these, on which Leslie has been working, were donated by a family friend and will be featured in an exhibit at the museum beginning August 9.

From "Fabric Tattoos: the Spirit of the Mola." The exhibit is curated by Deborah Corsini.

Since we were kids together, Leslie has traveled widely, studying in Mexico when she was in junior high school, in other Latin American countries during her high school years, and teaching in Japan following her graduation from elite Occidental College. It was hard to keep up with the brilliant Leslie, because she was frequently off somewhere on an international adventure. But as friends, we made the time. Marriage to her husband Mike has kept her home more--but she and Mike still take the time to trek the globe whenever possible.

My friend Leslie in her high school photo.

One of Leslie's travels took her to Panama, where she connected with a friend of her mother's: Isabella (Miz) Lively. Ms. Lively is what is known as a "Zonian": an American person who was born and who lived most of her life in the Panama Canal Zone. As a Zonian, Miz Lively developed an interest in the beautiful cloth squares she had seen all her life in the Zone on Kuna Indian peoples and, often, for sale in shops and markets. She began to collect them.

A Mola made into a pillow.

Originally, the Kuna people used the aboriginal designs in tattoos and body paint. But with the arrival of the Europeans, the Mola designs were translated into textiles. Many of Mola patterns Miz Lively collected are from the 1920s. They are made using "a reverse applique technique, where the layers of colored cotton cloth are turned under to reveal the colors in the layers below." (From Leslie's exhibit introduction.)

We all struggle with time, as did the designer of this mola square.

Another friend from high school, Jan Sweeney Fukushima, and I met this week at the textile museum to see what Leslie was up to with the Mola exhibit. Jan, another brainy friend, graduated from Pomona College. She doesn't need to work, but teaches second graders because she loves to help children learn. She and her husband, an attorney, are empty-nesters now that their three straight-A college students are out on their own.

Jan, behind me, with two other high school friends, at one of our reunions. Leslie didn't attend this one.

Our visit together reminded me of two important things I've learned in my life: your character is pretty well formed by the age of eighteen. Thus, the friends you chose--and who chose you--when you are young are just the same kinds of friends you would chose to have a half century later. Jan and Leslie, who have been kind enough to be my friends for so many years, are truly fine people. I'm proud they chose to be my friends so long ago.

Jan at left and Leslie in front of a Mola display at the San Jose Museum of Quilt and Textiles. I took the picture so you'll have to imagine me as part of the threesome.

The second thing the exhibit called to mind is the unique joy of collecting. I had no idea what a Mola was nor what my friend Leslie was talking about when she said this is what she was working on. But I've known for years that if you love something and you want to collect it, that's just what you should do (in my case that might explain the wide range of black-and-white lithographs, exotic estate jewelry, and vintage handbags I own, but that's a subject for another day). If no one else understands what you collect--then so be it. One day, perhaps, they will.

One day you may find a friend to curate your collection. Then, the joy you've had in the things you've collected will be shared by others, who will find your joy to be contagious.

Leslie has written a wonderful book about Panama, called Panama's Caribbean Treasure: The San Lorenzo Protected Area (2002), which includes the history, the ecology, and stunning photos of the region.

San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles

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