The wise men are a trio made of brightly colored wire and beads. Mary, in wire and beads of blue and silver, holds Baby Jesus. The infant looks more like a scepter than a child. Beside them Joseph wears warm brown and dreadlocks.
Surrounding the Holy Family is a host of bead-and-wire African animals. A green alligator bends its head toward Mary. Two hippos, the larger one done in orange and the baby in pink, stand near a pink rhino. The nativity's hot pink flamingo contrasts with a cool blue ostrich and sedate black-and-white beaded zebra. A lemur perches in a wire tree that shades a miniature black-horned springbok antelope.
This crèche by a Zimbabwean artist living in South Africa combines the Christmas story with African culture. It's one of 71 folk art nativities in The Art of the Crèche II: Folk Art Nativities from Around the World showing through Jan. 11 at the Oak Ridge Art Center, 201 Badger Road.
The exhibit consists of 24 nativities sitting on pedestals and another 45 hanging on three walls. They are part of the collection of more than 600 that East Tennessean Linda Holmes has acquired over more than three decades. Artists tell the Christmas story here in materials that range from clay to thread to wood to glass to used car parts.
Bottle caps form one Holy Family trio. An artist in the Mexican state of Oaxaca recycled a tuna fish can into a round stable for tiny figures twisted from neon-colored candy wrappers. One triptych of the Holy Family is based on traditional styles and images but its New Mexico artist created it from recycled computer circuit boards.
Yet Holmes' most unusual nativity may be a two-dimensional hanging formed by blobs of solder. She found it in an Ecuadorean gift shop for $30. While she refuses to select a favorite, her most treasured nativities include the fabric wall hanging her daughters, then 12 and 9, created for her one Christmas.
Often, as in the wire and beads of the Zimbabwean nativity, Christmas and culture merge in the art. A small nativity from Canada depicts the Holy Family as Inuit Indians. They wear parkas; an igloo is their stable. The tiny drop of red paint on the tip of Joseph's spear means he's been fishing.
Half of a coconut shell is a stable in a nativity from the South Pacific island of Tonga. Its figures wear garments of Polynesian tapa cloth. A nativity handmade in a Bangkok doll factory shows colorful, varied dolls dressed in traditional costumes from Thailand.
Holmes' collection began simply about 1980. First, she found a nativity set for a stable her father-in-law built. She then crafted four nativities. One was from bread dough, a second of fabric and a third done in embroidery. The fourth, a crocheted wall hanging, is part the exhibit. "I think there was something about the theme that really resonated with me, and I think it was the theme of family because I had young children at the time," she said.
Her interest deepened soon after when her parents gifted her a nativity from Jordan. The fabric figures with Semitic features and Middle Eastern robes were different from most, which were more Italianate in style. "It intrigued me. I realized people told this story around the world, and they told it within their own culture," said Holmes.
When her parents gave her a Peruvian nativity in a box called a retablo the next year, she was set on the path of finding and collecting depictions of Jesus' birth. She's since bought crèches while traveling abroad, in folk art shops in United States cities and over the Internet. Her collection represents 27 countries from Poland to Indonesia to Mexico to Zambia. Several areas of the United States also are represented.
"The reason that I have so many is that there is something to love about every single one of them. The little details are so charming in the way that people tell the story."
This is the exhibit's second year at the Oak Ridge Art Center. Many are different from those shown last year.
A Peruvian tile shows wise men caring for baby Jesus as Mary eats a bowl of soup. A tiny nativity from Mexico includes a man carrying an even tinier aloe plant or cactus as a gift to the Christ child. A colorful wall nativity from Mexico includes four wise men and an angel hanging from an open flower above the holy family.
Holmes' collection now includes some 200 nativities, many made by machine, "stacked up in boxes. I'm trying to figure out what to do with them.
"I've honed my desires so that now I'm really interested in the art. I'm not collecting for religious reasons; it's the folk art aspect. I am very selective. And, also, I'm running out of room.
"I look for something that's artistic, something that's different," she said. "There's absolutely no end to it because people keep telling the story."
The Art of the Crèche II: Folk art nativities from around the world
Where: Oak Ridge Art Center, 201 Badger Road, Oak Ridge, Tenn.
When: Through Jan., 11. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 1-4 p.m. Saturday-Monday