Louis David Valenzuela is not your average gem show vendor.
His display at the American Indian Exhibition features handcrafted masks, paintings, and statues: a far cry from the smooth, shiny stones and sparkling purple amathysts spread across Tucson at the 41 different locations of the Gem and Mineral Showcase.
Although Valenzuela’s booth is squeezed into a back corner of the exhibition, his artwork seems to draw customers in.
Or it might be the machete he is using to carve out his renowned Pascola masks. Either way, people flock to see the Yaqui woodcarver’s work, asking questions not only about his art, but also about the culture and symbolism behind it.
Valenzuela excitedly answers back. He is dressed for carving, wearing worn jeans, a long sleeved navy shirt and black work boots. His only hint of decoration is a long red, white and blue beaded necklace.
For him events like this are about much more than dressing up and selling a piece of art. They are about education.
“It isn’t about me,” he says. “It is about spreading the culture of my nation. It is about giving back.”
Valenzuela, who grew up in Tucson Barrio Libre, is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe located southwest of Tucson, and his artwork is largely influenced by tribal customs and traditions.
The Pascola masks that Valenzuela carves and carefully decorates are what he is best known for. He is one of the only Yoeme (Yaqui) carvers on this side of the border.
He first carves his masks out of cottonwood, then paints them with symbols from the Yoeme culture and finally finishes them off with accents of horsehair. His masks are largely used for ceremonial dances, but are also sold to collectors. They sell anywhere between $50 and $300 depending on the detail.
“The goat mask is the oldest traditional mask of our tribe, and the first Pascola mask,” he says. “You use the colors black, white and red, and there is lots of symbolism on the masks.”
Throughout the show, held at the Flamingo Quality Inn Hotel, Valenzuela carves a new mask from cottonwood. He leans over the wood and makes quick, sharp slices with his machete. He says that he doesn’t know how long it takes for him to carve the masks. It’s a spiritual experience.
The Arizona State Museum on the UA campus has a collection of Valenzuela’s work. It isn’t currently on display, but according to Diane Ditttemore, the museum’s acting head of collections, they are in the process of setting up an exhibition within the next five years.
Valenzuela’s talent was discovered when he was 10, he says.
“I didn’t know what people were talking about when they said I was gifted,” he says. “For Christmas and birthdays all I got was art supplies as a child, and I didn’t like that. I just wanted regular toys.”
Despite his early start, Valenzuela’s journey has not always been clear or easy. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for years before finally attaining sobriety nine years ago.
Valenzuela says this achievement was the turning point in his life and his career.
“I am happy today,” he says. “I thought I was going to lose my life to drugs and alcohol. But now I am a well-known Yaqui artist, and I would love to have other Yaqui artists follow in my footsteps.”
Attaining sobriety brought about a whole new facet to his life. He now gives motivational speeches on his “roller coaster journey,” as he calls it.
“It’s not fun when you go through addiction,” he says. “You don’t know where to turn and you don’t think people care. And I like to help others by showing them my success story despite my addiction.”
He also runs programs to help promote art for children and Yoeme citizens with his good friend Marcelino Clemente Flores III, a Pascua Yaqui (Yoeme) council member and painter. Together they try and promote both traditional and modern Yoeme art among children.
Valenzuela fears that without promoting and teaching new generations about Yoeme art and culture, it will eventually die out. He is constantly working to spread his knowledge.
Despite his successes, Valenzuela says his greatest achievement is just learning to be happy and finally understanding his own self-worth and value to the Yoeme nation.
“I now understand why I was told I was gifted and important as a child,” he says. “And until today I never really gave myself any credit. I feel good about myself.”