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Christine Yannitelli’s Gladstone house is like a small museum of treasures from Mexico

Christine Yannitelli of Gladstone has been collecting folk art since the late 1970s, when she began traveling to Mexico regularly. One of her favorite pieces is this mojiganga, an oversized Mexican puppet figure.
Christine Yannitelli of Gladstone has been collecting folk art since the late 1970s, when she began traveling to Mexico regularly. One of her favorite pieces is this mojiganga, an oversized Mexican puppet figure. The Kansas City Star

“I love Mexico. It’s absolutely in my blood,” says Christine Yannitelli, a native of Battle Creek, Mich., who moved to Kansas City in 1972.

Yannitelli, who teaches Spanish and is a member of the board of the Mattie Rhodes Center, travels frequently to Mexico. There she indulges her passion for Mexican folk art. The Gladstone house she bought 17 years ago is like a small museum.

“When I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, there are some good bones here,’” she said. “This is a great house to show art in.”

Every corner now holds an object, a pot, a sculpture, a doll, a basket. She has scattered bright patterned rugs throughout, and the wall colors pick up the vivid hues of the art.

How did this all start?

I’ve been going to Mexico since 1978. Every time, I buy things. I love Mexican folk art. There’s a beautiful artisan market in most Mexican towns. You can meet the artists and see them painting and doing tinwork. It’s almost like an outdoor studio. They set up little, tiny TVs and watch telenovelas (soap operas).

What’s the attraction?

I love the whimsy, I love the color. I’m so drawn to pieces. The work talks to me and has to come home.

And you’ve become very well-versed in the culture.

From 1972 to 2004, I was a counselor at Maple Woods Community College, and in the late ’80s I thought I should learn to speak Spanish in order to serve the needs of the students better. I took Spanish 101 at Maple Woods and went on to get my M.A. in Spanish and Spanish literature at UMKC. I traveled throughout Mexico and studied in Xalapa, Oaxaca, Cuernavaca and Puebla. Now I teach Spanish at Maple Woods, and I’m adjunct at Kansas City Kansas Community College, where I teach English as a second language.

What do you collect?

Everything from carved and painted wood animals and tin ornaments, which are a specialty of San Miguel de Allende, to contemporary paintings. I love calacas, or skeleton figures — they’re really about life — and the Virgin of Guadalupe. I have lots of hearts and toys. When they have carnival, they sell toys on sticks in the streets, including little figures of clowns called payasos. I collect textiles and tons of papel picado (Mexican cutout paper). Kansas City artist Jenny Mendez made this piece, “Pajaro,” with the bird. It’s based on a card used in the game of loteria. When you press on it, the bird tweets.

Where do you find all this fok art?

The majority is from Mexico; some is from New Mexico. My husband, Dennis Manske, and I spend 21/2 months a year in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we rent a charming house called Casa de Colores. As soon as fall finals are over, we leave in mid-December and return in early March. I ship cartons home every time I go. San Miguel is the Santa Fe of Mexico. Artists flocked there. It’s lively and culturally rich. Now it’s getting pricier.

We’ve also traveled a lot in Central America, so I have textiles and pillows from Honduras, Panama and Guatemala as well as Mexico. I’ve also collected artworks work from Belize and Cuba.

What do you know about the artists?

This folk art is created by untrained artists. A lot are based in villages, and they all make similar things. Folk art is reasonably priced, although some artists, like the Ortega family, have gained wide recognition. Gerardo Ortega, who runs a family workshop in Tonala, made this Nativity grouping he set in a car and the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a plane.

Tell me about some of the things in your office.

The large painting is of a couple of churches in San Miguel. It’s by Andrew Osta, a wonderful up-and-coming artist from San Miguel de Allende whom we’ve gotten to know. The cupboard is from New Mexico, and the dolls were made in Mexico. The dolls are made in the streets. You see women sewing them, and they will do custom orders. The doll sellers on the streets of San Miguel de Allende are charming. They come in from the villages.

This large puppet beside me is called a mojiganga. Mojigangas are giant colorfully created papier mache puppets, often used to celebrate special occasions, that are danced in the streets. This one’s name is Francesca.

You make art, too?

I’m an artistic welder. I’ve shown at Ghost Ranch, in Abiquiu, New Mexico, City Market Coffee House and the Mattie Rhodes Art Gallery. I only make goddesses. I began making them seven or eight years ago at Ghost Ranch. It’s a magical retreat center, where they offer all kinds of classes. I also took classes at the Kansas City Art Institute and Johnson County Community College. It’s so much fun. I use an oxyacetylene torch. I love the energy of the fire.

I’m counting at least five levels in this house, and you also have work outside in a pretty incredible terraced garden.

I bought that trio of mariachis in Kansas City. It was imported from Mexico. The palm tree sculpture lights up, and the parrot on it moves. It makes my heart sing to collect this art. I just want it to be a happy house, and that’s what it is.