Mike Mullins: The Artist Behind the Artists at The Folk Art Market

Santafe.com | SantaFe.com - June 7, 2012

"As the 'director of ambiance,' Mullins is in charge of decorating the preview party and the swags and flags that hang over every booth on Museum Hill"

Guest blog provided courtesy of  Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, June13-15.

For the past six years, Mike Mullins has been the artist behind the artists at the International Folk Art Market. As the “director of ambiance,” the Dallas-based event and film producer is in charge of setting the mood and decorating the preview party and the swags and flags that hang over every booth on Museum Hill. It’s a massive creative undertaking that starts with blue-sky brainstorming sessions and a shopping trip to Mexico City to buy thousands of paper flowers and decorations, and ends with a three-week-long decorating session on Museum Hill. In the calm before the storm, Mike spills the beans on this year’s theme, talks about the perils and pleasures of decorating with paper and dishes on what he’s shopping for at this year’s Market.

Director of ambiance—that sounds like a big job. Where do you start?
First we settle on a theme. [Creative Director] Judy Espinar and I are in rapport heaven. It’s almost comical how alike we think. It’s as if our e-mails cross en route—with the same ideas! We’ve done African themes and East India, where everything was orange and saffron. Last year we went over the top with paper flowers. The largest one was a yard in diameter!

What’s the theme this year?
We’re really going red, redder, and reddest. Rouge, fuchsia, hot pink—every shade you can imagine. We’ve got red flowers, butterflies, red garlands, swags, new red tent pole decorations, red birds, red lanterns, paper flowers from Mexico, but also decorations from Asia. Most everything’s handmade. One of our opening Friday night centerpieces will be a four-sided bar on the Plaza. Keep your eyes open for that.

Where do you find your flowers in Mexico City?
It’s so classically Mexico. We go to an amazing mercado. It’s huge. I don’t remember seeing another American there. It’s spread over several blocks. The people who make the flowers for us are from a talented, three-generation family of paper artists. Their booth is packed with flowers. We show them a picture of what we like, and next thing you know they’re taking crepe paper and cutting and rolling it to create prototypes. Those need to be refined, of course, so we’ll come back the next day or the day after and see what they’ve created. This is real folk art, made by hand by a family and significantly supported by the Folk Art Market. We also use work by Pedro Ortega, who works in his studio in Mexico City. He’s a master paper artist who’s shown at the market and is coming back this year, which is big news.

How many paper flowers and decorations do you bring back?
Our orders are huge, thousands of pieces. We’ll order at least a thousand butterflies alone. Consequently, these are big commercial shipments. We sweat blood because of the customs, not to mention that first they have to be made! It’s nerve-racking! This year, the biggest flower is maybe two feet across, all the way down to tiny thumbnail crepe paper roses. They weave those into teracitas, like Greek olive wreaths that can be tied together and streamed in garlands. Everything is so organic, with nothing locked into place. I depend on our artists to give me something more than I anticipate.

Do you ever get nervous when you open the boxes, like maybe the paper flowers got squished en route?
Not anymore. It’s more like Christmas. There’s no trepidation, just anticipation. It’s like show-and-tell. Everybody wants to see what’s in the boxes! The good news is we often order duplicates for the Ambiance Booth, where marketgoers can buy fantastic party decorations, children’s gifts, stocking stuffers, that kind of thing. It’s all about the visual charm. This year we will sell folded mirrors for ladies’ handbags and really gorgeous paper flowers that you’d want to display in your home. Things from Asia, too.

Hmm, do you get to go to Asia to pick those out, too?
No, but I’m sure I could find a straw artist in Bali to work with for a month!

How long does it take you to set up for the market?
It’s quite a production, involving hardworking, dedicated volunteers unpacking new shipments from the warehouse brought up to Museum Hill, plus all the restored items from the previous years. We generally start three weeks before market with Lucie D. Church coordinating, encouraging and occasionally, well, nudging the volunteers and Sally Spillane staying at least 10 steps ahead of me in materials distribution and organization. In addition to a whole cadre of volunteers, this year we will have a new Art Team, a group of students from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. I’m excited about that.

What’s your favorite things to shop for at the market?
I’m a sucker for that greenware from Mexico. The market has expanded my appreciation of folk art so greatly. It’s as if my favorite object has yet to be discovered. I’ve found Peruvian papier-mâché, gorgeous textiles from Kyrgyzstan. Of course, this year I’ll be looking hard at paper cutouts from Pedro Ortega. His work is usually quite large. I’m glad to hear that he’ll be bringing smaller pieces—maybe I can afford one.

Do you have free time to shop, or are you like a stylist at the Academy Awards, standing on the sidelines with a can of hairspray, waiting to primp?
[Laughs] Usually, once the market is installed, my work is done and I’m free to walk and shop. I do carry tools with me just in case an accordion swag needs fixing. But generally by that point, everybody’s having fun for a few days, enjoying the food, music, and shopping—just enjoying the fiesta!