CLAY AND CLOTH, TISSUE AND TIN. From simple materials comes the folk art of 100-some countries, in displays that bring a touch of theater to a Santa Fe art museum

It's like walking inside a kaleidoscope - the colors dazzle. And with every turn, you see something different. To take in the sum total, you'll need to go back - and again, and maybe again - to this Girard Wing of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. It houses the pi`ece de r'esistance of the 106,000 pieces of folk art donated by architect-designer Alexander Girard and his wife, Susan.

Mr. Girard masterminded the mounting of the exhibition, too, deftly packaging a whole world into a single gallery. The folk art, collected over a 40-year period, comes from more than 100 countries. From angels to zebras, the items were crafted by everyday people from Alaska to Zaire. The artisans created with clay, cloth, wood, and wax; tissue paper and tin. Mirrors, feathers, yarn, squash seeds, and shells. Even sugar and bread.

For many who live in life's back alleys, folk art serves as a second language, a way of telling everyday tales. It's an expression more permanent than patois. It's a way to somersault over squalor.

There aren't any Rodins or Rembrandts in the lot. Folk artists are without formal art training, and this sometimes shows in figures that lack proper proportions - ears too big or torsos too short. And pictures may be without perspective, not by plan but by happenstance. Never mind, though, because the art speaks from the heart. Girard recognized this decades ago, long before it was chic to collect art from folk.

``Simple people work unconsciously,'' he says. ``They're not hampered by tons of education that makes them say, `Is this the right way to create?'''

Dapper in his casual dark suit and ascot, Girard reminisces and relaxes in a Charles Eames chair at his Santa Fe home. Impeccably placed about him are favorite folk art pieces. He views folk art as decidedly ``unifying. It shows,'' he says, ``that all people, in one sense, are equal, because they all do the same things in private and public'' - they're born, they grow, they live, they die. Folk artists everywhere focus on these rites of passage, unwittingly pulling diverse cultures together onto a common ground.

In the Girard wing, some items are big, some small. Some antique, some not-so-old. And colors are seldom subtle, so the entire gallery takes on the flamboyance of flamingos in poppy fields.

Despite the endless variety of items, there's no sense of 5-and-10 clutter. Girard saw to that through his floor plan and exhibit designs. He didn't sort items laundry-style, heaping all the horses into one display, with the talismans here, the baskets there, and the dolls lined up along a wall. Instead, he mixed and matched figures, furniture, flora, and fauna from all the different countries, shaping them into theatrical settings.

If you squint your eyes and shut out the sounds, it's easy to fantasize yourself right into the scenes. You can march in a Chinese parade, attend a christening, sup at a dolls' dinner, and scream at a bullfight. You can hawk wares in a Peruvian village, sail down a stream of crinkly glass, or grovel with the devils of the deep.

The exhibition, which opened to the public in late 1982, took more than two years to mount, with Girard at the helm, assisted by a host of museum aides and volunteers. At the outset, logical questions came from the crew. The blueprints? The models? None. ``Design grows by doing,'' says Girard. And that's the way he did it.

Back then he stood in the gallery - empty as a grade school gym on holidays. Bigger than a barn, too. He remembers placing a clay cathedral somewhere in the void, at the approximate axis of the entrance and exit aisles. Then he added mini people, carts, buggies, cats, and pups. You name it, it's in the scene. Setting after setting ``grew'' this way, each taking on the depth and dimensions of reality.

The folk art goodies were packed in no fewer than 4,000 crates and boxes. Once emptied, the boxes served as mock-ups for platforms. Girard stacked and arranged them until shape, size, and height were just right. Then he summoned a carpenter to duplicate his ``stage.'' He used sand to create continuity, hiding bases and pedestals, a trick that makes static figures seem like people. Understandably, not every folk art piece winds up in a scene, although this is the tendency. You'll also see single items and series - antique kanthas from Bangladesh (embroidered quilts made of salvaged cloth); yantras and mandalas from India (geometric diagrams used in meditation); esclavinas from Peru (dance capes); wycinanki from Poland (intricate paper cutouts); dury from Russia (19th-century wooden caricatures of aristocracy). There's a yule tree, too, all glitz and glitter, with an American flag on top.

Girard was born in Boston but grew up in Florence, Italy, where he became captivated by the varying cr`eches, a possible spark for his later love of folk art. But it wasn't until the early '30s that he consciously collected his first piece of folk art: a ceramic horse from Mexico that he found in Greenwich Village.

A registered architect in New York, Michigan, Connecticut, and New Mexico, Girard became design director of the textile division of Herman Miller Inc., Zeeland, Mich., in 1952. After moving to Santa Fe in the '70s, he continued as consultant to the firm.

He's aware that his collection has its detractors who carp about artistic quality. But the fact that ``folk art'' has never been pinned to a precise definition helps stir this controversy. Just who are the ``folk''? And what is art?

Girard doesn't get embroiled is the issue. ``I just collect because I enjoy the differences in any given category, the subtle differences that reflect the people,'' he says. And for him, that's purpose aplenty.

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