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Pages from Willow’s book Paisley Pig & Friends: A Multicultural ABC (click images for larger views)


My art is inspired by the mola. Molas are colorful fabric panels made by both appliqueing on top of and cutting back through layers of cloth. They are hand-sewn and worn by the Kuna women of Panama. I tried to sew one once and had trouble getting my mind around their use of layers and colors, so I traced about 50 of them – which taught me asymmetry, how to use copious colors, and the exuberant filling of space. Essentially, I learned how to open my western-trained mind to more freely see.

I transitioned to paper before sewing even one cloth mola. Using paper allows me to take the insights I learned from my mola apprenticeship to create my own method. On paper, I can add more detail, use more colors, and incorporate many other indigenous art styles in my work.

Here are some examples of what I have done.

Mola Owl with Moon

Mola Hummingbird
Mola Flamingo
Mola Rooster

These were among the first mola drawings I made after my lupus went into remission. After I drew them, I realized that they charted a path through my battle with lupus.

The Owl is the diagnosis: I am alone in the dark with the news that I have a named disease. But the dark is not total; there is light in the moon.

The Hummingbirds, hyper-busy, and flying, symbolize the search for a treatment. Among all of the options, discovering what works for me. In this busyness, I discovered I am not alone.

The Flamingo nurtures my new life. Fragile, tentative, and slowly growing, it is my new normal. I am not quite as physically fit as before, but I’m ready to roll!

The Rooster, crowing in the dawn, represents my dramatically changed priorities. I savor life, enjoy the little things, and I am here for my children and my husband. And…I can draw!


Here is a mola for you to download and color.

More About Molas

A Guna woman displays the molas she is willing to sell from her home on the San Blas Islands, off the Atlantic Coast of Panama.

Molas are the colorful cloth panels worn as part of the everyday dress by Guna women. (“Guna” is the spelling preferred by the people; English spellings have included “Kuna” and “Cuna”.)

Guna girls start making molas when seven or eight years old. They practice sewing simple molas until they can make the tiny stitches and can see the design effects of using different colors and different layers, made by cutting back through the layers, as well as appliqueing onto the top layer.

As she learns the art and skills of mola making, a young girl sews clothes for her own doll, often carved from coconut trees by her father.

Before she can marry, each girl must make thirteen pair of molas. An accomplished seamstress will take two to three weeks to finish each – along with her other daily tasks. She usually works on several molas at a time, in various stages of completion.

Originally, the Guna painted or tattooed their bodies with various designs. When cloth became available in the 1700s, the Guna began sewing their clothing. For a while, the Guna traded coconuts with Japanese sailor merchants for fabric.

The first Guna garment was made mostly of undyed material. It went down to mid-thigh and was finished along the bottom with a narrow band of colored material and seashells. Over time, the band became wider and more colorful, until it filled the whole midsection of the shirt in the form of front and back panels.

Usually, the two panels are made as a set and are a pretty close match. But sometimes a Guna woman will have some fun. For example, she may make a front panel showing a colorful fish, then let the back show the skeletal remains of an eaten fish!

The mola designs are primarily from nature: birds and animals are the most common depictions. Tribal life, religious themes – both native and Christian – as well as political commentary, sports, and modern items and activities, are also wonderfully depicted by skilled Guna women.

Here are some samples from my collection (click to see larger images):

The Guna believe there are eight layers to the world, and spirits are present on all of them.

I love the uncommon green used in this geometric mola.
I purchased this mola for my father when he was a Panama Canal pilot.
Fans are used to keep the fire burning brightly, and to keep away bad spirits.