Gringos and villagers

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

Chapala Yacht Club, site of the annual fair

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 (photo courtesy of Marianne)

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.

Elena Villaseñor Oviedo working on a backstrap loom at the 2015 event

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.

Artisans and wares from Puebla and Hidalgo

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.

Mata Ortiz vase by Olivia Dominguez Renteria

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


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