Valladolid House of the Deer
This private home in an old colonial house in Valladolid is simply astounding. As is its folk art collection from artists all over Mexico.
I came here with my husband in July 2018 and then with friends two more times in the same year. I fell in love with the place. Without doubt, I will return many times. The name of the house in translation means House of the Deer.
The PeopLe: the Art collectors and the artists
The house is owned by an American couple, John and Dorianne Venator. They have renovated the house, which was in ruins when they bought it, and apparently it took over eight years. And what a great job they did. The Venators contracted William Ramírez Pizarro, a Mérida-based architect who had also designed the renovation of Hacienda Xcanatún. A brilliant choice, it seems. The house has won several architectural prizes.
The owners buy and also commission Mexican folk art and contemporary pieces from all over Mexico. They go to villages; they don't buy from galleries. They open their home every day; you can take tours at 10am, 11.30 and 1pm in both English and Spanish.
On their website they say that in the long run, the art collection and the house will go to a private foundation, as a private house museum open to the public, as well as hosting various musical events and other public events. My hat off to their efforts, a fantastic job! What a legacy to build. And they use all the money from the donations by visitors to local hospital charities! Practically the whole house is a hobby (and a lot of work, of course).
When talking about people, we must not forget the artisans themselves. It seems they are from all over Mexico. The rooms are labelled,; for example there is Izamal room, Valladolid room, Maya room. But the origin of the artists vary. For example, in the Maya room you can find pieces by artists from Oaxaca, in alebrije style. Alebrije is a brightly coloured wooden sculpture of a fantastical creature. It could be a lion with an eagle head or a donkey with butterfly wings. Such pieces represent human beings who have the power to transform either spiritually or physically into an animal form. The first artist to come up with this idea was Pedro Linares from Mexico City and now artists from Oaxaca continue this tradition. While Pedro based his alebrijes on some dreams of his, today the artists portray Maya birth signs, nahuals. Each birth sign has certain animal attributes. You can try and find your nahual, the guardian spirit, on t heinternet, and see what personal traits you possess. Then imagine how you would portray them in an alebrije sculpture. A nice challenge, wouldn't you say?
You can also find here art made of chaquiras (small beads), Chiapas art from wool and textiles (lovely cushions, for example), amber jewellery, black clay pottery from Oaxaca, silverware from Guerrero, ceramics from Jalisco, onyx lamps from Puebla, figures from sea shells and precious stones. In the Maya Suite there is also a chiselled pot from Ticul, and pencil drawings by Joel Rios and arbol de vida (tree of life) by Oscar Solteño of Metepec. As a matter of fact, I could have done with a little more description from the guides of each artistic style and its origin. While most of the visitors on the day were holidaymakers and everything was new to them, I like to go into more detail.
Other outstanding pieces include an extensive collection of sculptures of market ladies from Josefina Aguilar, one of three sisters who are the most famous sculptors of non-black pottery from Oaxaca. In the Frida room, there is a table by the Rosenthals from Erongaricuaro in Michoacán. There are Catrina dolls by Juan Torres from Capula (Michoacán) and fantastic tile murals by Daniel Rosel in each private garden of the five suites, while Luis and Jorge Valencia did the impressive mural of a Oaxacan village in the entryway. The list could go on and on.
The FOCUS: The House itself
For me the focus is the house itself. It is simply a masterpiece. It is difficult to describe all the details, so here are just a few selected observations.
I love the central yard with a fountain and covered walkways on the side, as well as the archway on the way from the central courtyard to the pool garden. It just offsets the whole central space. The arch is open by a narrow slit, covered with some plastic, to stop the rain. The plastic is invisible and the clean line of the arch is mesmerizing, so elegant, truly minimalist.
The pool garden is just stunning. The spouts on the wall churn the water down to the pool and, according to Carlos, the owners installed an underground sewage treatment plant, to ensure clear water at all times.
All rooms have high ceilings, a set of stairs to a bedroom upstairs (some are still being remodelled), and each has a private bathroom, with pink and white marble floors throughout. Each room has also a private yard with murals and sculptures and some tropical plants. Furniture was made in and around Valladolid and in Mérida to their specifications, or purchased in Cancún. Phones have been installed throughout the house. There is a projector in the central courtyard to watch TV and movies in the evening. We were not able to see the rooftop, I presume that area is private.
The Mystery: The Card Table
The card table sits in the large sitting room, next to the kitchen. The owners had is specially commissioned. They wanted to create a Mexican allegory, which they based on the painting called Dogs Playing Poker.
This needs some explanation. Dogs Playing Poker refers to a series of paintings by the American artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, 16 paintings in all. They feature anthropomorphised dogs seated around a table and playing cards. They have become an example of kitsch art in home decoration in the United States. Quite a statement, if you ask me.
In the House of the Deer, the card table and the chairs portray Mexican skeletons called Catrin. It is a male version of Catrina, a female figure skeleton usually dressed in a nice dress with a large plumed hat. La Calavera Catrina ('Dapper Skeleton', 'Elegant Skull') is an image originally created at about the same time, in 1910, by José Guadalupe Posada, to make a political and cultural critique. It was a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era. My understanding of it is like this: it does not matter if you dress in fancy Spanish clothes; your fate will be in the hands of the Spanish. And it won't be good (as we know the Spanish conquistadores treated the indigenous people like slaves in their haciendas and many died).
By now Catrina has become an icon of the Mexican Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). The owners wanted to create a local Mexican allegory by commissioning this table.
So the common thread is aspiration? Or pretense? Just guessing. Could you think of a better thread? The table is pretty special, it has pockets that you can pull out and place drinks there.
The card table sits next to a large dining table with chairs that have portraits of famous Mexican people, such as Emiliano Zapata, Maximilian I, Diego Rivera etc. All in all, this large table represents the history of Mexico, from different aspects: revolutionaries, emperors (although very short-lived) and artists all sitting around one joint table. Together they all enriched Mexico, each in a different way.
Don't miss: The Frida Room
This room is dedicated to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Although during her lifetime her husband Diego Rivera was a famous artist, Frida has become famous since then in her own right. A lot of artists make her portraits and you can buy souvenirs with her motifs just about everywhere. She was a feminist in her own right and remains so till today. This room is full of such art, from cushions, to ceramic plates, chairs and tables, all with Frida's portraits. Diego's room is a private residence of the owners. I bet it is exquisite too.
How to get there:
The House of the Deer is situated at street 40. It is painted red and you can see the corner of the building from the main square (see the map below).
You can take a bus from Cancún (2 hours), Playa del Carmen (2 hours), Mérida (just over 2 hours) or Tulum (1 hr 30 min). If going by car, Valladolid is just off the toll highway (180D); the exit is about 3 mi/4.8km north of the centre of town. The old highway (180) runs east-west through the centre of town.
MIX and Match
Mix and Match:
The choices are plenty. The obvious options are the ruins of Ek' Balam or Chichén Itzá, a boat trip at Río Lagartos, or go and see the village of Las Coloradas with the rare pink lagoon. There are also a number of cenotes nearby; my personal recommendation is Zazil Tunich.