La Sirena: An Evolving Assemblage Of The East Village
Entering La Sirena, a small shop in the East Village of New York specializing in Mexican Folk Art, is less like a store and more like an otherworldly treasure box. Dina Leor, the owner and an artist herself, calls La Sirena her “evolving assemblage.” The little shop tucked away on East 3rd street, is an explosion of color, and, at first, it’s hard to take in any one item because the store in its entirety is such an extraordinary sight. Inside you can find everything from Day of the Dead figurines to luchador masks.
Leor fell in love with Mexico at a young age. There was beauty and art everywhere— even the buses in which she traveled the country had painted exteriors and handmade altars at the front. Leor explained that in Mexico, many people learn art as just another part of family life. “You grow up and in the patio your whole family— your grandparents, your parents, your brothers, your sisters— everybody is making folk art,” Leor said. “So it’s just kind of a natural sequence of life. It’s a part of life. It’s not separate from life.” Yet, she explained that this concept does not translate as naturally to the culture surrounding creation in America. Art making is considered by American critics to be more creative or cerebral than everyday tasks, which leads to problematic distinctions and hierarchies that devalues methods learned at home or by trade.
Leor attended School of the Visual Arts, where she was interested in making folk art, which she felt was her natural means of expressing herself. Her professors, however, felt that this was not appropriate for art school. “I was told by my teachers over and over that I wasn’t going to pass because I do folk art,” she said. “I think that’s a shame, I think it really crushes the natural creative flow of a human being.” So she tried to adapt her work, which only resulted in her losing her creativity for many years following graduation. Leor lamented the separation of art into “fine art” and “craft,” and the fact that craft is looked down on. She specifically calls the work in her store “folk art,” which seems a means of avoiding our culture’s classifications and representing this special connection between art, life, and spirituality.
This lack of interest in the culture surrounding the creation of folk art is part of what is eradicating the art form. Leor explained that folk art pieces have begun to be mass-produced in other countries at prices with which Mexican artisans cannot compete. A popular Mexican accessory, Huichol beadwork, is traditionally made by hand by an indigenous group in the Sierra Madre ranges. Now these pieces are for sale in Chinatown, and most people wouldn’t know the difference between a piece created in a factory versus one made by an artisan.
While I was speaking with Dina Leor, a man working on a delivery bike came in to buy a small icon of the Virgin for good luck. After he left, Leor speculated that he himself might have been an artist. “The overworked people in New York City—the kind of people who, if they weren’t here, people would realize how much they miss them—a lot of those people are artisans, and they came here because they couldn’t make it doing their folk art.” That’s why Leor makes a point of buying as much merchandise as possible from artisans. She is supporting not only individuals, but an entire lifestyle.
As rents rise in Manhattan, so many New York establishments are being forced to close their doors to make room for the chain businesses that populate the rest of the country. Leor is offering unique merchandise with the assurance that you are not buying something mass-produced in a factory. Her store possesses beautiful objects, but it also possesses a culture of beauty.