Ed Jordan offers no complex explanation for his all-consuming passion for collecting Mexican folk art.

"I love it, it speaks to me, I find it simply beautiful," says the 76-year-old retired advertising designer.

Jordan is just one several Austin area folk art collectors whose obsessions, as it were, are now on view at Mexic-Arte Museum. The exhibit "Imagining Mexico: Expressions of Popular Culture" showcases art objects from local collectors, many of whom are members of the nonprofit group Austin Friends of Folk Art.

Timed to this year's celebration of the centennial of the start of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentennial of Mexico's independence from Spain, the exhibit features folk art that reflects the symbols that have become essential to the creation of Mexican national identity: the Virgin of Guadalupe; the Mexican flag; the shape-shifting creature known as the nagual; and la Malinche, the legendary indigenous woman who, as folklore has it, was the mistress of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and gave birth to a son, symbolically considered the first mestizo, or person of mixed European and indigenous American heritage.

Hand-carved wooden masks, ceramic statuary, decorative plates, vases, collages made from tiny pieces of broom straw, lacquered trinkets - the hundreds of objects in the exhibit are arranged thematically, according to their symbolic imagery.

Perhaps fittingly, the display opens with a gathering of painted clay figurines by Josefina Aguilar, each a representation of a sunglass-wearing, camera-toting American folk art collector. And standing a little bit taller than the rest is a figurine of Jordan himself, something Aguilar crafted on a visit to Austin in 2002.

More than 150 of the objects in "Imagining Mexico" are from Jordan's massive collection.

At his 100-year-old Clarksville house, evidence of Jordan's passion for collecting folk art starts before you even enter the front door. On the porch is a gathering of wooden sculpture, including a large calavera, or skeleton. Inside, every available nook, cranny, shelf, mantel, windowsill, even the stairs to the second floor has become a display place for art.

Jordan bought his first piece of Mexican folk art in the 1960s - a clay figurine of a nagual, the mythical animal who has a dual nature, both malevolent and benevolent, and who is usually depicted as having both animal and human features. Like many pieces of folk art, its creator is not known. While some artists have well-established reputations - especially now with the collecting of folk art more codified and market-oriented than in generations past - traditionally many artists left their work unsigned. The lion-like figurine stands in the exhibit with other nagual statuary.

"(Folk art) speaks to you about the drive someone had to make beautiful things," Jordan says. "The lines, the forms, the shapes - you come to understand how much craft went in to making it, even when it's made of the simplest material."

That first sculpture launched Jordan on a now decades-long pursuit. Regular road trips to Mexico with fellow collectors deepened Jordan's familiarity and relationships with specific artists or workshops. ("I'm great at packing up a car with art," laughs Jordan.) Among those Jordan collects are Herón Martínez Mendoza, known for imaginative ceramic pieces, and the prolific Panduro family, which since the mid-1800s has created wondrous little clay figurines of famous politicians and also everyday people.

"I'm only limited by budget," says Jordan. "If I had more money, I'd buy more art. It's as simple as that."

Jordan's method for displaying his treasures is fairly simple: The tree of life candelabras nestle together in his parlor. Clay vessels with the same color palette of blue and green form a pile on top of a bureau. Devil figurines stand together in a corner. Masks creep conjointly up a wall. Escensas típicas, dollhouse-like depictions of festive houses or busy market scenes, form a miniature city on the dining room table.

For Jordan, there is no line between art and life.

"I buy things because I think they are beautiful," he says. "And I like to live surrounded by beautiful things."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Imagining Mexico: Expressions of Popular Culture'

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through June 27

Where: Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress Ave.

Cost: $4-$5; $1 for children younger than 12. Free for families on Sundays.

Information: 480-9373, www.mexic-artemuseum.org