The Bold and the Beautiful

Portrait of Alberto Morales by Anna Blackshaw

Seven years ago when Annie was pregnant with Rio, she and I spent three weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. One of the most memorable adventures was visiting the ruins of Monte Alban, once the site of an ancient city that was a hub for the indigenous Zapotec people.

Atop the mountain we met a man named Alberto Morales who was selling handmade clay replicas of indigenous holy figures. Annie, in her indomitable style, became fast friends with this gentleman, and within minutes we had an invitation to visit him the next day in his tiny town at the foot of the mountain.

Alberto lived in Arrazola, a place well-known for its original art: small, intricately carved and painted wooden animals called alibrejes. We had seen these figures throughout Oaxaca and recognized them as well from the living rooms of people we knew back home. We took a taxi to Arrazola and exited on a dusty road at the town center with no one in sight. “Just ask people for me,” Alberto had said, and so we began walking around looking for someone to ask. We were soon approached by curious children, who beckoned us to follow them to their homes to see the art they had for sale. Once there we were greeted by their mother, who gave us a quick tour of the family’s alibreje operation: father and sons fetched wood and carved; mother and daughters painted; the young children solicited customers. Leaving that house, we were immediately approached by another team of children, and we continued our impromptu art tour until we finally met a woman who pointed us to Alberto’s adobe.

There we got a tour of the Morales’ home production line (a little bit of traditional iconography; a little bit of modern art). He then told us his version of the history of the alibrejes: for years the entire town had created handmade replicas of what the indigenous folks had used in their religious rituals back in the day. They all looked about the same (dark clay hand-pressed into figurines), and the men would hike up to Monte Alban and sell their wares to tourists. One morning a local man named Manuel Ramirez was home sick and had a dream of a different kind of art. He began creating elaborate and intricate wooden figures of the area’s animals: iguanas, armadillos, frogs, coyotes, snakes. He painted these bright, vibrant colors and hauled them up the mountain. At the top, he showed his goods to his fellow salesmen from the village and they had a good laugh over his ugly art.

Surprisingly, however, Ramirez began selling his new creations at an unprecedented pace, and before the day was half over he’d sold his backpack’s contents and was heading back down the mountain for lunch. Next day, same fortune.

Seeing the profits Ramirez was making, his neighbors asked him to teach them how to make alibrejes. He did so, encouraging each family to bring their own style and flavor to their creations. Before long, every man was hauling a pack of alibrejes up the mountain, and the town turned from backwater hamlet to a self-sustaining art village.

Flash forward three years. While I am at a final job interview in Chapel Hill, Annie, in her indomitable style, becomes fast friends with Sarah, the bartender at our hotel, and within minutes we have an invitation to visit her the next day in her tiny town on the banks of the Haw River. There we notice huge, colorful wooden animals gracing every front lawn. I think to myself, Those look like huge alibrejes. Sarah explains that the artist’s name is Clyde Jones and that he lives right there in Bynum. Would we like to meet him? We do, and Clyde explains how many years ago he was home sick when he had a vision of chain-sawing a cedar trunk into sections and creating colorful animals. Since then he has made thousands of critters and donated them to charities throughout North Carolina. Clyde says his work is all over the world, “from Russia to Zimbabwe.” People from around the globe regularly come visit Clyde’s zany art palace, and it is not unusual to see smiling child sitting atop saddled blue horses and pink giraffes in his front yard.

I like to believe I receive the messages the universe sends me, but sometimes I need to hear it twice. As I sit here these years later in our living room in Bynum, staring at Clyde’s red-reindeer critter under our oak tree, I think about the boldly colored iguana we bought in Arrazola that sits just a few rooms away on Rio’s bookshelf. Believe in the vision you have inside you, these animals seem to be saying. Bring forth your own mad art and share it as a gift to those around you. Otherwise, the world is a little less bright.


I live in a tiny old mill town of 250 people on a river in North Carolina. My son Rio was born at our former home in Oakland, CA, but has grown up on the other side of the country in a place Tom Sawyer would’ve loved. There are few cars on the street, no fences between yards, and a river to throw rocks into.

Bynum is about half old-timers and half newcomers. The old–timers grew up in Bynum and worked in the now-defunct mill for most of their lives. The newcomers sport progressive bumper stickers on their cars, shop at the local co-op, and mostly work in Chapel Hill or Durham.

Amazingly, the two bodies have more merged than collided. We celebrate holidays together on the old bridge that is now shut down to traffic. We talk on the street and congregate every Friday summer night for an outdoor concert next to the old general store. I once asked my neighbor Ollie (who in his lifetime worked every job in the mill, he says) why the newcomers and old-timers seem to get along together so well.

“I reckon new people who moved here but didn’t fit in moved on out. The ones who fit in stayed,” he replied.

“What does to take to fit in to Bynum?” I asked.

“I’d say that if someone in Bynum asks you how you’re doing, they really want to hear your answer.”

A key part of the community’s connective tissue is undoubtedly Clyde Jones,  a mill worker cum folk artist who years ago reportedly had a vision of carving animals out of trees. He now spends his days chainsawing and hammering pieces of cedar into large wooden creatures, which he paints and calls “critters.” Clyde’s yard is littered with giraffes, aardvarks, and reindeer, and he has ensured that every house in Bynum has a critter for its front lawn, as long as you agree to keep it lit up at night. When he’ s not making art, Clyde is riding around town on his driving lawnmower, making sure everything is as it should be.

I once asked Clyde why he graces every lawn in Bynum with a critter, and he replied, “So ya’ll associate.” I took him to mean that the art gives everyone in town something in common, no matter their background or story.

This is all to say that Bynum has the same small-town values it’s always had, even though many of the faces have changed. What this means for Rio is that I hear about any community infraction he’s committed before he even makes it home.

Not long ago, an adult friend of ours taught Rio how to make a very annoying sound with his voice — “screech” would be putting it nicely. When Rio does it, people react, negatively, but he still screeches because he’s five and small and cherishes invoking strong reactions. Last week, I was at an outdoor concert in Bynum, and a fifth grader I know told me that Rio had been screeching on the bus, and that the bus driver had summarily assigned him to the seat right behind her as punishment.

That night, I asked Rio if he was still making that sound.

“No,” he lied.

“Well then how come Miss Beth made you sit in the front seat of the bus?” I asked him.

His eyes grew wide. He probably thought I was omniscient, but really I just live in a small town.