Luis Manuel Morales Gamez comes from a long line of pottery makers, five generations. His father Miguel Morales popularized a style of decoration with black line figures on a cream white background, in which his sister, Angelica Morales, excels.
Manuel continues in ceramics but has moved into a different direction, the making of high-fire, ceramics fired at very high temperatures, which are finer and more resistant.
He began working as a child, apprenticing with his father. In the early 1980s, when he was about 17, state agencies offered the opportunity to learn high fire ceramics and financing for kilns. Miguel took advantage and Manuel learn right alongside.
Unfortunately, Miguel died in an accident but Manuel decided to specialize in high-fire work his father began experimenting with. This work is not just a matter of a new firing technique but to learn new forms of decoration. Today, all Manuel’s pieces are one-of-a-kind, but they are generally moderized versions of pre Hispanic designs, elements from traditional Lake Patzcuaro life, costumbrista images, those of flora and fauna or a mixture. Another distinction is color scheme… often fairly dark with ochre, black and deep blue colors predominating.
Most of Manuel’s sales are from clientele he has built up over the decades. These are mostly wholesalers such as galleries. He does some sales through fairs and large public events such as the Noche de Muertos en Oaxaca. We met him at a weekend dedicated to Michoacan artisans in Mexico City. Much of his work can be found in upscale venues in places such as Puerto Vallarta, Oaxaca and San Miguel Allende, generally catering to foreign buyers. For this reason a large percentage winds up abroad, especially in the United States.
There has been promotion of his work in the US, which has brought tourists to his door in Tzintzuntzan, to the workshop Ceramica tztztz . However, much of what is here is seconds, pieces with small flaws, often unnoticable but make them unsellable in his normal venues.
The family tradition of making pottery continues as, the sixth generation, Manuel’s son and three daughters are learning the craft.
All photos are from the artisan’s Facebook page, used with permission.
For Mexican handcrafts enthusiasts, one must-see museum is the Franz Mayer, located on the northwest corner of the historic center of Mexico City.
Interestingly enough, it is not a handcrafts museum per se (like the nearby Museo de Arte Popular). Instead it specializes in decorative arts, mostly from Mexico but there are pieces from other parts of the world as well.
The museum’s origin is with the personal collection of German immigrant Franz Mayer. From about 1925 to 1975, Mayer collected art, books, furniture, ceramics, textiles and more dating from the 15th to 20th centuries. A significant portion of the collection is Mexican handcrafted items, and the collection is important because it contains examples of many things which have not survived otherwise because people at the time did not consider them worthy of preservation. One particular example of this are the Talavera pieces he began collecting in the 1920s, long before having the value they do today.
The musuem proper was opened in 1986, and while it does make new acquisitions, the vast majority of the permanent collection is still that put together by Franz Mayer, with only a quarter of the collection put on display at any time for reasons of space.
One particular distinction of this collection is that the vast majority is fine handcrafts, including pieces made from precious metals. However, the museum does not stop with curating this collection, it also sponsors research into Mexican handcrafts, collaborating with noted names in this field such as Marta Turok. It also sponsors temporary exhibits (which includes those dedicated to handcrafrts), workshops and presentations of an academic nature.
Talavera pottery is one of Mexico’s finest and most expensive ceramics, endemic to the state of Puebla. It is derived from a style of Spanish pottery (hence the name) and its value is attributed to a rigourous selection of clays and handcrafted processes from the 16th century.
However, buying authentic Talavera is not easy. The name is used on all kinds of colonial-style pottery, using all kinds of materials and processes.
La Trinidad is one of the oldest Talavera workshops which still exist in the city of Puebla. Founded in 1839, it is still housed in a colonial-era building that was originally the main house of the family’s hacienda, back when the area was outside the city of Puebla. Today, it is on the very edge of the city center.
The family began making the pottery primarily for domestic use, with some used as gifts. These were simple, just black lines over a creamy background. Great aunts began to develop many of the family’s designs based on their embroidery work and other handcrafts. The Talavera sold today, with all the colors were originally made only for wealty customers and/or for special pieces, like wedding china. Just over a century later, pottery making became the family’s main economic activity. The family has continuously made pottery, and today the head of the workshop is Alejandra Nuñez Ladrón de Guevara.
Maestra Alejandra is very critical of the Talavera markets as it exists today in Puebla. Fakes abound, especially in markets that cater to tourists. One dead giveaway is a bright white background, something that is not possible to achieve using the materials and techniques of the 16th century. Another are holes in the back of plates, often used to dip the piece into glaze, but also attractive to tourists as it allows for easy hanging on a wall. The maestra says one way NOT to determine if a piece is real is to feel for ridges created by the painted-on design. It is not true that the painting cannot keep a completely smooth surface, as many of her pieces can attest, although an occasional uneveness can be sometimes detected. The belief has prompted many producers to add feldspar to the paints used for designs to bulk it up.
To try to distinguish genuine producers from imitators, the state of Puebla and the federal government have a means of registering authentic producers, called denominación de orígen. However, the maestra has expressed her doubts about this as well. Her workshop does have the certificate, but claims that too many workshops have pressured their way to the certification, often with significant changes to how their pottery is made. It is true that there are some which experiment with very different designs and sometimes colors… for example the Uriarte workshop. For this reason, while La Trinidad is authorized to embed produt authenticity chips in their pieces, they so far have refused to do so. Instead, they rely on the company signature/logo.
Maestra Alejandra claims that La Trinidad is the only workshop that is 100% faithful to original Talavera pottery, both in materials and technique. No commercially prepared products are used, neither in the clays or glazes. She is quite particular about the glazes, insisting that all are made in the workshop in small batches from scratch using metals like copper she often buys in junk yards. She states that other workshops use “industrial” glazes, which are cheaper and faster to use. Her glazes are made in site and are very time-consuming, but she states they give a far richer color. Another criticism is that many workshops now produce their pottery in an assembly line fashion, with workers specializing in one or a few tasks.
There is a division between potters and painters, the former role generally filled by men and the latter by women. Her potters are able to produce all the items that the workshop produces, but most important are the painters. In this, maestra Alejandra insists that painters create the decorative painting from start-to-finish, rather than having a line of painters who only work on one aspect of the decoration. She believes that in this way, the artisan is vested in the piece, rather than simply repeating a task over and over.
While La Trinidad’s designs may not be exactly 16th century, they have not changed since the family established them a couple of generations ago, and the maestra is more interested in preserving tradition than innovation. Images of pottery in the family from 50 or more years ago can be placed among the items in the showroom with nothing to indicate age.
Maestra Alejandra is secretive about processes, especially paint-making and laments that many of the family’s designs have been copied by other workshops. This is probably unavoidable as La Trinidad draws from the same pool of workers/craftspeople that other workshops do…n economic necessity because of the ups-and-downs of production. Depending on business, she may have from three to 15 workers at a time. When she does not have work, they go onto others, bringing their knowledge with them.
La Trinidad’s dedication to tradition has earned them some recognition in Mexico, with pieces part of collections such as that of the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City and the Santa Rosa Cultural Center in Puebla. However, maestra Alejandra states that La Trinidad’s work is far more appreciate by foreigners. The workshop has exhibited in and sold in venues such as the Feria Maestros de Arte in the expat community of Chapala, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and various other museums in the United States. The work has also appeared in foreign publications such as National Geographic.
All photos by the author except the featured photo and others credited to La Trinidad, all used with permission.
The rebozo is an iconic garment of Mexico, which was essential for Mexican women from the colonial period until some time after the Mexican Revolution. Essentially it is a modesty garment, whose name comes from an old Spanish word meaning “to cover.”
Most modern Mexicans think of the garment 1) as a sign of indigenousness and rural Mexico and 2) with the “Adelitas,” women aligned with the rebels during the Revolution. This give the garment a somewhat contradictory nature, associating anything it with “backwardness” but at the same time a symbol of national pride. For these reasons, most women do not wear the rebozo regularly, but have at least one that gets worn for certain festivals, in particular the celebration of Mexico’s Independence, September 15-16.
During the days leading up to the festival it is not uncommon to see cultural events related to the rebozos. The Museo de Culturas Populares has a show starting this week called Tapame con tu rebozo (Coverme with your rebozo).
The town of Tenancingo, State of Mexico holds its annual Rebozo Fair (Feria de Rebozo) the weekend before Independence Day. The town is one of a number which specialize in the making of the garment, weaving it on backstrap or pedal looms and finshing with fringes with finger weaving. What distinguishes Tenancingo rebozos is the use of ikat dying methods, originally from Asia, to create patterns.
The purpose of the fair is to promote this particular type of rebozo and the people who make them. However, keeping the traditional alive is a struggle, both because of the fall of the use of the rebozo and the cost associated with hand weaving and finishing.
The Feria also showcases innovations with the handcrafts associated with the ikat rebozo, principally the creation of new merchandise using hand-woven ikat fabric. One idea is to create new clothing items, ones that are easier to wear with modern outfits. However, it is important to keep the cutting of the handwoven fabric to a minimum and to waste as little of the precious materials as possible. Just about all scraps are used, often to cover small items from purses to shoes to even buttons.
Promotion of the garments at the Feria extends beyond vendors’ stalls to demonstrations on how to wear a traditional rebozos (both new and old ways) as well as fashion shows with new garments.
The Feria is held once a year, but rebozos are found in Tenancingo year round, both at artistans’ workshops and at the weekly Sunday tianguis (market) which has a section dedicated to them.
Tepotzotlan is a small corner of colonial Mexico hidden just off the highway leaving Mexico City to Querétaro. It is surrounded by a sea of grey cinderblock contruction, shopping centers and warehouses, but its center has maintained some of its former glory, mostly due to the National Viceroyalty Museum, formerly a church and monastrery of the Company of Jesus, and the town’s designation as a “Pueblo Mágico” (lit. Magic town) by Mexico’s tourism authority.
Nancy Chavez Luna and Gabriel Granados are a wife and husband team of paper mache artists. They do not really call what they do “cartonería” as they neither comes from an artisan family, and the development of their work has a very independent origin and trajectory.
They began about 15 years ago, as they say “before the boom” of cartonería in Mexico City. Both were students of graphic design at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM) in Azcapotzalco, Mexico City. Granados was unemployed and the couple needed another source of income. Granados prefers 3D work over drawing so the couple decided to experiement with paper mache.
Using only their knowledge from graphic design and basic techniques learned in primary school, they have since began a journey to develop a paper art. Because of limited contact with other, more traditional cartoneros, their work has developed quite distinctly, in materials, techniques and design.
Paper sources are not limited to newspaper or craft, they have experiemented with various kinds, including the use of old egg cartons. While larger pieces are can be made with layers of paper over a wire frame, most of their work is with smaller pieces made, at least in part, with mashed paper pulp, rather than paper strips. These pieces are generally molded free hand and can be either hollow or solid. These are built up in sections, to give the older parts a chance to dry and harden.
One imporant aspect of this work with molded paper pulp is the emphasis on texture. Unlike other fine cartonería, the goal is not to make the finished piece as smooth as possible, thus making it look like something other than paper. Instead, the idea is to use paper’s natural roughness and slight changes in shape as it dries for textual effect. However, the end result does not look like paper either.
The design of their work definitely shows their modern, academic backgrounds, although traditional cartonería folk themes are not abandoned. As both are from Mexico City and neither is from an artisan family, they do not feel any restrictions against the making of untraditional and sometimes highly unusual forms. Much of thier work has been done in cycles or phases, such as those dedicated to the making of fairies, animals and large insects paired with tiny humans. They even make furniture, lamp shades and figures of non-animate objects such as cameras and suitcases. They have also made stage sets. The pieces are almost always collectibles, rather than those made for festivals. If they make traditional objects such as animated skeletons or images such as that of Frida Kahlo, they will reinterpret them to their style, rather than copy what was done before.
That style not only revolves about the use of the texture of paper but also the use of color and form. Unlike very traditional cartonería, the coloring on their works are more sophisticated, generally foregoing basic and clashing bright colors for more subtle hues. Even when a brighter color like yellow is used, it will be toned down with a black patina or similar technique. Many of their figures have been described as both “corny” and “gloomy” at the same time, a contrast which the couple likes, especially since it almost always causes some reaction from those who look at their work.
Today, this work is a family business under the name of Creaturas de Papel. They now live in Tepozotlan, in part because the local art bazar on the main plaza and local artists have been supportive of their work. Both now work in paper full time, and their young daughter is growing up working with it as well.
Their work has also been noticed outside of Tepotzotlan, as well, exhibiting at the Museo de Culturas Populares in Toluca, Festival de las AlmasFestival de las Almas in Valle de Bravo and have an upcoming exhibition in Toluca in October 2016. They have participated in events with the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, such as the Train of History project, making the cars representing Francisco I. Madero and one related to Mexican Independence, and they have received commissions from agencies such the Family Support Agency of the State of Mexico.
All but two photos (by the author) are from the artisan’s Facebook account, used by permission.
If you look up at any outdoor clock tower in Mexico, there is a good chance it has the name “Centenario” on its face.
The name refers to a small family business in the small town of Zacatlán, Puebla, an area known for its apples, and the cider most get made into.
Centenario is the first monumental clock maker in Latin America, founded in 1918 by Alberto Olvera Hernandez, a local boy with restless hands and a passion for all things mechanical. His interest in clocks came when a clock on the chimney of his house fell and he tried to fix it. In 1917, at just 17 years of age, he began to teach himself to make monumental clocks using junk and wood from the family farm. Soon after he began Centenario, which was based on the farm until 1929, when it was successful enough to move to its the space it occupies today.
To date the company has built over 2,000 monumental clocks which can be found on churches, government buildings, shopping centers and more. They are also the go-to people for the reparation of monumental clocks, whether built by them or of European origin. Their success spawned a small clock industry in Zacatlán, but this business, which is still run by the Olvera family, dominates.
Perhaps the most eye-catching work done by Centenerio are its flower clocks. These are very large clocks which are set into gardens, often with foliage serving as all or part of the clock’s face. One of these clocks is located in Mexico City’s Hundido Park, and is one of the largest such clocks in the work, occupying a space of 78m2.
Centerario is open to visits from the public and also has a clock museum, which documents the history of clocks as well as the production of the company itself.
Featured image of the flower clock in the main plaza of Zacatlán, Puebla. All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter.
I had seen this almost fantastically bright “silver” before in tourist shops, which I had assumed was a kind of plating, like the chrome that used to be very popular on car ornaments not so long ago.
Instead, a visit to Ruth Cortes Rodriguez‘s workshop in San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato gave me an education in a metal alloy called nickel silver (most commonly called “alpaca” in Mexico). It is not a silver at all, but rather a copper alloy with nickel and zinc. The combination changes to metal’s color from the orange hue associated with copper to rustic gray or a very shiny silver, depending on the finishing treatment. Either way, there is no plating to peel over time and with use.
Cortes’s workshop is located Colonia Guadalupe, a neighborhood north of the historic center of this town popular with American expats. Its an unassuming building with no sign, and with the only giveaway to its function being the near-constant hammering and other noises associated with the working of metal.
Unlike most metal workshops, this one was founded and run by a woman. She began her career in metals working with an American silversmith from New Mexico about 25 years ago, for whom she made belt buckels and hat trim in silver for the U.S. market. This experience not only taught her metal working, but also how to sell to foreign customers.
She decided to expand both her client base and the metals she worked in. San Miguel Allende is noted for the working of tin, which she did for a while, but has since moved almost exclusively to the working of nickel silver. The reason for the change was that it has a appearance similar to silver, but is nowhere near as costly.
The workshop is large, with two level and looks everything like the metal shop it is, drab lighting, cut metal everywhere, various work tables and some power tools, such as the machine use to polish finished products to a high gloss. It is a property left to her by her father.
There is no store per se, but in the office, there is a large stash of finished pieces that functions as a small warehouse of the most common products the workshop sells. The two most popular items are small to medium-sized jewelry/knick-knack boxes and picture frames, but the stock also includes decorative wall hangings, belt buckles, jewelry, napking holders, bookends and more. By far, the preferred finish is bright and mirror-like.
This stock method is fairly unusual for Mexican artisans, who generally make to order or to a specific event. But since most of Cortes’s clients are retail outlets in the United States, she has adapted to the need to be able to fill orders quickly. The stock also allows her to make spot sales to clients who visit the workshop. Most of her US clients are in Washington, DC, San Francisco, Santa Fe, NM and Texas. These clients visit once or twice a year, buying stock items and leaving orders to fill over the coming months.
The workshops does make to order and in fact has a number of client with whom she has developed exclusive designs. These are not displayed with the general stock nor clients.
Cortes does sell regularly at some handcraft fairs, most notably the Feria Maestros del Arte (where she will appear in November) and ENART in Tlaquepaque. In the past she used to attend many other smaller ones in the Guanajuato areas, but as the business has matured, the need for these has become less.
While her children are part of the business, she still supervises all design and production, include the work of ten employees.
The workshop is located on Alfonso Esparza Oteo Street, but the entrance to the shop proper is on H. Colegio Militar.
Generally, people like to talk about themselves, especially when given permission. I can usually get an artisan to talk at least for 30 minutes, often an hour or more once the conversation gets started.
Today I think I hit a record for the shortest conversation with an artist who genuinely gave me an interview…. 7 minutes.
Its not the first time I have had to do some coaxing. Some people are shy, and some artisans do not quite get the interest and value that foreigners have in their work. But despite the multi-talents that the Ramirez family has; screen printing, photography, jewelry-making, and sandblasted glass, what attracted me was the leatherwork on display on their table at the Feria de las Culturas Indígenas, Pueblos y Barrios Originarios at the Zocalo of Mexico City this past weekend.
Despite my best efforts to coax a story behind the eye-catching work, anything more than bits of data were just not forthcoming. Essentially, the family has been a creative jack-of-all trades for so long, that Mario Antonio Ramirez, the man I interviewed finds it so very ordinary.
I did get that the family is from Mexico City, with just about all still living in the area, except Mario, who lives in the city of Campeche. The leatherwork is relatively new, only 10 years or so, added both because of interest in working with the material and economic necessity. When I asked how they got into it, the simply reply was along the lines of … we decided to do it, bought the materials and learned… like that is so easy.
Questions about how and why their items are bought also elicted vague replies. They seem to sell at fairs all over Mexico, through various resellers, etc. However, they are business-saavy enough to have business cards and a website (although “in maintenance”)… a rarity among artisans.
I found the leatherwork especially the bags to be interesting because while they were definitely rustic, there is something sophisticated in the simple designs I cannot put my finger on. I think perhaps the work speaks far more than Mario prefers.
The family business is under the name of Ivonne and Marco Ramirez Bello, web site http://www.aerogio.com/ or Whatsapp 5540516224/5525319770 or firstname.lastname@example.orgemail@example.com