Wood working in a place with no trees

This is a small town located in the Bajio region of the state of Guanajuato. The name (Bajío) comes from the word “low” referring to the fact that the area is flat… at least by Mexican standards.

Apaseo el Alto (to distinguish it from the nearby Apaseo el Grande) is a small colonial town on one of the area’s mesas, facing the cliffs of another. It is somewhat arid, green with scrub and grass, but no trees.

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The old center is typical for the area, a main square and municipal hall. One small oddity is that there are two churches on the square. The older of the two is the main parish, and the other is named after the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built in the 19th century, undergoing extensive renovations when I visited, making it look new.

Wood working has been a generational craft here but very few artisans and their workshops are anywhere near the center. Instead, they are now clustered along the Pan American Highway which connects the town with nearby Celaya. This appears to be a recent development as most are on the side where the town center is. The municipality has marked the area for artisans, and even built a market for them, but very few artisans are in that building, preferring the visibility the highway gives their wares.

Religious iconography from Arte Barroco

Most sell rustic furniture in colonial or modern styles, with the quality ranging from good to very good. Furniture made with hard woods can be had as well, but are done by special order only as the artisans do not have the capacity to invest in and store such expensive pieces. I also found some stores selling trinkets, such as wood buckets, but the most impressive pieces have to be carved and sculpted pieces, most reproductions of colonial-era religious icons, but with a few surprises thrown in.

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One of the surprises, a workshop that specializes in meters-tall pieces

Coming in from Celaya by bus, I first noticed the shops on the highway but assumed that most of the workshops would be in the town proper. Despite this, I jumped off the bus when I came upon the workshop of Humberto Centeno and his father, Enrique (52 413 106 2281 Whatsapp). It was impossible not to be impressed by the meters-tall sculpted monks, crucifixes and horses being worked on mostly outside the building proper. How the move the pieces in and out of the shop is beyond me.

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Maestro Humberto with arm for a crucifix

Maestro Humberto seemed surprised to be asked for an interview, but he graciously agreed. He is a third generation artisan, beginning his training working in the family business at 7 years of age. Although he handles much of the business now, he still credits his father with the artistry on display in the shop.

The family specializes in these extra large pieces, using hard and speciality woods such as mezquite, Mexican cypress and eucaluptus. Many of the pieces are made with entire tree trunks, often with the roots. These come from contruction projects where trees are felled, mostly from the state of Guanajuato but occasionally from as far as Michoacan. Images of Christ and the Virgin Mary are a staple. But a number of interesting figures were taking shape in the shop including a “jimador” (one who harvests the agave plant for making tequila) and various figures of horses.  The use of capricious tree roots were fascinating.

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Horse head, using tree roots for the mane

The workshop’s clients are mainly churches, business and haciendas. Humberto noted that one Virgin Mary figure he is working on will have the face of the woman sponsoring the work. The family’s work can be found in many parts of Mexico and has sent one piece so far to the United States.

 

Although most artisans making more artistic pieces are very reluctant about photos, this shop allowed me to take as many. Each piece is dictated by the wood and each is unique, so “copying” is not really an issue.  While some pieces in the shop were painted, most were not, either left unfinished for the buyer to paint or more often, finished only with varnish so that the workmanship in wood can be appreciated.

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Several furniture makers workshops/stores along the highway

I browsed a number of other shops/workshops but some were not willing to talk, stating they were too busy and several had clear signs forbidding photography.

One other workshop that granted an interview was that of Arte Barroco run by Heriberto Giron Campos and his wife,Yanely Mendoza. Giron also learned to sculpt from his father. This workshop focuses more on colonial baroque religious figures (with the occasional exception) with the sizes generally running smaller, from miniatures to those up to two meters high. Again, most are left in the natural wood color, but they can paint with oils, and use techniques such as plaster (estofado) and gold leaf.  One added plus is that both artisan and wife speak English.

Samples of work from Arte Barroco

All photos related to Arte Barroco, including the lead photo, are from the workshop’s Facebook page, reused with permission.

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Lacquerware: Not only from Asia

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Lacqured gourds at the Lacquer Musuem in Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas

When most think of fine lacquerware, we think of the fine work that was perfected in Asia. However, the same technique, of hand-rubbing pigments into an object was developed independently in pre-Hispanic Mexico.

In much of Mesoamerica, the technique was principally used to cover gourds or parts of gourds to create both dishes and decorative items. One popular object was cups used for the drinking of chocolate, then reserved only for the nobility. The base could either be oil from the chia seed or a waxy substance derived from the aje larvae. In either case, the base grease was combined with mineral or plant pigments and carefully rubbed into the material to form a shiny, hard coating. Designed were painted then fixed by rubbing.

 

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Display of Uruapan lacquerware at the Casa de las Artesanias in Michoacan. Series of plates shows the process of adding layers of decoration, a bit at a time.

When the Spanish arrived, they did not recognize Mesoamercian lacquerware (called alternately maque or laca today) as such, but simply as painted. They could not fathom that the indigenous peoples were capable to developing what they had been importing at high cost from Asia.

For this reason, lacquerware was imported into New Spain, generally brought from the Phillipines to Acapulco via the Manila Galleon. From there, most traveled over land east towards Mexico City. One of the customs stations along this road was in Patzcuaro, Michocan.

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Lacquered folding screen from Olinalá, Guerrero on display at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares

The introduction of European designs and tastes, as well as Asian imports had an effect on the development of lacquerware during the colonial period, although a number of indigenous influences still remain. Most lacquerware in Mexico is produced in the states of Guerrero, Michoacan and Chiapas. Lacquered gourds can still be found, but more often the technique now is used on wood objects, especially boxes, bowls, plates and platters.

The three areas have distinct styles. In Guerrero, lacquerware is produced in and around Olinalá and almost exclusively on small boxes, producing designs by layering the colors then scraping to create designs by exposing the color underneath.

(L: Lacquered hen figure with eggs from Temascalzingo, Guerrero. R: Lacquered plates from Chiapa de Corzo Chiapas)

In Michoacan, the craft is concentrated in Patzcuaro and Uruapan. The work in Patzcuaro tends to be finer and more detailed, even with gold inlay… a result of the influence and affluence from the Asian trade that passed through here.

In Chiapas, the work is best known in Chiapa de Corzo, which has a musuem dedicated to the craft in the former Santo Domingo monastery. Here is where one is most likely to find fine pieces of lacquered gourds, along with masks and furniture.

Lacquered plates with gold inlay by Mario Agustín Gaspar of Patzcuaro

However, it is not easy for amateurs to distinguish between true lacquerware and pieces which are simply painted with a brilliant gloss, which makes shopping in reputable locations/with reputable vendors very important. Or even better, visiting the towns where the pieces are made. Patzcuaro is a major tourist attraction, with Uruapan not far from there. Chiapa de Corzo is not far from the popular San Cristobál de las Casas and is the embarkment point for the Sumidero Canyon. Only Olinalá is difficult to get to, but there is a reputable vendor in the San Juan Market in Mexico City who specializes in these wares.

Little scraps come to life

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Mermaid figure by Allende at the Doll Museum in Amealco, Queretaro

One tradition in the Xochmilco borough of Mexico City is the giving of a “last” doll to a girl during her quinceañera, a way of marking the transition from child to adult.

The making of such a doll for her younger sister, set Ana Karen Allende on the path of becoming a full-time artisan.

Allende has had creative talents since childhood, painting, drawing and even modifying her toys to personalize them. Her grandmother taught her to sew using a Singer sewing machine from the 19th century, and it was on this machine that Allende made her first two rag dolls.

At first it was a hobby but the creativity of the dolls attracted attention, with many becoming gifts, with the making of the quinceañera doll a special request from her sister. The making of the doll and the reception it received spurred Allende to start researching rag dolls as well as launch her business in 2002, called “Retacitos” (little scraps).

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Nearly life-size doll with fairies and cat at the Museo de Culturas Populares in Toluca

Allende makes a wide variety of plush creations, such as various animals, mermaids, centaurs and even large renditions of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The materials are commercial, with Ana Karen spending much time scouring sale tables at fabric shops. looking for interesting fabrics, most of which are odds and ends. For this reason, many of her pieces have bright colors, sparkles, rather than realistic representations. Faces and other “exposed” body parts tend to be of muslin or other natural looking material.  Faces are almost always painted on, with hair generally of yarn. These dolls and other plushes are made more for collectors rather than for children.

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Frida and Diego on display at the Museo de Culturas Populares in Toluca, State of Mexico
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Female lucha libre figures

Much of the work, especially design is done in her home in the south of Mexico City. The apartment is a virtual museum of dolls, sewing machines and various antiques. Allende maintains creative control but demand for her works is now such that she employs several women to help with assembly. She prefers to hire single mothers and others who best benefit from the flexible work schedule.

 

 

Her work has been exhibited in various museums in central Mexico and even featured in a report on CNN. She won first prize in the toy category at the annual FONART competition, and has won various recognitions since.

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Prostitute figure with devils on an antique stove

 

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Old time campesino on an antique plow

 

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia and Leigh Thelmadatter

 

 

 

Samplers of virtue

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By Maria del Pilar Calvo Duares Fournier (first half of 19th century)

Not all of Mexico’s handcrafts have reached the 21st century. The main reason why handcrafts die out is that machines can do the work faster and sometimes better.

In the case of embroidered samplers, another factor has been the role of women in society.

While there was probably something like embroidery in the pre Hispanic period, Mexican embroidery as we know it developed from European techniques brought over during the Conquest.

On both sides of the Atlantic, objects with fine embroidery indicated status, but unlike many other handcrafts, it was considered suitable for upper-class women. In fact, spending hours patiently embroidery demonstrated a woman’s virtue, if not worth, especially to the family she married into.

Part of a young woman’s training was learning the various stitches and designs that she would later embroider into clothing and linens. To prove their skill in this art, girls between 4 and 13 would create samplers, with various designs and as often as not, some indication of who did it. Sometimes even a date would be embroidered as well.

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Large samplers dating to 1800 from the collections of the Franz Mayer Museum and Oaxaca Textile Museum

Recently the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City opened an exhibit on samplers called Dechados de Virtudes, which literally means something like “gold standard”  but also used to mean samplers.

The works on display are almost entirely from the 19th century to early 2oth, primarily from four musuems, Franz Meyer, San Ignacio de Loyola Museum, the Oaxaca Textile Museum and the National Museum of History (Mexico). The earlist known sampler from Mexico dates from the mid 17th century, but it and all other colonial-era pieces belong to museums in the United States and Europe.

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Silk on linen piece by Manuela Garay from mid 19th century
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Thread over embroidery canvas from the San Ignacio de Loyola School in Mexico City

The exhibition coincides with several talks and a workshop with the aim of preservering the craft ane renewing interest in it, by curator Mayela Flores, reknowned authority on Mexican handcrafts Marta Turok and artisan Gimena Romero.

The making of samplers remained a staple of a young girl’s education/upbringing until the first half of the 20th century, although styles and materials changed. Initially pieces were made with naturally-dyed silk on fine linen or cotton. By the 19th century, some aniline dyes began to be used, and the purely Spanish designs of the colonial periods became influenced by Romanticism and even indigenous imagery. By the 20th century, the activity was no longer limited to the upper classes and cheaper materials such as yarn were used to teach basic embroidery, often on stiff, loose weave embroidery canvas for this purpose. By the 1960s, schools has begun to drop the activity from girls’ curriculum altogether, mostly likely in response to the feminist movement.

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Various samplers stiched together by Susana Flores Coba, (late 19th or early 20th century)

Interestingly enough, this same time period brought about interest in old samplers as collectors’ items, which allowed a quantity of these to be saved from the dump and be part of both public and private collections. This has allowed them to be compared, categoried and studied, even if it means in many cases the family history behind the pieces has been lost.

(L:Silk over linen by Hermina Bravo 1880. R: Cotton over linen, first half of 19th century)

Today, no school has students make samplers and only those 50+ remember them being made (by themselves or by others) in any form. There are few artisans who know many of the old stitches and designs and even fewer workshops for those who wish to learn.

 

Exquisite masks in a “fierce neighborhood”

“Peñon de los Baños” refers both to a rocky hill and a barrio (neighborhood) in the east of Mexico City, bordering Terminal 1 of the city airport to the north.

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Side of Carmen Plaza with the hill (yes, that is the airport radar tower) in the background

It is a “barrio bravo” (lit. fierce neighborhood), a term for area noted not only for being very poor, but also somewhat closed and hostile to outsiders. The area developed about a 100 or so years ago, but solidified as a zone when Mexico City’s growth exploded in the 20th century. Most of its residents have roots somewhere else, in particular in Puebla.

This Puebla link can be seen in a number of its traditions, in particular in the celebrations of Carnival and 5 de Mayo, one of the few places outside of the state of Puebla where the holiday is a big deal.

Carnival 2016

5 de mayo 2016

EduardoGarciaH006Eduardo Garcia Hernandez comes from a family long established in the area, and its a third generation “cartonero” or paper mache artist, a relatively common occupation in the eastern part of Mexico City. However, what makes the not-yet 30 Garcia stand out is the making of traditional wax masks for Carnival.

Neither his grandfather or father made wax masks; indeed, no one in the barrio made them. Although completely traditional, the masks had always been brought in from somewhere else, mostly the State of Mexico or Puebla. About eight years ago, this concerned Garcia, but talking to neighborhood elders yielded no information as to why this was the case.

EduardoGarciaH017About four years ago, he decided to try and make the masks. There was no one to learn from nor did he have any experience working with wax, so all learning was by trial-and-error. So much so that he gave up on the project for a time. He came back to it about two years ago with a new idea, and one that worked. It took fifteen days to use that idea to make the very first usable mask.

Despite the fact that Garcia simply could have developed a cartoneria version of the mask, he insisted on the wax version, stating that the wax has the important property of absorbing the “smell” of Carnival, principally the smoke of the gunpowder used extensively in theatrical rifles.

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One of the molds used to make the masks, crafted by Garcia from cartoneria

Garcia’s techniques for making the masks are based on his knowledge of cartoneria, basically the layering of 5 kinds of wax with layers of fabric pieces. The molds he uses to create faces are made from cartoneria (an interesting switch as cartoneria is typically make with molds, rather than being used to make molds). The most important detail, a highly-stylized beard is made from ixtle (maguey plant fiber), which Garcia dyes and weaves himself. Other details such as eyebrows and hair can be made from this as well, with other details from mostly commercial materials.  Paint in applied in several ways: onto the fabric layers, onto an interior wax layer or onto the top layer of the masks. Often a combination of techniques are used, especially for the creation of eyes.

Encouraged by his family, Garcia debuted his masks in 2015 and today he has more demand than he can fill himself. All products so far have been for local Carnival dancers, as the first masks by the barrio for the barrio, with all having been used for Carnival or other festivals.

Currently, Garcia has about ten basic designs with variations on the colors and details, so no two are exactly alike. Most are traditional: imitating the Spanish of the colonial period, but he has worked to developed others, including devil masks based of Judas figures and even a mask which wears a European-style Carnival mask.

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Female mask that wears a mask

Masks currently take about a week to make, and Garcia splits his time between mask making and cartoneria. So far, he is the only person producing the masks in Peñon de los Baños.

The masks stand out because they are so realistic-looking. While they look fragile, they are surprisingly resiliant.  Im ashamed to admit I dropped one, but it was not damaged. Garcia says they can withstand the occasional bang and the heat generated when dancers perform in the sun. But they cannot withstand a severe, intentional blow or to be in direct sunlight for an extended period of time.

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All photographs by Alejandro Linares Garcia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skeletons as art

fotos Raymundo 008For many in Mexico with artistic talent but no money, cartoneria paper mache has proved to be a godsend.

Raymundo Amezcua is one of those who have discovered it not only as an accesible material economically, but as a means to make a living.

Amezcua’s pieces are mostly traditional in theme; Catrinas and other skeletal figures, elements for monumental altars and occasional fleshed human representing some aspect of Mexico’s history and culture. What makes the maestro’s work stand out is his artistry.

fotos Raymundo 003Amezcua approaches the design and construction of a piece as carefully as any sculptor, but still respects basic cartoneria techniques such as the use only of paper, paste and reed or wire frames. The finish of the pieces is smooth, often confused with other materials such as clay or acrylic, achieved in part by the use of a final layer of mashed paper paste and sanding to hide all the lines from the layered strips. Another important aspect of his work is the use of fine detail. These include creating intricate hair styles, facial features and individual fingers so that hands can have realistic gestures, but the most most striking details have to do with the figures’ clothing. For example, Benito Juarez’s suit, hairstyle and shoes are all instantaneouly recognized as from 19th century Mexico, and one needs to look close to see that they are not fabric or leather.

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The creation of realistic clothing as part of the figure means that Amezcua can also play a bit with the form of the figure itself. For example, his skeletal figures have realistic body shapes under the cartoneria clothes, in particular hips and derriere of females.

While he has experimented with various non-traditional forms with his cartoneria, including abstract  pieces, the market is conservative and thus the vast majority of his work is in traditional themes, such as skeletons for Day of the Dead, Judas figures and the creation of large altars for various Mexican holidays. In these works, Amezcua says that innovation is important, but there must be a base in tradition.

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Innovation comes with techniques, colors and making pieces more durable so that they can be appreciated more as art, rather than just a decoration to be thrown away later. He has his own, somewhat complicated, recipe for paste which contains natural ingredients such as vinegar to make pieces harder and more resistant to both time and insects. He prefers realistic over bright colors using various paints and even encaustic painting (using wax to fix the color) to achieve various effects.  To get volume and hardness, figures typically have at least 2o layers of craft paper, which also works to keep the frame from showing through.

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Even the tassles are paper

The road to paper artistry began with Amezcua’s grandfather in Michoacan who had various talents but was very poor. Just to make money to eat, he taught himself to make crosses from reeds and other materials to sell. As a child Amezcua was attracted to his grandfather’s creative endeavors, asking questions about how things were made. Amezcua’s family moved from Morelia, Michoacan to Mexico City when the maestro was five years old, but the family remained poor and the grandfather inventive. Amezcua recalls how his grandfather made the family’s children toys for Three King’s Day simply from whatever scrap materials he could find. Because of this and more, Amezcua says his childhood was happy and he did not feel deprived.

As he got a little older, Amezcua worked his grandfather, especially with painting,  and here is where his talents, which he believes are inherited from his grandfather, began to show. As a young man, he went to study art conservation and restoration but could not complete school because of family finances. He briefly studied painting as well. Later on in life, Amezcua made money in various ways, the more artistic of which included the  painting of images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and “retablos,” small paintings on sheet metal or other cheap materials to be offered as a petition or thanks in Mexican Catholic tradition.

Along the way, Amezcua also learned to sculpt and made toritos. In 2007, he had a very small exhibition of a few pieces which caught the attention of the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, which invited him to make figures noted people in Mexican history and popular culture, which he did using wood, wire and cartoneria. This led to an exhibition of Grandes Maestros de Arte Popular at the Museo de Arte Popular.

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An average piece takes between four to six weeks to make, both because of size and the care in the construction. In the case of certain figures, such as those from history and literature, he does research on the subject to make sure he gets the appearance right, such as clothing and hairstyles. The idea is not to have the figures completely realistic but to have enough characteristics of the figure to make it instantly recognizable.

morirseestaenhebreoAs most of is work is commissions for museums and other institutions for events,  he tends to make large figures about the same height has himself, 1.60m. However, he also makes smaller works for art galleries. Much of his aesthetic is from the fine arts. Art books are scattered around the small townhouse where he now lives in Toluca, State of Mexico. He has contacts with people in the New York art scene and various artists in Mexico including studying under Luis Nishisawa. These contacts led to a commission to make a skull to be used in the promotional poster for Alejandro Springall’s film Morirse esta en Hebreo, as well as participation in the Museo de Arte Popular’s biennale pairing artisans and artists.

However, selling paper mache as art is not easy. It is difficult to find clients willing to pay for finely-crafted and original pieces. Amezcua is also demanding, refusing to bargain down his prices, with little love for many Mexican museum shops who he says do not treat artisans well. He has had to arrange his finances almost such that sales of large pieces become “extra income,” so teaching and working with prison craft programs provide for much of his subsistance.

The main attraction of the craft for Amuezcua is the work itself, not the money per se. He has always found enough money to live on and do his most important projects… stating that “Death” often saves his from financial ruin as when things are really bad, it is usually a commission for a skeletal figure that saves the day.

All photos courtesy of the artisan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traditional embroidery on modern textiles

 

Santa Monica is a small Otomi community in the municipality of Tenango de Doria, Hidalgo. It is situated in a very small valley, almost a ledge, where on one edge, you can look straight down to another, larger valley below. It is one of many small villages nestled among the cliffs and peaks of the Sierra Madre Oriental.

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Overlooking Santa Monica

The community ekes out a living growing basics: corn, beans and tomatoes, along with pean

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Tellez Corona with embroidered rebozo

uts in this sub-tropical wet forest area. Most live in small, unpainted, and often unfinished cinderblock constructions, and just about all the women here work on embroidery to supplement family income.

This include Cirenia Tellez Corona, even though she lives with her husband, Salvador, in one of the nicer houses in the community. Both are Santa Monica natives for at least 3 generations, with the previous generations working the land. Salvador told me that he worked a number of years in the United States and as a “coyote” (one who smuggles illegal immigrants). This probably is the reason for the home, along with the 15-passenger van which Salvador now uses to earn a living, as a shuttle between Santa Monica and the town of Tenango de Doria. Sirenia embroiders nearly full-time. The two support four children, aged 5 to 17 years of age.

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Variety of the artisan’s products laid out on the couch in her home.

The artisan’s embroidery is traditional tenango, done with regular cotton embroidery thread, sometimes in a synthetic silk, but she innovates onto what she puts the embroidery on. There were no tablecloths at her house; instead her stock includes tote bags, torilla warmers, sleeveless tops and clam digger sets, skirts and even shirts for boys. All of these she designs herself, having taken advantage of classes offered by a Mexican government program for indigenous peoples. She contracts another woman to do the actual sewing of the garments, but she does the embroidery herself.

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Shirt for a small boy

The embroidery she learned from her mother, who learned from her mother and so on. Sirenia has no idea just how many generations back goes this particular tradition in her family. She does make one traditional garment, a blouse known locally as a “petenado,” whose yoke is heavily and intricated embroidered in one or various colors, which gathers the fabric that falls below. The design of this garment and its embroidery identifies it as from the Tenango area. While her other garments are made purely for commerical reasons, these blouses are made for family use as well to be worn on special occasions, because the time the embroidery takes.

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Tortilla warmers

Unlike many women in Santa Monica, Sirenia travels in the area to sell her work, taking advantage of her husband’s business. However, she is looking to expand beyond this area, even though she has little idea how to go about this, stating the she has been waiting for someone to come and help her. We talked about Facebook, which her eldest daughter has, but I’m not sure if that conversation was helpful.

 

 

 

 

Dots and skeletons

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Santiago Apostol parish

When entering Capula, a large sculpture of a “Catrina” smiles her tooth grin at you. She represents one of several ceramic traditions of this small, rural town, just 20 minutes drive from the Michoacan state capital of Morelia. The name is derived from “capulines,”  itself from the Nahuatl word for (mountain) black cherries (prunus serotina). The original indigenous name for the area was Purhepecha, “Xenguaro.”

Despite is proximity to the state’s largest city, the town is still traditional, with red tiled roofs and an economy tied to agriculture and handcrafts. When we arrived on a Sunday, we found ourselves on market day, passing through streets filled with basic goods and lots of second-hand merchandise. We were first rewarded in the town center by eating the best beef birria I have had so far in Mexico, at a stand that regularly sets up just outside the atrium of the main church.

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Capula is known, and should be better-known, for it is pottery traditions; two stemming back generations and one that is quite new.

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Beef birria in a traditional bowl

The older of the two is the making of dishes and cookware from low-fire pottery, which shows both indigenous and Spanish ceramic techiques and designs. Like many other Michoacan communities, the origins of the modern forms are traced back to the efforts of Vasco de Quiroga, who worked to set up a handcrafting and trading system to benefit the indigenous of the region. Today, there are two kinds of utilitarian ceramics, “traditional” with several designs and the better-known “punteada” or “dotted” named after small dots arranged into patterns. These patterns may or may not create images such as flowers. On the finest pieces the dots are extremely tiny, and fill the entire piece. The most common pieces are not nearly so elaborate. Traditional and punteada pottery are two os Capula’s three officially-recognized craft traditions, and the town is the only one in Michoacan to have three.

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Punteada pottery pieces by Raul Estela Cortez of Capula at the Sunday market
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Finely dotted piece by unknown artisan at the Casas de las Artesanias in Morelia

CapulaPottery009The third is the making of ceramic “Catrina” figures, which date back only a couple of decades. A Catrina is a female skeletal figure, whose current form is traced back to graphic artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the late 19th, very early 20th century. Traditionally, this figure is dressed as an upper-class lady of that time period, with large, feathered hat and long gown. She is a traditional image for Day of the Dead (November 2), and appears in many of Mexico’s fine and popular art. Capula’s version is made of clay, generally tall and very thin, with generous hips, given that we are talking about a skeleton. She can be dressed in a number of ways, from a bride to an indigenous women carrying goods to market, to a figure wearing whimsical gowns, such as one filled with monarch butterflies, a symbol of Michoacan. The one we purchased is a vendor carrying cages with birds to sell.

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Artisan Arturo Perez with Catrina figure

A visit on a typical Sunday market day gives a visitor a good sense of what life in the town is like and the merchandise which is mostly aimed for local consumption. All of the vendors we talked to stated they were artisans (not middlemen) and almost all were from family with generations of experience in the working of clay.

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Artisan Raul Esteala Perez with his wares in the plaza

Only two or three vendors were selling Catrinas because these are made for national and foriegn markets, with most artisans having regular clients who buy all or most of their production. The market also attracts artisans/vendors from the Lake Patzcuaro area to sell basket and embroidered items.  The two main events of the locale is the patron saint’s day on July 25 and the Feria de Catrina de Capula in October, where a much wider variety of merchandise is offered for sale in anticipation of visitors.

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Traditional wares on the plaza