In which there's a new NaNoWriMo chapter: meet the pinata guy

November 4th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever
Meet the Piñata Guy
By Annabeth Spencer

“I made my very first papier-mâché creation when I was six years old,” Jimmy Jack Johnson explains. “It was a school thing. There were two kids from Mexico in the kindergarten class that year—not migrants, but kids who actually lived in Skookum all year ‘round."

The experience of having two Mexican immigrants enrolled at Skookum Elementary was new. Prior to that time, Skookum had educated the children of local farmers, loggers, and other blue-collar families of northern-European descent, mostly 3rd and 4th generation Swedes and Norwegians, plus a few Gaelic or Germanic mongrels who had wandered away from their families and their homelands in search of a better life as far away from the Old Country as they could manage with just one ticket across the Atlantic Ocean.

Juan and Miguel were different from their classmates, not only because of the color of their skin and the language that they spoke at home, and not even because Juan was in a wheelchair, but most especially because their mother was an artist. Guadalupe Maria Theresa Garcia Hernandez was well-known in Mexico for the brilliantly-colored murals that she painted on the walls of towns and villages, depicting local life and flora and fauna. The closest Skookum had ever had to an artistic citizen before Guadalupe Hernandez moved to town was Chaza Cheveux, owner of the hair salon downtown.

Mrs Baumgartner, the Hernandez boys’ kindergarten teacher at Skookum Elementary, decided that it was time for the little school by the river to get some diversity. The kindergarten class led the rest of the school in an exploratory journey of the Mexican culture. The entire school learned a new Spanish word each day, taught by Juan and Miguel. One day each month, a different class would be visited by a member of the Hernandez family and taught to make a simple, traditional Mexican dish, like tacos or burritos.

In December that year, the second and third-grade classes learned to make piñatas.

Jimmy Jack remembers the day: “I made a gigantic pig piñata, and I painted it blue and orange. I chose blue and orange because those were the two colors of tempura paint in our classroom that didn’t crack and fall apart right away when they dried. I was only six years old, but I was already becoming picky about the quality of my art supplies. My dad probably would have called that a sign of things to come, if he’d known about it. He told my mother that I painted the pig blue and orange so that it would be noticed. He was always on my case about being a show-off, like that was the worst thing he could imagine anybody trying to be; like being different from everybody else was worse than being a thief or a murderer or somebody who cheats on their taxes. I wasn’t more of a show-off than a lot of the other kids. But I wanted my pig piñata to look nice. When Mrs Hernandez told me that the antlers and the two extra legs on my pig piñata gave it extra style, I was proud. I wanted to be an artist, just like her. But my dad said it was a crazy thing I had made, some kind of weird mutant thing, and it’s a good thing that it was meant to be hit with sticks. I don’t think he meant to hurt my feelings. He wanted me to have practical skills, like him. And I do. I can split wood and change an oil filter and wire a house. But I knew early-on that I didn’t want to spend my whole life doing stuff like that.

“In high school I got pretty good grades because I wanted to get into art school. I knew my family didn’t have money to pay for tuition at an art school, so I really hustled to get accepted to a good school that had lots of scholarships and financial aid available. My first week in art school, I thought, “I’ve spent my whole life waiting for this.” I learned a lot about art while I was there, different techniques and stuff that I’d never heard of, back in Skookum. I loved my sculpting classes and oil paintings, and even photography.

“My big break came my senior year when I was home for Christmas break. I met up with the Hernandez family at the Food4Less, and Mrs Hernandez asked me about school. We ended up talking for a long time, there in the produce aisle, and finally she told me about a friend of hers in Seattle who had a booth at the Pike Place Market downtown, selling handmade piñatas to the tourists. She said the guy was doing pretty well, and he was looking to take on an apprentice…she got really excited, talking to me, because Peter Ramirez, that was her friend, was discouraged by the artists who said they wanted to work with him, but really they wanted to have a cushy job at the Market. She called Ramirez and told him that I was a good artist and a good worker. I started working there right after Christmas, and I’m still there, all these years later!”

Peter Ramirez taught Jimmy Jack the ropes of both making the colorful piñatas and selling them at the Market. “At first, he wouldn’t let me talk to the people, because my Spanish was so bad. He thought that nobody would want to buy piñatas from a gringo. I guess he was somehow thinking that if I learned to speak Spanish properly, people wouldn’t notice that I have blonde hair!”

Jimmy Jack eventually built his own clientele of piñata-buyers. “The Mexican people, they still wanted to buy the stuff that Ramirez makes, the traditional stuff. But a lot of the tourists coming to visit Seattle, they didn’t want traditional Mexican crafts. They wanted something edgy, something different. I remembered that six-legged pig piñata, back in second grade, and one day I thought, “why not try it?” I spent an entire weekend making crazy animals: pink and orange porcupines, yellow dogs with wings. Crazy, silly stuff that looked like it came out of, I dunno, like Yellow Submarine in Wonderland. I even did a self-portrait piñata of myself: a big pencil with a beard and wireframed glasses, wearing yellow coveralls and Birkenstocks. I sold out of all those crazy piñatas on the first day—but Ramirez wouldn’t let me sell the pencil. He told me to save it, and use it as my trademark—so now, I paint a little bearded pencil on the bottom of each of my piñatas, so people will not only remember my art, they’ll remember me.”

How does one make a living from piñatas?

Jimmy Jack is now a partner with his former mentor Peter Ramirez. They each work at the market 3 days per week, and spend the remainder of their time creating new piñatas to sell. Each piece needs about two weeks from start-to-finish, to make sure that the layers of papier-mâché are sufficiently dry to accept the tissue-paper, paint, foil, glass, and shiny plastic decorations that cover them completely.

“Dryness is a big issue for this type of art,” Jimmy Jack says, “especially in the wet, winter months.”

His shop at the back side of his father’s car repair business (now run by Jimmy Jack’s younger brother James Jay) is a large, bright cavern with huge windows for natural light to supplement the long florescent shop-lights suspended from the ceiling. The outside of the building is a landmark in town, because on the day the two brothers closed the purchase of the shop from their father, Guadalupe Maria Theresa Garcia Hernandez herself showed up with the entire family, a truck full of paints and brushes and food, and a boombox with a stack of Mexican party music. In a single day, the Hernandez family artists transformed the Johnson Repair Shop by covering it with a colorful, custom-drawn mural depicting the two young men who now owned the building. The car-repair side of the building is decorated with bright-hued cars, trucks, and busses filled with candy and balloons. A life-sized portrait of a grinning James Jay with extends his hand over around to the artist's studio side of the building, to shake with a life-sized grinning portrait of Jimmy Jack, dressed in his trademark yellow coveralls and Birkenstocks, who extends a hand and a paintbrush back to his brother. Behind the painted Jimmy Jack can be seen a wild menagerie of fanciful, many-legged giraffes, monkeys, birds, and insects, painted in the uniquely flowing style made famous by Guadalupe Hernandez.

Inside, the shop is filled with papier-mâché creations in all stages of development. Pallets of newspapers are stacked neatly by the floor-to-ceiling roll-up door. Bookshelves scavenged from garage sales are filled with buckets of paints, jars of beads, rolls of ribbons and crepe papers, and bottles of glitter in a rainbow of colors. Five-gallon buckets of glue are stacked neatly beside an oversized stainless steel double sink.

Four large banquet tables are covered with newspaper-coated balloon heads, legs, tails, and wings, set out to dry under slowly rotating ceiling fans. Partially-built piñatas dance, twirl and jig, suspended by fishing line from racks built especially to allow the artist to assemble his creations in three dimensions. Nearly-finished piñatas hang from the ceiling near the large street-level window, peering out with swirling, googly eyes to the people walking by on other business as the art awaits a last coat of shellac and dusting of glitter.

The odor pervading the shop is a heady scent, a delightful combination reminiscent of spicy tea and elementary-school art projects.

On a large drawing table by the window overlooking the river, sketches for new designs are surrounded by notes and doodles. Random words are stuck to the drawings with post-it notes, words like “BLUE” “ANTENNAE” and “SEQUINS.” Circles and swooping arrows connect drawings to other drawings, connecting cat eyes to dragon heads and lion bodies to bat wings.

The cinderblock wall separating the papier-mâché shop from the adjacent garage is adorned with photographs of customers and their fanciful purchases. A little boy brandishes a pirate piñata nearly as tall as himself. Two short-haired women perch fanciful hat-shaped piñatas on their heads. An elderly couple cradles a grinning, winged kitten. All of the people in the photographs are smiling.

It’s impossible not to smile back at them.

The workshop for Original Piñatas is located in the old Johnson Repair workshop at the Corner of Salmon Avenue and Blackberry Street. The shop is open to the public on Thursdays and Saturdays, and by special appointment. Tours and school groups are encouraged to visit. Groups of children or adults may also reserve a “Creative Friday” workshop day at Original Piñatas. “Creative Fridays” are an outstanding, fun and rewarding activity for birthday parties, visiting relatives, neighborhood groups, and other fun occasions. These events can be catered by special arrangement with the Red Robin Café. For more information, call Jimmy Jack’s Original Piñatas during normal business hours. Jimmy Jack’s artwork is very messy, so he is sometimes unable to answer the phone immediately; please leave a message and he will return calls when his hands are clean again.

Comments

  1. I am loving your town of Skookum, and all its colorful characters!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I just waiting to see what brings all these fanciful fanatics together...

    ReplyDelete
  3. I want to go to Jimmy Jacks and buy a pinata! He's the best pinata maker, ever. After being featured here, his orders are going to skyrocket.
    :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. "a large, bright cavern" - I really love that turn of phrase. :)

    ReplyDelete

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