Arte/Sano is a biennale event sponsored by the Museo de Arte Popular (Folk Art Museum) in Mexico City. The name is a play on words, and an indication of the purpose of the event. “Artesano” means artisan. “Arte” is art and “Sano” is healthy. The goal is the fuse the aims, styles and techniques of both handcrafts/folk art with fine arts in a healthy way.
This is done pairing various artisans with artists and designers to create projects. Its inspiration comes from the Bauhaus movement of 1919, as well as Mexico’s history of interaction between artists and artisans, especially in the 20th century with supporters such as Diego Rivera, Dr. Atl and Juan O’Gorman. Mexican art has featured images of handcrafts, and handcraft styles have been influenced by Mexican art. Perhaps the best known instance of this is the creation of Catrina figures, based on the character created by illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Mexico still has a very large number and variety of both artists and artisans who can and have worked together to take advantage of the overlap between handcrafts/folk art and fine art. This does not mean that the artist or designer provides the creativity, but rather both sides work as equal partners with the aim of enhancing creativity all around. The event has attracted the participation of graphic designers, painters, architects, other visual artists, industrial and textiles designs as well as artisans from all over Mexico. The event has attracted notable participants such as Francisco Toledo, Pedro Friedberg, Jazzamoart, Luis Argudín, Gabriel Macotela and Diana Salazar. Pieces have been created with ceramics, wood, wax, stone, metals, cartonería (paper mache), textiles, leather and even video.
One example is the collaboration between leather artisan Javier Bautista and industrial designer Ariana Castellanos. Bautista learned to work with leather through workshops at the museum. The museum then invited him to work on a piece for the exhbit. Javier describes the experience with Castellano as a “dialogue” especially in the concept stage. The result was a leather-covered table, with a section for board games, but not just any board games but those which represent Mexican handcrafts and other aspects of Mexican culture, which were made for the table and have spaces for them built into the same.
While there is a theme, there is no overall curation in the traditional sense of the word, with each participant interpreting the theme in their own way. Some pieces are quite artistic, with little or no practical function, and on the other side of the spectrum, there are pieces very similar to their handcraft roots. And everything in between.
The 2015 edition has 56 pieces by 31 teams and extends from November 2015 to February 2016.
Leonardo Linares prefers the term “artisan,” shunning the word “artist,” which has been applied to him by entities such as the British Museum. The reason is that he believes that as an artisan he has more creative freedom.
Leonardo Linares is a fifth generation “cartonero” or maker of paper mache folk art, which is called “cartonería” in Mexico. He comes from Mexico’s most famous cartonería family, that of Pedro Linares.
Pedro’s father and grandfather also did cartonería but only on seasonal basis, making traditional objects, piñatas, nativity scenes, masks for Carnival, Judas figures for Holy Saturday and various decorative items for Day of the Dead. Pedro changed this for the family with the creation of “alebrijes,” brightly painted monsters, which could be made and sold year-round as they are not associated with any particular holiday.
Since then the family has been able to make cartonería a true profession, to the benefit of various members such as Leonardo. Leonardo and his father, Felipe, have continued with Pedro’s work, but have modified it somewhat. The most important is that the figures are more fluid and detailed, giving them a more artistic feel than those of Pedro.
Leonardo began his career when he was ten years old, watching his father and grandfather working in the patio of the family home, which served at the workshop for some time even before that. He began as an apprenticeship, learning to mix paste and paints from plant and mineral pigments. However, he was not obligated to do this. Leonardo initially did this as a game. Only later did it become a way of life.
Leonardo’s work is strongly tied to his father’s workshop, one of the two Linares family workshops in Mexico City. (The other is headed by Felipe’s brother Miguel.) The work is shared among four family members, Felipe (Sr.) and three sons, Leonardo, Felipe (Jr.) and David. However, of the sons, Leonardo is the most involved and the best known, giving talks and workshops on cartonería in central Mexico, the United States and Canada. The workshop strictly does pieces by order, with most of the work alternated between Leonardo and his father. For large commissions and exhibitions for museums, all the members work together.
Leonardo’s work is not significantly different in style from that of his father, just some minor differences in details and the sizes of same. Much of the reason for this is that he has always worked with his father by apprenticing with him. He has no preference in types of items to make (alebrijes, skeletal figures, Judas, etc) as he believes that a cartonero should be able to master all forms. The workshop does not specialize either and what they do can vary greatly year to year, depending on what is being ordered. Orders are generally worked on individually, with a 30cm alebrije taking from 20 to 25 days to make, start to finish. Almost all of their work comes to them now because of the family’s fame. Clients are generally those who are knowledgeable of their work such as museum gift shops and collectors. Almost all are foreign buyers, noting that in general foreigners are more knowledgeable and appreciative of the tradition. New clients generally come by way of learning about them in books and magazines, but except for Facebook and email, Leonardo generally shuns the Internet. There is no web site. One reason for this is that Leonardo does not want to put images of pieces online because he fears copying and poor copying of his work.
Leonardo has worked various major commissions such as those for several museums in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States and the Museum of Modern Art in Japan. One particular piece was originally commissioned by the then Museo de Artes y Industriales in Mexico City. It was meant as an “ofrenda” (altar set up with offerings for Day of the Dead) with the name of Atomic Apocalypse. This was done in the 1980s, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were represented with images from that time period: Hunger with images of the famine in Africa, Disease with images related to AIDS and leprosy, War with images of the Sandinista movement, Khomeni and more and for Death, and exploding atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction. The work caught the attention of the British Museum, who bought and has had it in their collection since. It is one of many Linares pieces in the institution, which call Leonardo and the rest of the family “contemporary artists.” However, relatively few of their works are in permanent collections in Mexico, with exceptions being the Fomento Cultural Banamex with 80+ works, the Dolores Olmedo Museum and a couple of pieces in the Museo de Arte Popular.
Leonardo and the rest of the family held on to the cartonería tradition and promoted the alebrije innovation from the 1950s to the 1990s, when the craft was waning. However, since the 1990s, the popularity of cartonería has risen again, with many young people taking it up. Most have learned either through classes at schools or museums, but Leonardo believes that this leaves these young artisans without a sense of tradition, “trunco común” (lit. common trunk), or basis to understand and appreciate the history of cartonería or its relevance to Mexican culture.
For example, alebrijes are now widely made by many artisans and not only using traditional materials and methods. While Leonardo has papers indicating that the term belongs with the family, this idea has not been enforced legally or socially. Leonardo does not have problems with others making them, or using new materials or techniques, but the term should be reserved for their work, out of respect for the form’s origins.
For the most part, Leonardo is a traditionalist, strongly attached to traditional materials, construction techniques and in particular the apprenticeship system that molded him and his work. All of his creations are still made with wire (sometimes reed or cane) frames, with mixtures of newspaper, craft and other papers. Paper is meticulously layered over the frame (no scrunching for volume) and no molds are used. The paste is only flour and water, no glue or preservatives used. Every piece is hand painted.
As for classes, Leonardo strongly believes that to be a true cartonero, one must work one’s way up, from simple pieces like masks to more complicated pieces such as alebrijes. As he put it “ You cannot build the fifth floor of a building until you have built the first, second, third….” He says that most learning cartonería are only learning techniques, from teachers who do not truly understand what they are teaching, with students only copying items instead of truly creating. The problem with this is that students then think they go on to innovate, but really wind up reinventing the wheel, not knowing that it was done before.
That does not mean that Leonardo does not innovate. The family used to make their pieces almost exclusively with recycled materials, but Leonard uses mostly new, principally to have expenses for tax purposes. He does use commercial paint as it adheres better, and poor weather does not inhibit their use. He does make a kind of varnish by chemically breaking down Styrofoam, continuing the “alchemist” tradition of the family that used to be applied to making paints. He also makes his own tools when there is nothing available commericially to do what he needs. However, he does not back pieces with plastic as some young cartoneros do, or use decorative elements such as glass, plastic, buttons or other items, nor does he create pieces with movable parts.
Leonardo does not like to be called an “artist.” He prefers “artisan,” believing that being such gives him more freedom to create, as artisans generally are not university trained as to what creativity is supposed to be, nor has to be concerned about his/her work being accepted by an “authority.” His main inspirations continue to be life in his section of Mexico City, where his family has lived since it was rural farmland, and before urban sprawl took it over. He considers the local markets as a kind of “living museum, “ with its sights, sounds and smells. However, he also finds inspiration from his foreign contacts and trips abroad. However, his inspiration is mostly applied to the details and themes of his works, rather than to the basic figures.
(All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise indicated)
I had no idea how much working on the dolls affected the women’s self-esteem. I have had comments like “I’ve been told all my life that I’m good for nothing, but I can create something this beautiful. So I now know that that’s not true.” – Rebecca Roth
Sometimes treasures come out of unusual places and from unlikely circumstances. Such is the case of Original Friends Dolls, a program for making one-of-a-kind cloth dolls in the Reclusorio Feminil of Puente Grande, just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.
The story behind the dolls is a fascinating one. It started with Rebecca Roth, an American who moved to Mexico in 1998 and until early 2006, ran a business in Puerto Vallarta. In March of that year, she was taken by Mexican authorities for questioning about an incident in 2001. Unfortunately, there is no presumption of innocence in Mexico upon accusation, Rebecca had to go to prison while her case wound through the court system for four years. Her case was finally dismissed for lack of evidence.
Prison is hard for anyone, but especially when you don’t know the language well, and find yourself shared a 6-person cell dormitory with 13 women and one young child. Rebecca found a number of outlets to help her cope with prison life, but the good to come out of this bad situation came in relation to the little girl.
Lupita at time was only 15 months old, having been born in the prison after her mother became pregnant after a conjugal visit from her husband. Mexican prisons allow such babies to stay with their mothers until age 3, but there isn’t much for a young child in such a place. Lupita had only a couple of empty plastic Coke bottle to play with. Having had taken some basic sewing classes, Rebecca decided Lupita needed a doll. She asked for scraps and created a doll with orange yarn hair, purple eyes, a white blouse and multi-colored skirt. Lupita fell in love with it instantly, and named the doll “Mia” (mine in Spanish). That doll went everywhere with the girl, including to Islas Marias facility that her mother was transferred to later on.
Rebecca didnt think much more about the doll until a cellmate complained about the need to make better money than what the prison shops could afford. Mexican prisoners need to make money to pay for their basic supplies such as toilet paper, and the earning opportunities are pitiful. Rebecca thought about the doll and suggested that they make some for an upcoming prison art show to see if they could sell. So Esmeralda Hernández José joined Rebecca to makethe dolls and to their surprise, their first customer was the warden! The prison still very much supports the project, taking no cut of the proceeds and making sure visitors to the facility see it, as Rebecca says, “… it gives them bragging rights.”
Before Rebecca’s release in 2010, the two women sold about one hundred dolls, to guards, visitors and others. Despite the unjust incarceration, Rebecca still loved Mexico and wanted to stay and continue the project, now called Original Friends Dolls, a name suggested by Esmeralda. The imprisoned women who participate made about one doll a week and are paid for their production every Friday. It is up to Rebecca, Esmeralda and others to get them sold on the outside. The program is so popular that is there is a waiting list.
1,500 named, number and signed dolls later, Original Friends have evolved quite a bit since the creation of Mia, although they are still made almost entirely of scraps, ribbons, lace, buttons and more, most of which is donated from the outside of the prison. The dolls are no longer meant to be children’s playthings but rather collectibles. Almost all are figures of women, with a few of men, and tend to be long and lithe, measuring about 60cm tall, with the exceptions of the mermaids which are “shorter” because of the curved tails. They have long extremities which are often movable. One interesting technique is with the legs , with bendable knees achieved by making the legs in two pieces and connecting them with a large wood bead “knee.” Almost all have some kind of lace or sequins, jewelry or other sparkly bits. Faces are painted on but any small elements such as sequins, chains, glasses, etc are sewn on, no glue guns used at all. Rebecca trains all the women that participate, and her basic design is influenced by the work of Elenor Peace Bailey and Patti Medaris Culea
As they are collectibles, they are not cheap trinkets. Almost all the dolls for sale at the 2015 Feria Maestros del Arte ran for 1,200 Mexican pesos (about $90 USD). The Feria is one of their main outlets, but the program is looking for more venues, as another prison, a small women’s facility in Ixtapa, has joined the program, allowing for much higher production.
We treat the artists with respect. It absolutely blows their mind when we take an artist from Chiapas, who lives in the hills. They live in these little tiny houses, with roads that are hardly passable. They’ve never left. They come on a bus to a place they don’t know … and they stay in a gringo’s home that might be worth a half million dollars. They look like scared rabbits when they get here. And the next day, you see that they have relaxed a little bit. By the second day, they’re hugging everybody and kissing everybody. It’s like all home for a week. Marianne Carlson, founder of the Feria Maestros del Arte
Each year, a group of ex-pats and Mexican volunteers work to set up a fair to support Mexican artisans in the popular retirement community of Chapala, Jalisco, overlooking Mexico’s largest lake of the same name. However, it is quite different from those run by FONART and other government agencies. In 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit this event and talk to the artisans and the founder.
In 2015, this fair had over 80 participating artisans, not only representing the handcraft powerhouses of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacan, but also Chihuahua, Campeche, Veracruz, Puebla and of course, Jalisco. Just about all handcraft traditions are represented, with everything from fine pottery an silverwork to textiles, musical instruments, cartonería (paper mache), dolls and even work made by a local children’s group. Future blog posts will work on stories from a number of these artisans. For now, let’s begin with the fair and the organization behind it.
Marianne Carlson has always loved Mexico and Mexican artesanía. She finally made the move to Mexico in 1997. As she was not yet retirement age, she started an artesanía gallery.
A trip to the craft villages around Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan showed her that there was much she did not know, not from her business experience, nor from books. She took the time to talk to these artisans and found that the merchandise was usually sold at local markets called tianguis, not a venue that would bring decent prices for what takes much time and effort.
Marianne says she is an organizer, and decided in 2002 to organize a fair (feria in Spanish) in Chapala, asking the 13 artisans she knew from Michoacan if they wanted to come. They all said yes, but Marianne confided that she did not know at the time if that was a Mexican “polite” yes or not. As it turned out, it was a true “yes” and not only did all the invitees come with their wares, they all sold out.
Initially, she did think of the idea as a possible business opportunity, but after working with the first group, she dropped that, realizing that people came to support the artisans, not her, and because she “just fell in love with these people and fell in love with their work ethic… and their stories…”
Marianne ran everything herself at first and paid most of the expenses but by the fourth year, she decided that help was needed if the feria was going to continue somehow. She put an ad in the local newspaper looking for volunteers, with 18 strangers walking through her door to help. Most of these still work with the organization. Eventually, they founded the organization Feria Maestros del Arte (lit. Masters of Art Fair), which reflect Marianne’s belief that these are artists… she never uses the word artisan.
Much of what she set up initially has remained, especially the housing of participating artisans in local homes, who provide not only beds, but meals and social outlets. The idea is to have participating artisans go home with all the money from their sales, so it was decided that the organization would provide transportation as well, now the biggest expense. Fundraising is done in a number of ways, such as grants from other organizations such as Los Amigos del Arte Popular, a sponsor for many years, Austin Friends of Folk Art, Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art and others; a raffle during the Feria and a recycling project with an organization called Terracycle. The money pays for three buses, one each from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacan, with some picking up artisans from other states such as Veracruz and Puebla along the way. Those artisans who are not on or near these routes get their transportation costs reimbursed.
The organization has some strict requirements as to who they invite to sell at the Feria. The first is that the artisan must produce the product him/herself and it must be quality. The artisan does not need to be famous, although a number are already recognized in their fields. They also look for artisans who come from artisan families, those who have revived craft traditions and those who use traditional techniques to create new products. There are currently three coordinadors in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacan whose job it is to look for and check out artisans for the Feria. Marianne notes that they have found quite a number of “treasures,” people who produce wonderful work but they are relatively or completely unknown.
The most immediate goal is economic support of the artisans, with some earning enough to build houses, pay expenses for year … or as one artisan put it, “more money than she ever thought she would earn in her life.” However, a survey of the artisans by the Feria found that there are other important benefits. Artisans ranked their experience with host familes and #1. Also high on the list was discovering what artisans in other parts of Mexico are doing.
Marianne says this all brings tears to her eyes and is what keeps the organization going. She believes that artisans are not given the respect they deserve in Mexican society, either as maestros or as human beings. She attributes all this to the Feria’s success saying We are not an art show; we are a heart show.
Header photo courtesy of the Feria Maestros del Arte
In Mexico, folk art is not limited to rural or indigenous communities. Although covered by hardly any artesanía publications, there are artisans in Mexico City and other urban areas, creating rather extraordinary works.
Mexico City’s borough of Iztapalapa is the entity’s largest and most populous, often a landing zone for people migrating from other parts of the country and even Central America looking for a better life. This also means that the area has been overrun with blocks upon blocks of grey cinderblock houses and other buildings, generally poorly made by the residents or landlords with little or no attention paid to aesthetics or sense of neighborhood. It is particularly poor and is not a stranger to crime, with a recent hanging of a dead body on an overpass, mostly likely by a drug gang.
Despite this, the borough is home to people dedicated to various handcrafts. Perhaps the most important of these culturally is cartonería, a kind of hard paper mache, which continues to be used in Mexico to create seasonal decorations, piñatas and more. One particular form which is indigenous to the city is the making of alebrijes… a kind of fantastic multicolored monster, which consists of representations of various parts of animals, real or imaginary. These are then painted in various bright colors, often with intricate designs.
Two artisans dedicated to cartoneria work in a small “pulquería” or bar that serves pulque, a mildly alcoholic, slightly viscous liquid fermented from the sap of a maguey plant. It used to be as ubiquitous in the city as beer, but today one needs to know where to look to find it.
You would never find the place unless you were looking for it, even though it is on the corner of Avenida República Federal and J. Espinoza streets, only blocks from the Peñon Viejo metro station. The pulqueria is little more than three cinderblock walls, partially roofed, but the front part, where customers enjoy their beverages, is covered only in a tarp. It looks like a strong wind could blow the place apart… and yet…
to Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, where they are displayed on this street for the following two weeks. Their creation, called either Metamorfósis or Chanehqueh (guaridan in Nahuatl) stood out not only for its creativity, but by the fact that it was accompanied by a dozen or so people as an entourage, who dressed similarly and danced to bring attention to the creation. In addition, Clara’s very young daughter, in wings and a mask, was on the cart used to wheel the alebrije, stealing much of the spotlight. Metamorfósis now dominates the center of the pulquería, sitting among the tables.
Daniel began working with cartonería around 2007, but considers himself to be an artist, rather than an artisan. Indeed, the one solid wall of the pulquería’s customer section is covered in a mural done by him, as well as some smaller paintings on doors in other areas. Daniel’s artistic inspirations include Pink Floyd videos, pre Hispanic art, Salvador Dalí and other surrealistic artists. His interest in cartonería is more in the design and painting, rather than the actual construction and while he has sold pieces, he does not do this for a living. His main cartonería activity of the year is creating an alebrije for the parade, with 2015 being his third year of participation. For him the goal is not to sell the alebrije, or even to win one of the various prizes offered, but rather to see the reaction of the crowd to his work.
On the other hand, Clara is more the businesswoman and artisan in the sense that most of her work is made for sale. She makes traditional pieces such as Catrinas (a skeletal woman in elegant dress of the late 19th century), other Day of the Dead decorations, masks, costume pieces, paintings with cartonería elements and more. She began this work about 4 years ago, learning from Daniel, calling herself “the teacher’s pet.” However, she has also taught the master. Having taken a class in the use of recycled plastic bottles in handcrafts, she and Daniel now use this material to create a base for the paper to be laid upon, as well as to make a number of details in the final product. This is a rather new innovation in cartonería work, which traditionally used only paper, paste, wire or reed supports and paint.
Daniel sells works haphazardly, if someone sees something and wants to buy it. But Clara does market her work, almost entirely on Facebook, with most of her clients being foreigners, principally from the United States. She now has regular clients who order custom pieces. Clara calls cartonería “noble” in the sense that you take very humble materials, garbage really, and make something beautiful. People are not paying for the material, but rather the creativty and sensibility that she puts into each piece.
Despite its obvious creativity and completely non-utilitarian existance, alebrijes are still considered to be artesanía rather than art. But after seeing and hearing Daniel and Clara’s work, this is definitely one very grey area between the two.
One thing that captures the attention of many foreigners here in Mexico is the wide range and depth of Mexico’s handcrafts and folk art tradition, nicely distinguished in Spanish with the word “artesanías.”
This is not your primary school arts and crafts, or simple handmade decorations for a party. (Those are separated with the word “manualidades”) Instead, these are items whose value today are both historical and cultural as well as utilitarian and/or decorative, and have a far greater quality than most handcraft traditions. In the United States, perhaps the closest “artesania” tradition is quilt making. Many of these pieces are heirlooms, worthy of passing down, and there are many notable collections of Mexican handcrafts and folk art, such as that amassed by Nelson Rockefeller, who spent considerable time and money investigating and visiting notable artisans.
Despite its greater appreciation outside of Mexico than within, so much of the wonderful work that is done here, both traditional and innovative, remains highly unknown to the average tourist who sees things like amate paintings of the Nahuas, beadwork by the Huichols, pieces of major pottery traditions such as barro negro of Oaxaca and Mata Ortiz of Chihuahua and the numerous textile traditions….
Do you know what a “huipil” is? If you have traveled Mexico or Guatemala, especially in indigenous communities, you have very likely seen one, or a takeoff of one without knowing it. You may have even bought one.
I have lived for over 12 years in Mexico, and have been captivated by various aspects of Mexican culture. I first began delving into it in 2008 by writing Wikipedia articles, reading almost exclusively Spanish language sources, but writing articles in English. Almost all Mexican artesania articles in English Wikipedia were developed by yours truly. I still believe Wikipedia is a very important way to spread knowledge about Mexican handcrafts. Artisans who have Wikipedia pages have told me that they, and others, have noticed them. Carlomagno Pedro Martinez told me that his Wikipedia article “impressed the kids” in his community.
But Wikipedia has limitations, the main one being that it requires that all information that remains in the encyclopedia be cited in a reliable source. This means that while it is a great way to get basic information about the subject out to the public, it can only repeat that which is already stated in traditional media sources.
There is soooooo much important information that is NOT in traditional media sources because for the most part, they have to make money, and there is little money in covering artisans, even those who have won prestigious awards such as Mexico’s National Arts and Sciences Prize. Even that which has been printed is in primarily in traditional paper books, generally available in specialty or academic libraries, not (easily) accessible to the public.
After almost disappearing in the early 20th century, Mexican handcrafts and folk art made a comeback, most recently because of the rise of the tourism industry. But if the common tourist does not know what s/he is looking at in the market, why is a pot, or a huipil, or a silver bracelet from Taxco more than just a shiny bauble? And why would they pay 2-5x the price for the genuine article, instead of the cheap (often Chinese) knock-off?
The overall principal goal of this blog is to made more information available online about Mexican handcrafts and folk art. It will profile various artisans from as many parts of the country as possible and not just the better known, but also those who are not known, but doing interesting work. It will also cover other developments in the field, including its relationship to fine art… as there is overlap and a gray area between the two.
This is a labor of love and completely non-profit. It is not meant to replace work in Wikipedia, but rather to supplement it.