Ask a handful of Oaxacan artists why so much art comes from such an out-of-the-way and poor place, and a common answer emerges: because Oaxacans are surrounded by beauty, because the tradition of craft in their villages goes back hundreds of years, because pre-Columbian cultures and their myths are alive in Oaxaca as they are nowhere else in Mexico. And then there's the influence and legacy of Tamayo, Morales, and Toledo, says Felix Angel, who curated an exhibit of Oaxacan art at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. last fall. "The efforts and success of these three have inspired others to become artists as well," he says.

  • Image about Oaxaca City
Oaxaca attracts visitors for many of the same reasons it spawns art: beauty, the tradition of fine handicrafts, the mix of Mexican, Spanish, and native cultures. In mountain villages, 14 native languages are still spoken every day, and walking downtown Oaxaca are descendants of Zapotec, Mixe, and Mixtec natives who built the ancient cities of Monte Albán and Mitla nearby. Historical buildings and churches are restored to former splendor, and museums and festivals celebrate Oaxaca's ancient cultures and modern artists. When it's mealtime, tables fill with food as crea-tive and complex as many of the gallery canvases. The state may be poor economically, but it is rich in expression.

From the time the morning sun slips free of the surrounding mountains until it slides behind them again, it offers Oaxaca a more benevolent, purer light than it produces for the rest of the world. Light here renders colors true, edges sharp, patterns distinct. It is so clear not even air seems to filter its path from the sky.

This light hits cerulean stucco walls, orange doors, shock-pink chairs, and the colors vibrate, blue on yellow, green on red. It is color theory practiced block upon block, so that eventually it seems houses should always glow purple, fuchsia, and ochre. Then the houses step back to give preference to the zócalo, but the colors remain: balloons, tablecloths, fluttering pennants, blankets on the backs and arms of peddlers. It is as if the city resides in a box of crayons.