Reviving Taxco silver

All that glitters is not gold… sometimes it is silver.  William Spratling did not move to Mexico with the intent of becoming a silversmith, but fate eventually led him there, much to the benefit of the small town of Taxco, Guerrero.

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Spratling, aged 21 (1)

Spratling was born in 1900 in Sonyea, New York. He came from an educated family, but his mother died young, and he eventually went to live with other relatives in New York and Alabama. He studied architecture at Auburn, taught there and at the age of 22, became a faculty member at Tulane University in New Orleans. Spatling became immersed in work in architecture, writing and art, becoming a fixture in the artists’ community of Vieux Carré, associated with people such as William Faulkner and Caroline Durieux. His position allowed him to travel in Europe for several summers. but he became interested in traveling in Mexico.

 

His first opportunity came in 1926, through Frans  Blom, who headed the new Middle America Research Department at Tulane. Blom was well-connected in Mexico and gave Spratline introduction letters for a number of important people such as Diego Rivera and Frances Toor. Spratling left for Veracruz with a contract to write articles on colonial Mexican architecture for a magazine, the first of three such summers.

Outgoing and gregarious, he quickly developed a social circle of influential people in Mexico including Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, David Siquiereos, photographer Edward Weston, along with a number of politicians, intellectuals and art dealers.

He had been involved in learning about Mexican handcrafts through his writing and promotion work.

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Brooch 1940s, silver with amethyst (2)

By 1928, Spratling decided to abandon the U.S. for permanent residency in Mexico. His contacts, along with artistic and political interest in the States in the wholesale changes going on in Mexico, offered Spratling writing and art promotion opportunities.  In 1929, he negotiated a mural for Rivera in Cuernavaca (sponsored by a wealthy American family) and in turn, Rivera gave Spratling a $2000 dollar commission, with which he bought a modest house in Taxco, Guerrero. Spratling’s work also put him in contact with Mexican handcrafts, which were promoted by Mexico’s artistic class as symbolic of a true Mexican identity.

Spratling’s house purchase became the foundation of a wave of American expats moving to the tiny, impoverished town. From 1929 to 1945, the American invited and entertained people at his home, convincing more than a few to buy or build their own homes there.

However, despite his wide-ranging connections and talents, his financial situation was dicey. In 1930, US ambassador Dwight Morrow made note to Spratling that the town’s economy was based on silver and that he should consider reviving it.

Silver had been mined in the area since the pre Hispanic period. It reached its height in the 18th century under Jose de la Borda, who built the town’s notable Santa Prisca Church. But that silver mining had little benefit to the town and after the silver ran out, things became worse. By the time Spratling had arrived it had fallen into abject poverty. Spratling, like his contemporaries, was looking to create a better Mexico, but his means was a bit more practical than promoting artists’ utopian visions.

Spratling found the idea of reviving silverwork very intriguing. He found one lone old man who still new something about the work that had been done in Taxco to learn what he could. He also made connections with artisans in the Guerrero capital of Iguala, where silver and gold work continue to this day.

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Spratling with candlestick in 1935 (3)

The result was the start of a silver workshop in Spratling’s home, hiring some master craftsmen from Iguala and recruiting local young people as apprentices. Design work fell to the drawing abilities of Spratling himself.

 

This workshop was dubbed “Taller (Workshop) de Las Delicias,” the street on which the house was located. The anniversary of this founding is still noted in Taxco, as the date of Mexico’s National Silver Fair held each November.

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Malachite and Silver Torque Cuff circa 1950, silver with azur-malachite (4)

 

At that time, Mexican silverwork had degenerated to copies of European and Mexican colonial designs. Inspired by the work of Rivera and others in reviving an indigenous heritage identity for the country, Spratling began by using images primarily from indigenous sources, which varied from ancient codices, stamps local Nahuas used to decorate their pottery, Aztec seals, etc. The discovery of Tomb 7 in Monte Alban in Oaxaca, yielded gold treasures (very rare as the Spanish did a thorough job of plundering the country), the designs of which made their way into Spratling’s work.

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Aztec eagle (5)

But design work quickly shifted from copies to Spratling’s own interpretations of the old designs, adding contemporary elements and lines. This is what set his work apart from just making curios.

Early work from Las Delicias was relatively crude, starting with half-dome earrings and large, heavy belt buckles. Early techniques were very basic, lacking equipment such as rolling mills, with much of the work done through hand-hammering. Polishing was done with a local leaf with a texture similar to sandpaper. However a number of early elements of the work remained. One was Spratling’s trademark, a joined “WS” (from the brand on his horses) and the making of 980 silver (20 parts copper to 980 parts silver) Sterling is 925, but Spratling preferred the softer color of 980 and that it did not oxidize as quickly.

Initially, the workshop’s sales were purely retail, depending on the stream of visitors now coming to Taxco and Las Delicias. Taxco was becoming fashionable and demands for a number of Mexican crafts was growing, leading Spratling to offer work in tin, leather, wool and wood (especially furniture) from a variety of craftspeople. While other similar businesses were appearing, Las Delicias stood out because buyers could watch pieces being made just before purchase.

Through the 1930s, the workshop grew rapidly, tourism and the US expat community continued to grow. By 1937, Spratling employed about 100 artisans and by 1940, 300. The silverwork expanded to include larger pieces such as silverware, candlesticks, dishes and more. This growth continued into the 1940s, with wholesaling of jewelry starting in 1945, almost entirely to foreign markets. Spratlings main roles continued to be in design (with several new ones each week) and the management of the business. Despite the volume of business it was not making much money. In 1940, Spratling signed a contract with Silco to provide designs for costume jewelry, one of many such collaborations he would do for the rest of his life.

Another problem was competition, and in particular the copying of his designs. He complained that any new design had a shelf life of about a week before they were copied in town. One craftsperson, Serafin Moctezuma, went even as far as to use a “SM” mark… looking much like and upside down “WS.” A number of Spratling’s craftsmen left to form their own workshop, some like those of Hector Aguilar and Antonio Castillo, with Spratling’s blessing with the admonition not to reproduce what they had done for him.

By the mid-1940s, the workshop employed about 400 artisans, but Spratling made a startling move. In 1944, he sold all but 15% of his interest, essentially becoming an employee, sticking to design work and leaving most of the business decisions to others. This would prove to be a disaster for Las Delicias, now renamed Spratling and Artesanos. His importance in the enterprise sharply diminished in within a year had problems with his business partners. Disheartened, he took on employment to work with native peoples of Alaska to try and replicate his success in Taxco. In 1946, Spratling sold the last of his stake in the company which eventually went bankrupt.

Spratling returned to Mexico to live at a ranch he bought on the highway between Taxco and Iguala. He lived off the food the ranch produced as well as various collaorations with Mexican and US enterprises. His role as founder of modern Taxco silver was cemented, with a street there named after him and being named its “favorite son.” But the honors also resulted in scandalous newspaper stories about his personal life and accusation of shipping archeological pieces outside of Mexico. This and failure of the company he founded made Spratling rather reclusive to his ranch. When Warner Bros. came to make a movie about his life, Spratling did not want credit for the Taxco industry.

 

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Spratling Museum in Taxco (6)

Spratling died on August 7, 1967 in a car accident while he was on his way to Mexico City. It would be very difficult to overestimate his impact on silverwork, not just in Taxco but in Mexico in general as the indigenous-inspired motifs have since become a staple of Mexican silver. Taxco’s position as one of Guerrero state’s three main tourist attractions (along with Acapulco and Zihuatanejo) traces back to him, the people he brought to Taxco and connecting sales to tourism. Although it may not have ended personally well for this American, his work has had a positive economic effect on just about everyone who works in this tiny town clinging onto a hillside in central Mexico.

Photo credits

Featured image – Ruby Lane (fair use)

(1) unknown, photo in public domain

(2) unknown, (fair use)

(3) Juan Guzman (fair use)

(4) Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CC-by-SA)

(5) Modern Silver Magazine (fair use)

(6) Wendy Morales (CC-by-SA)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Women, clay and rescue dogs

Mujeres Alfareros de Tlahuac (Women Potters of Tlahuac) has it origins in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. At that time many people not only lost their homes but their livelihoods as well. There were efforts by both government and NGO’s to rebuild and replace employment that had been lost, which included encouraging the founding of employee-owned cooperatives.

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Rita Resendez at the potters’ wheel

Then 20-something Rita Resendiz was one of those who had lost her job. She had recently moved to Colonia Roma, near the city center and one of the neighborhoods heavily impacted by the disaster. While still living in a tent shelter, a man by the name of Dr. León Valencia, was looking for people who would be interested in using a ceramic kiln on his property to learn to make pottery and start a business. This appealed to Rita and a few other women. They were all young, with neither any idea of how to create ceramics or run a cooperative, but decided not to let that hold them back. Resendiz says that decision changed her life forever, as she never went back to her studies.

Unfortunately, this first co-op lasted only five years. The original organization made everyone equally owners and workers, and angry disputes eventually led to dissolution.

The group divided up the property, and with her part, Resendiz started over. She was not dissuaded from the co-op model, nor from the idea of an organization dedicated to helping women socially and economically. Resendiz formed a new cooperative, whose ideological purposes are enhancing women’s social and economic positions in Mexican society and even within their own families. The other is to conserve and promote the cultural value of Mexican handcrafts within Mexico. She is frank about why her focus is on women’s issues: her experience with men in various facets of her life has been mostly negative, in part because she feels they do not take her or her opinions seriously.

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The second organization is the one that still exists today. It started with only three women, including Resendiz. Instead of staying in expensive Colonia Roma, Resendiz bought land in then-isolated Tlahuac borough in the southwest of what is officially Mexico City. The reality was that it was a world apart in the very early 1990s. It was still rural, with few paved roads, fewer stores and almost non-existant public transportation. People lived by the raising of livestock, and there was no infrastructure to support a ceramics workshop. Very slowly the workshop was established and then began to grow. By 2006, it had reached a dozen or so members. But changes in federal government policies pulled support for artisans in training and marketing. The workshop suffered, lost members and even suspended operations for a time. Since 2012, the situation has improved and today the co-op has 4 women who are dedicated to it full-time.

MujeresArtesanasTlahuac022The workshop’s repertoire today is a far cry from the very simple pieces they produced in the beginning. In the latter 1980s, much of the time was spent learning the basics. Over time they have developed signature products and styles in high-fire ceramics (fired once at 1280C) using clays from several states in Mexico. Various shades of blue are dominant here as this pigment works best with high-fire techniques. Red can be seen and occasionally other colors.

They are still dedicated to experimentation and new ideas. They have worked with Georgina Toussaint, a textile artist and anthropologist. While Mujeres Alfareras had always used traditional design elements, Toussaint taught them their histories and meanings. Many of these have pre Hispanic origins. Resendiz says this gives the women pride as they feel they are doing their part to keep their heritage alive. The use of traditional elements does not mean stagnation. The workshop works to diversify, update and innovate their product lines, working with various clays, glazes and pigments as well.

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Piece dedicated to femicide in Ciudad Juarez

Their products are classified under three different lines. The first is utilitarian pieces: cups, plates, bowls etc. The second consists of decorative pieces such as flower vases, tiles with images painted on them and decorative masks (hung on walls). The last are those created with an artistic purpose in mind.  One example is a set of faces done in 2002 as a protest against the femicides of Ciudad Juarez. Another is a ceramic chair draped in textiles by Georgina Toussaint, which was part of the Arte/Sano exhibit of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. All of these pieces are made for exhibit competition and may or may not be sold. All members participate in the making of items of all three lines. One reason behind this is that Rita does not yet know who will take over the cooperative after her, but whoever does needs to understand all aspects of production.

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Ceramic tile fired with molten glass

Most of Mujeres Alfarera’s sales are through a built-up client base who return time and time again to place orders. Many of these are special orders for items such as personalized plaques, mugs, plates, for individuals and for events. They also travel to various handcraft fairs, but in particular like to work with events related to women’s issues. A small amount is sold in stores, such as the government FONART outlets. They have sold abroad, mostly through the Novica organization. Interestingly enough, the main economic challenge for the workshop right now is not having enough orders but having enough hands. They are looking for new members.

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Rita Resendiz is the leader of the cooperative and its main driving force. She is quite unusual. She decided when very young to become independent of her family, moving alone from Mexico City’s northern suburbs into the center of the city proper. She remains a fiercely independent woman, never married or does she have children. She considers the co-op and her shelter dogs to be her children. She even has limited contact with the rest of her relatives, something highly unusual for women (and even men) in Mexico, even in modern Mexico City.

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Mural on the facade of the workshop/shelter on Mar de Frio in Colonia Selene, Tlahuac

Another of Resendiz’s passions is rescue dogs. The workshop compound also served as a shelter for up to 20 dogs at a time, and even a few cats through in. When Resendiz moved to the area it was still very rural. Dogs could run around freely in relative safety, and even survive pretty well without owners. The rapid urban sprawl into this part of the Valley of Mexico has made life extremely difficult for street dogs, similar to the rest of city. The change has occurred only over 20 years, and people’s attitudes towards animals have not caught up. Dogs are considered similar to livestock, things to be owned and disposed of if not wanted. Spaying and neutering is rare here, in part because of finances and because the idea of dogs (and cats) as part of the family is rare.

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One of the rescue dogs inside the workshop.

The cooperative does what it can to change the situation, using resources they generate themselves through ceramic work (as well as maintain themselves). This includes feeding, spaying/neutering and finding permanent homes for the 20 dogs they can have on their compound at any one time and feeding many more that are on the street. Rita says that when money for the dogs is tight, they offer workshops in making and firing ceramic pieces to the public, charging only a bag of dry dog food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A family tradition with innovation in Dolores Hidalgo

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“Tibors” in a non-traditional black and burnt orange motif

On a recent visit to the pottery town of Dolores Hidalgo, we inquired at the local tourist office for a recommendation of a producer to visit. Without hesitation, the answer was Talavera Vazquez, only a few blocks from the main plaza on the corner of Puebla and Tamaulipas streets.

Despite the fact that the name “Talavera” refers only to majolica pottery produced in Puebla (according to Mexico’s demoninación de origen law), neither the Vazquez family or the rest of the town accepts that they cannot call their work or their businesses by that name.

The story of how the family came to prominence in this field started in the very early 20th century with Felipe Vazquez, whose parents moved to Dolores Hidalgo from Puebla. Felipe began during the Mexican Revolution by walking the streets of the towns of Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende selling the family’s pottery. The business grew enough that he was able to sell as far away as Guadalajara and taught ceramics classes in San Miguel for 30 years. His work became a fixture in San Miguel, eventually bringing it to the attention of U.S. expats who began to arrive to study there after World War II. Today, the workshop is run by 4th generation Roberto Vazquez but the workshop’s current status in the market is due to the work done by his parents who ran it from 1986 to 1996. Prior to the 1980s, the bulk of the ceramic produced was tile. His parents anticipated a change to the making of dishes and other individual pieces, in part due to San Miguel’s growth as a retirement haven for foreigners. This not only resulted in higher local sales, but also articles about the business in English language publications with several speciality stores in the US taking interest in importing their wares by the end of the decade. Foreign markets have been a profitable mainstay of the business ever since.

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For better or worse, the majolica “talavera” of Dolores Hidalgo is not as constrained by tradition as are the wares of Puebla in styles, colors or methods. However, most pieces do keep the colonial feel to them. This is very evident in the inventory available for sale at the workshop itself, open to the public. Items include plates bowls, tiles, and large jars called tibors, but also include less traditional items such as coffee mugs, multicolored lizard figures to hang on walls, modern bathroom sinks and small fountains.

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Vazquez’s take on carnival masks

The clay used is still mined from areas around Dolores Hidalgo. Vazquez principally uses three kinds; red, black and white, with two or all three mixed depending on what is being made. The most traditional method of forming pieces is by pottery wheel, but the market for Dolores wares has made this impossible. This majolica does not command the prices of that of Puebla, so Vazquez and competitors form the majority of their pieces using molds, which allows for faster creation of multiple items, which most orders require. It also has the benefit of making pieces less prone to defects. Only a few pieces are made by hand at all, which include oval platters and box-like containers.

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Maestro Carlos, who creates the outlines of the designs.

DoloresHidalgo090Glazes and pigments are commercial, but colors are created by the workshop. The most traditional and most popular color scheme remains blue-on-white, but the Vazquez workshop also experiments with various shades of green, black, orange and brown, combining them in various ways.

The molding and initial firing of pieces is done in another location, but the glazing, decoration and final firing is done in the main family workshop. This processes begin by throughly cleaning the piece of all dust before dipping it into a glaze that will become the white or off-white background of the piece.

The piece is set to dry for about 2 hours before it is ready to have the design traced onto it. This is the hardest and perhaps most important job of the workshop as most of the value of the piece depends on the design. All designs are penciled on by hand, no stencils, and no two are exactly alike. While almost all of the designs are based on tradition, the exact interpretations have been developed by the workshop to create its own style. There are some pieces with more modern designs, but these are almost always the result of special orders.

The colors are applied within the various lines, almost always by women. Before, firing the colors are much paler. After the color(s) is/are applied and dried, the piece is ready for final firing between 1,100 and 1,200 C for 6-8 hours. Then the piece is inspected for defects such as cracks or bubbles in the glaze.

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Plate before and after firing

Roberto Vazquez is proud that mouth-to-mouth is still their best advertising, and the business has never had to pay for its fairly regular appearances in magazines and other publications.

The business is sophisticated, with its own Internet site, and the ability to ship anywhere in Mexico and the world. As mentioned earlier, the foreign market is the basis of the business, with about 75% of production going to the United States, and between 10-15% more to other foreign countries such as Japan, Germany, France, as well as South America and Asia. Most domestic shipping is to tourist centers. Roberto states that almost all the dishes and other ceramics in San Miguel hotels and restaurants are from them, and they even have clients in the city of Puebla.  Despite the store, very little of their wares are sold in Dolores Hidalgo proper. The first reason is that they can get much better prices outside of Mexico. The second is that most of what can be found in Dolores Hidalgo proper is of lesser quality and much cheaper. Roberto claims that much of the pottery sold in the town, even if in traditional style, is fake… made in other parts of Mexico such as Tonalá, Jalisco.

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Despite this, the showroom remains important because clients still come to them to get a feel for the pieces, which is not generally possible on the Internet, as well as for some quick purchases.

The major problem that the workshop has is with production. Despite the adoption of some mass-production techniques, most of the work is still done by hand, no machines or conveyor belts to be found. The low prices of Dolores Hidalgo wares have attracted the attention of large chain stores in the U.S. such as Target, but these buyers seek to purchase lots by the thousands, generally equal copies and for very low per-unit prices. Despite being the largest and best-placed producer in Dolores Hidalgo, Roberto has had to turn down such work, has he does not have the capacity or the staff to produce such quantity on deadlines set by such buyers. Large orders do not mean lower per-unit prices for workshops like Vazquez either (mostly due to labor costs), so profit margins on such large orders may not be worth the work. Vazquez has a well-established base of small and medium-sized businesses to work with, giving him the luxury of refusing such orders.

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Roberto Vazquez and office manager at the workshop/store

Today, Giovanni Vazquez, Roberto’s son, is the fifth generation to work in the business, but it is not clear if he or any of siblings will be taking over in the future. Roberto was the only one of all his 6 siblings to be interested in the work, stating that part of the reason was that he married and started his family young, without finishing high school. He has strongly encouraged his children to get university educations and to live/study abroad if at all possible. One works for Mercedes Benz in Germany and another will be spending a semester abroad in Europe.

The workshop’s website is at http://vazquezpottery.com/ but I have had difficulty accessin it due to is heavy use of Flash. The Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007400984647

 

A weekend with wine, cheese and handcrafts tossed in

Tequisquiapan, or Tequis for short, is a small, but growing town in southern Querétaro state. It is an easy 2.5 hour drive from either Mexico City or San Miguel Allende. This and its designation as as “Magical Town” (Pueblo Mágico) makes it a popular weekend destination from a number of larger cities in central Mexico.

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Santa Maria de la Asunción parish on the main square (credit: Mario Guerrero Ledesma)

Although much warmer and much drier, there is a San Miguel Allende feel to the place. The center is filled with very well kept colonial and colonial-style buildings, with cobblestone streets and the blocks immediately surrounding the main plaza are pedestrian-only. Although not as numerous, it also has a variety of upscale hotels, dining places as well as some very prominent real estate offices selling second homes and condos, primarily to Mexico City residents.

L: Street in the historic center (credit:Marrovi) and R: Entering the main plaza from Juarez Poniente)

Tequis’ claim to fame is locally-made wines and cheeses. It is on the eastern edge of the Bajío region, a relatively flat area in Mexico where the raising of dairy cattle and cheese making began early in the colonial period. The centuries of experience has allowed for the development of more gourmet cheeses. These include variations off of Mexican classics such as smoked Oaxaca and herbed panela, along with a number of specialty European cheeses from goats’ and sheep’s milk. Locally made wine is dominated by the Freixnet vineyards in nearby Ezequiel Montes, which makes mostly sparkling whites. But some others made by very small concerns can be found as well.

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Smoked provelone at the town’s annual wine and cheese festival
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Freixnet’s wine bar just off the main square.

Like many tourist towns, the main role of handcrafts is souvenirs and curiosities for visitors. The town has two handcrafts markets side-by-side east of the main parish church, several stores facing the main plaza and other stores and stands on the corner of Morelos Norte and Calle Niños Heroes, just off the southwest corner of the plaza. The quality of the crafts varies from relatively cheap curios to a couple of stores that sell very fine wares. Most are not from Tequis or Querétaro at all, but the state government does have a branch of its Casa de Artesanias on Morelos Norte. All of the wares here are from Querétaro, but unfortunately like at the main store in the state capital, nothing is labeled as to who made the piece or even where it is from. Staff is not of help either.

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Otomi woman embroidering and selling just off the main plaza

Tequis020There are three kinds of crafts available here which are most likely to be local, or at least from southern Querétaro. Tequis has a reputation for the making of baskets. There are rivers and other water sources nearby providing the needed environment in otherwise dry semi-desert. There is a basketry workshop next to the Casa de Artesanias, but it was not open during my visit. There was also an impressive wicker church model in the tourist office, but the woman working there did not know who made it, only that it was by a local maestro.

 

Southern Querétaro is rich in quartz, marble and even opals. Various stands and stalls sell minerals and finished opal and other pieces are are very likely to be local. Tequis offers tours to nearby mines as well, which offers other opportunities to buy.

The last are embroidery pieces and “Maria” rag dolls. The most numerous indigenous people in southern Querétaro are the Otomi. Women can generally be identified as they still wear traditional dress or at least some variation off of it. This is important to note because these handcrafts are generally not in stores or stands, but rather sold by the Otomi women themselves on the street. Purchases from these women pretty much assures that you are getting an authentic piece, whether it was made by them or by another member of the woman’s community.

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Otomi women in front of the parish church
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Embroidered ponches and rebozos. Interestingly enough, the dolls are in Otomi dress but are not “Marias”

Tequis is not a craft town in the sense of having a high concentration of artisans or specializing in one kind of handcraft. The main draw is being a weekend away from the noise and bustle of the city (and much less crowded than San Miguel), eating some gourmet meals, with handcraft shopping as an interesting added bonus.

Altars as theater

Anyone who has lived in Mexico for a time have come across the concept of the “altar” for Day of the Dead. It is not an altar in the Catholic sense, although its purpose is to direct the onlookers thoughts onto one or more ideas.

This extension of the concept of altar beyond something that is just in church appears in several aspects of Mexican life. Most are related to folk religion, practices that are related to but not officially part of Catholic liturgy. Day of the Dead is the best known of these, where the focus is on loved ones who have passed on. But others revolve around public displays for local patron saints, the Virgin of Sorrows and sometimes are even secular, such as Day of the Dead altars dedicated to Mexican historical figures.

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Altar with a canal boat (trajinera) them at the Vizcainas School in downtown Mexico City (credit: Tanyach sa)

While public altars are not exactly new, they have been evolving in central Mexico, especially in terms of size. Much of this has been due to the popularity of “mega-altars” in Mexico City for Day of the Dead. These altars have extended the time when artisans start planning and working on altar projects back to the summer, in order to be ready by October.

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Villena with a depiction of the China Poblana

Rodolfo Villena Hernandez is a cartonero (paper mache artist) who specializes in the making of public altars. His interest in Day of the Dead altars began young when he began building them in the family garage in Mexico City. His passion for tradition led him to study history at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Moving to Puebla a few years after that.

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Element for a monumental altar in progress

His career as a cartonero began in the early 1990s, around the same time that he became involved in theatre. He has worked as a director and producer and even wrote one play. As the two has their start together, it is not surprising that much of his theatre can appear in his altars, as both have scenes and characters. Although altars do not have movement, placement and position of elements are equally important to both.

While Day of the Dead is still the focal point of his year, he makes monumental altars for other holidays and events such as Holy Week, Lent and Corpus Christi, with the majority commissioned by government and cultural institutions. He has created altars dedicated to Puebla bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza for the Puebla city hall, one depicting the Mexican Revolution for the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, one dedicated to the China Poblana and another to artist Jose Guadalupe Posada for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. While most of his works are meant for display in the state of Puebla, his has also exhibited in several cities in the United States, thanks to patronage from the National Museum of Mexican Art and others.

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Villena altar at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
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Inside Villena’s workshop

His work has earned him a number of awards such as being named a “distinguished citizen of Puebla” by the state and a “grand master” of Mexican folk art by the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City.

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Villena being interviewed by the media at the National Meeting of Paper Mache Artists in Cuernavaca

Despite his success, making a living at this work remains a challenge for the nearly 50-year old artisan. Government grants and other support is fickle at best, and he must fight to negotiate decent prices for his work. He lives with his parents and his workshop is in a delapidated building on the old industrial corredor that links the cities of Puebla and Tlaxcala. To supplement his income from monumental altars, he does smaller cartoneria works as well as give classes both at this workshop, Puebla cultural institutions and even once in the United States.

Feature image courtesy of the artisan, all others by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.

 

Colorful glass of a relatively neglected art form

Stained glass has a long history of enormous appeal with its play on light, often in dark spaces. Even in this age, coming across interesting examples prompts people to take a quick photo with their cell phones.

Despite Mexico’s colonial heritage and importance the Catholic religion has played in its history, stained glass making is not a large part of the country’s artistic heritage. The country does have a number of notable works in the medium, and finely done pieces are most prevalent in Mexico City. However, you need to know where to look.

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Stained glass in the San Jose del Altillo Church in Coyoacan, Mexico City

Most of the stained glass windows are generally quite small and can be found in museums, theatres, greenhouses, markets, hotels, restaurants, libraries, union halls, airports, subway stations and department stores, as well expectedly, in churches. It can be found as ceilings and skylights as well as windows, but much of what is found in the city is not made in Mexico. The best of Mexico City’s stained glass is scattered thoughout the town.  This article will highlight a few notable pieces, but focus on those designed and usually made in Mexico.

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The seal of the Mexico National Autonomous University in stained glass (credit:Thelmadatter)

Mexico’s stained glass work is derived from its European heritage. In Europe, stained glass was at its height from the 13th to the 16th century, confined to churches as only the Church could afford both the glass and the painstaking work of pieces the cut pieces. The decline of great stained glass projects came with the end of Gothic architecture around the same time as the Americas were discovered.

While glass was manufactured early in New Spain, the making of stained glass for churches here did not really evolved, despite that they were still popular in Spain. Instead, artistic resources went towards paintings, tapestries, murals, statues and altars as these were used for evangelization purposes. In the 16th century, doors and windows were covered in waxed cloths or an amber-color Mexican onyx called tecali. Glass of any type does not become common in churches until the 17th century but most of it was imported. The sumptuous former church, now National Viceroyalty Museum in the Mexico City suburb of Tepotzotlan, has windows  covered in translucent 17th century blown-glass discs.

For most of its history, the making (or even importation) of stained glass windows, especially for churches was quite marginalized. There are few surviving windows from before the 19th century.

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Panes at the Santos Reyes Church on Rio Consulado, Venustiano Carranza, Mexico City (credit:Enrique Lopez-Tamayo Biosca)

Today, many churches, interestingly enough mostly modern churches, have stained glass windows. They are also called “storied windows” at most depict scenes from the Bible. But many the city’s notable stained glass works are secular. The main reason for this is that stained glass (and glass work in general) has been gaining importance at a time when Mexican society has been secularizing. In the first half of the 20th century, the technique was used for purposes similar to Mexico’s murals, but the trend has been stained glass a means of displaying wealth. Both tendencies can be seen in the secular pieces found in the Alcazar in Chapultepec Park, the Ministry of Health, the headquarters of the Palacio de Hierro department store and the Gran Hotel in Mexico City. Very early 20th century homes in what is now Colonia Juarez featured Art Nouveau designs, which was then very fashionable. Small stained glass windows can also be found in homes in (then or now) middle and upper-class homes, especially those constructed before the 1950s. These generally feature animals such as ducks, swans and hummingbirds.

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Glass ceiling/skylight at the Gran Hotel (credit: Octavio Alonso Maya)

The first stained-glass maker on record in Mexico is the Pellandini Studios, started in 1839 by Claudio Tranquiline Pellandini, a contemporary of Louis Confort Tiffany. It was always a glass works and importer but it did not begin to produce stained glass windows until the very late 19th century, mostly with secular themes desitined for the homes of the wealthy. This studio attracted talents such as Spanish artist Victor Marco (who went on to found his own stained-glass workshop) along with Mexicans Daniel Morales and Jesus Balvanera. By the early 20th century, all stained glass windows made in Mexico City came out of Pellandini’s or Marco’s workshop.

The establishment of serious Mexican stained glass production occurred during a 30-year period called the Porfirato, named after Mexico’s president/dictator of that time. It was a time when European art and economics held strong sway over the country’s elite. Stained glass continued to be imported from Europe, with that made in Mexico primarily copying European fashion.  Not all stained glass works would be traditional. For example various glass techniques became popular  at the same time, including pieced glass with images painted on them.

The Mexican Revolution paralyzed luxury glass making for a time. Afterwards, it was influenced by the Mexican Muralism movement, which flourished with funding from the new government seeking a new Mexican identity based on indigenous images, as well as legitimacy for itself. The technique intrigued the artists because, like murals, it has an imposing nature, but is manipulation of light is very different. It also appealed to these artists because it led to collaborations with artisans. Perhaps the one to benefit most from these projects was craftsman Enrique Villaseñor.

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From the end of the Revolution in 1920 to about the 1950s, just about all stained glass work was secular in nature. One main reason for this was the government hostilty to the Catholic Church and the practice of religion in general. Stained glass works commissioned by the government had nationalist and social thimes, but the oldest of Mexico’s secular work, called “Salve” in the stairwell of the former College of San Ildefonso, was made in Bavaria. The best known of these government-sponsored works is the enormous glass curtain of the Fine Arts Palace and two stained glass windows by Roberto Montenegro at the Museum of the Constitutions.

Foreign influence continued with Mexican glass production.  In 1931, two Americans Mac Daniel and David Wineburgh opened an “art glass” studio in Mexico City. They hired local artist Juan Navarrete to paint on glass, and he became a master glazier. A second hire Francisco Lugo, went on to work for yet another studio owned by David Block. This did other glass work as well and was affiliated with Pellandini.

In the 1950s, German artist Mathias Goeritz began working on stained-glass window projects for churches in Mexico City. The government had eased its position on religious expression and the boom in the city’s population led to church building for the new neighborhoods. Profoundly religious himself, Goeritz is responsible for most of the best religious works of this type in Mexico City, but his work caused controversy. His work was very contemporary, with some non-traditional techniques and imagery, which caused problems especially in projects in Mexico’s colonial-era churches.

Only a few other artists in Mexico (be they Mexican or foreigners) have worked in the medium. They include Gunther Gerzso and Rufino Tamayo who did one apiece. Gerzso created a 16×4 meter window for the Aristos Hotel in Mexico City and Tamayo created an artistic piece called “The Universe” with 30 panels for the Alfa Planetarium in Monterrey. Another artistic work called the “Cosmovitral” (Cosmos + glass) was created in Toluca by artist Leopoldo Flores.

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Sun Man inside the Cosmovitral in Toluca (credit:Marrovi)

Stained glass work continues to be shaped by foreign influences and other glass working techniques. Since the 1980s, it has been influenced by the New Glass movement of the United States. Glass work in general in the country has seen a boom since that time and has led to conferences and artistic exhibitions in Mexico’s cultural institutions. But stained glass competes with and is often mixed with other glass types such as etched and beveled. The vast majority of stained glass is produced by small workshops for individual customers, with few large scale works since the mid 20th century.

Examples of stained glass works in Mexico City

Stained glass made in Europe

There are several fairly well-known and impressive stained glass ceilings/skylights covering central patios or similar constructions in downtown Mexico City, namely the piece at the headquarters of the Palacio de Hierro department store, the piece inside the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico and one at the Palace of Fine Arts. All of these have their origin with French immigrants, mostly from the city of Barcelonette, who controlled the country’s textile production at the turn of the 20th century.

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Ceiling/skylight at the Palacio de Hierro (credit:Octavio Alonso Maya)

Most of the stained glass windows that are on the city’s colonial (current and former) churches are from Europe. These include those on the Santa Teresa la Antigua Church (10 from Germany) and the Our Lady of Loreto Church (early 20th century from Germany). Unfortunately, most in the Loreto Church are in very poor condition, like the rest of the church.  The Hellentic Cultural Institute Chapel in San Angel has a rare collection of European stained glass windows, mostly French, dating from the 13th to 16th centuries, all with Biblical scenes. The Casa del Risco Museum in same area has six antique stained-glass windows from the 16th century Germany.

Stained glass made in Mexico

One early example is the glass on the heavy double door of the Casino Español, built by architect Gonzalez del Campo between 1901 and 1905. It has a leaded window of a figure with Spain’s coat of arms, painted by Victor Marco for Pellandini. The building is located Isabel la Catolica Street in the historic center.

One of Mexico’s most important churches is the old Basilica of Guadalupe, which marks the place where the Virgin Mary made her appearance to Juan Diego. This church did not have stained glass windows until 1931, when several were comissioned to Victor Marco for the 400th anniversary of the appearance of Mexico’s patron saint. He died during the project, but his sons completed it in 1933. The panels in the upper section of the nave are in need of repair and were likely made by the father as they are in a traditional style. Those completed later by his sons are more contemporary. The adjoining Museum of the Old Basilica houses a stained glass window in the former sacrity. Dominating the landing of the staircase, it is a rare example of a window with medallions made in Mexico.

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Stained glass window in the Basilica Museum (credit:Daniel Caso)

The glass “curtain” (really a folding panel) at the Palace of Fine Arts has been extensively written about as it is the only one of its type in any opera house in the world. Weighing 24 tons, it was created by Tiffany’s in New York (as evidence by the use of copper rather than lead soldering), with almost a million pieces of iridescent colored glass. The design centers on images of the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatle volcanos, surrounded by Mexican landscape and pre Hispanic sculptures from Yautepec and Oaxaca. The design was done by Mexican muralist and landscape painter Dr. Atl, a fact that was interestingly underplayed by the Mexican government at the time. Even today, most believe the design is from Tiffany’s as well.

Muralist Roberto Montenegro paired with master craftsman Enrique Villaseñor to create two stained glass windows with secular themes to be placed in a former church. The two are called the Mexican Hat Dance (El jarabe tapatío) and The Parrot Vendor. The Mexican Hat dance piece is mostly of plain glass, with only those depicting the faces, hands, feet and some other detailed painted. Unlike traditional projects, the image takes the entire space, with no framing. The Parrot Vendor is more static in design but uses much more color. The same building also has windows depicting Saints Peter and Paul done by Victor Marco, Sr. reminding visitors that it was a church. Montenegro was not happy with the executions the two panels. The colors did not match those of his sketches and the cames holding the glass together divided the images too much to his eyes.

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Mexican Hat Dance (credit:Thelmadatter)
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The Parrot Seller (credit:Thelmadatter)

Villaseñor also made the windows for the Ministry of Health based on designs by Diego Rivera. It has four panels representing earth, air, fire and water. The Earth panel has images of plowed fields, which depicts the weight of the soil. To add depth to the shadows, up to four pieces of glass were layered in a frame. The Water panel depicts the element as liquid, snow and the domestic use of water. The Air panel is dominated by an image of a sailing ship. Fire is represented with the use of coal, a vital element in early 20th century industrialization. Unfortunately, the building is mostly closed to the public.

As stated earlier, most of the best church stained-glass windows were done by Goeritz and can be found in the west and south of the city, than as now, home of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.  Goeritz’s first project was for the chapel of the convent of Sacred Heart of Mary in Tlalpan. The stained glass piece extends from floor to ceiling with hues from light yellow to orange, resulting in an overall golden hue. The piece channels light towards the altar.

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In the San Lorenzo Church (credit:Mexch)

The San Lorenzo Church in the historic center has stained-glass windows designed by Mathias Goertz in 1954 when the church was renovated. They are of a contemporary design despite the antique architecture of the church. The windows are in the octogonal cupola with each section having a symbol related to the life of Saint Lawrence. Goeritz designed a cement relief behind the altar with a golden hand of Christ as a symbol of salvation. The choir window has pieces of amber colored glass from the Carretones Glass Factory in an abstract design.

The work done on the San Lorenzo Church was controversial as was that done to the even more iconic Santiago Tlaltelolco Church at the Plaza of the Three Cultures. His work here consists of four stained glass windows of intense red and in the lateral naves, eleven in blue. While these were simplistic to represent the ascetic ideas of the Franciscans, critics still felt the effect was too theatrical for the early colonial church.

L: Blue interior hue created by the unseen windows and R: the red windows at the main altar in Santiago Tlatelolco

The use of amber pieces in San Lorenzo was repeated for the Mexico City Cathedral.  In 1960, Mathias Goeritz was commissioned to design new stained-glass windows for the main nave’s lateral walls and cupoal of the Mexico City Cathedral. The windows were made from irregular glass pieces obtained by a local glass factory, which he arranged based on their natural shape and size. Almost all the pieces were amber colored with a few other colors, with the purpose of emphasizing the gold of the altar. Unfortunately most of this work was destroyed when the Altar of Forgiveness burned. All that remains is a small window over the west side door.

A contemporary of Goeritz, Jose Reyes Meza did several church projects as well. These include the windows for the Saint Mary of the Apostles Church in Tlalpan in the 1960s, and the St. Anthony of Padua Church in Coyoacan.

The Our Lady of Solitude Chapel in Coyoacan was built in 1958 with contemporary architecture, with the stained glass windows designed with the church and made by Kitzia Hoffman at the Marcos workshop. The panel behind the main altar is an unusual combination of glass and concrete, representing the Holy Spirit in the sumbol of the dove.

The Immaculate Conception Chapel in Colonia Roma has stained glass windows done by Victor Marco Jr, who died in 1991. The large panel above the entrance portrays the life of Mary in three scenes, Annunciation, Assumption and Coronation, with panels with other scenes on the side of the building. It is an academic style with a backdrop of flowers and leaves.

Most of the large stained glass projects to be undertaken recently are the large ceiling/skylights that cover ceiling openings found in many Mexico City buildings. These all have contemporary designs. One of these is found in the Siglo XX National Medical Center in Colonia Doctores. The skylight, named Stellar Butterflies, was designed by architect Jesus Ruiz Mejia and made by Magdalena Vasquez. It depicts butterflies in flight against a multicolored background. This shows pre Hispanic influence as the butterfly symbolized the fleetingness of life and the human spirit. The piece also has elements related to pre Hispanic numerology and astronomy, with 28 butterflies representing the lunar cycle.

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Stellar Butterfiles at the XXI Century Hospital (credit:I lemus ra)

At another hospital, the Gabriel Mancera, there is a ceiling called the Fifth Sun, designed by Mexican architect Salvador Pinoncelly in 1995 and found in the hospital’s foyer. It is inspired by the Aztec Calendar, simplified to show only the outline of the sun and five circles representing the five epochs of Aztec time.

The glass ceiling of the Papalote Children’s Museum is called The Universe. It is a naïf style made in 1993 by 61 schoolchildren between 8 and 12 under the direction of painter Jorge Rello. It depicts the constellations of the northern hemisphere.

The skylight of the Jose Antonio Mafud Trust in the historic center was designed by Rage in 2006. It faces the old Aztec Temple (Templo Mayor). It consists of stained-glass panels mounted on a three-dimensional structure with several layers of transparency. The lights forms kinetic reflections inside the building.

All photographs are from the Wikimedia Commons repository for freely-licensed images. 

A passion for recreating the past

At the risk of sounding prejudiced, I will admit that until now, I have not been a great fan of most of the contemporary handcrafts done with feathers or seashells. The vast majority is tourist junk and looks cheesy.

I published an article on feather art in this blog some time ago, and indeed there was a long and very impressive tradition of “painting” with the fine feathers of tropical birds. The quality of the work does heavily depend on the quality of the feathers as well as the skill of the artisan. There is some feather work done in the State of Mexico and Michoacan but at best it is OK… there is only so much you can do with colored chicken feathers and plumes of most common birds. Most shell crafts use the whole shell or broken bits. To get a serious work of art, shells must be masterfully cut and polished, such as the work done by Mario Gerardo Jaguey of Ixmiquilpan, which is not commonly found.

 

Two feather works on display at the Patzcuaro Day of the Dead handcraft event, artists unknown

Enter maestro Eduardo Sanchez Rodriguez. His story is unusual in a number of ways. Although not from an artisan family, as a boy he became fascinated by Mexico’s tradition of making “paintings” by carefully placing the brightly colored feathers of tropical birds on a backing. This art reached its height under the Aztecs shortly before the arrival of the Spanish, where feather workers (amanteca) were the most esteemed of all craftsmen as they made the finery for emperors, priests and knights. However, Sanchez was born and raised in the north of the country, far from the old empire’s borders. His knowledge of this and the working of mother-of-pearl (shell) comes from constant research in books and museums for over 30 years. He has a personal collection of over 3,000 books. While there are a few others who try to emulate the featherwork of the past, Sanchez is by far the best.

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Image of Christ in hummingbird and parrot feathers (1550-1580) in the Art History Museum of Vienna

His feather “paintings” are almost exclusively reproduction of the techniques and styles of 16th century post-Conquest Mexico. While the Spanish destroyed almost all of the iconography of the old empire and religion, they were impressed with effects of the feather work, and decided to adapt it to making images related to Catholicism, prinicipally as gifts for kings and popes back in Europe. For this reason, most of the best examples of original 16th century work is to be found in this continent’s museums. One example of Sanchez’s reproduction is a piece from 1550, with the original found in the El Escorial Museum in Spain.

Sanchez’s research is not only aimed towards reproduction of images, but to the greatest extent possible, the materials and techniques used in that century. Much of his research uses books and documents from that time, as wells studying the few period feather works that exists in museums in Mexico.

DSC_0118The feathers are applied to a kind of a very fine cotton paper called telaraña (lit. spiderweb) in Spanish. Sanchez prefers to call the works feather mosaics as they consists of placing tiny snips of feather in a manner similar to that of tiles. The pieces are so small, that he often must use a magnifying glass (much like a watch repair person) to do the work. He works almost exclusively with feathers from Mexican tropical birds, including some endangered species. These birds are neither hunted or killed. Instead, he has arrangements with a number aviaries in the country which collect molted feathers. He received them dirty and does all the processing. Sanchez also has permission from Mexico’s environmental agency to work with the feathers of endangered birds, ensuring that no animals are harmed. The use of all the feathers of the 16th centuries is not possible as some species have gone extinct since that time. One species provided a brilliant blue that cannot match what is produced by any other bird. In cases such as these, Sanchez is forced to dye feathers to achieve the same effect. But exceptions like this are rare. The glue to attach feathers to cotton is still a kind of mucilage extracted from peeled orchid bulbs which have been mashed in a molcajete (mortar and pestle) and the liquid pressed out.

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Photo courtesy of the artisan

Most sources about Mexican feather work state that the craft died out because of the disappearance of the birds on which it depended. But Sanchez does not believe that this is a main reason for the disappearance or the craft’s failure to revive, as he has little difficulty in obtaining the necessary feathers. Instead, he believes it has a lot more to do with the very slow and very tedious process needed to do the craft right.

In addition to feathers, Sanchez has been working to revive a different from of working with mother of pearl which had its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries in Mexico. Working with this material in pieces did not exist in pre-Hispanic Mexico. Inlay and mosaic in the material was introduced to New Spain through goods, especially Asian screen partitions, imported via the Manila Galleon. Sanchez has specialized in making small flat tiles of the material to cover a board and then painting images from the period. This work has meant learning colonial era painting techniques (and paint making)  with period materials such as Japanese ink and oils with mineral pigments, which Sanchez says makes the painting of dark skin tones challenging.

Sanchez was born in San Luis Potosi, but moved to the Monterrey area when he was very young. He lived there over 30 years and established himself as an artist/artisan there.  Much of this included looking for collectors and educating them about the cultural worth of the works as they are expensive to produce. He built up a clientele in the northeast of Mexico and into southern Texas. However, he recently moved to Mexico City and spends time in the city of Oaxaca as he has been collaborating with artist Francisco Toledo producing feather art designed by the maestro. This collaboration has been producing contemporary designs, including self-portraits of famous Oaxacan artist. He is in talks with other artists to collaborate on more projects of this type.

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Francisco Toledo (L) and Eduardo Sanchez in Oaxaca (Photo courtesy of the artisan)
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Close up of feather placement on a piece done in collaboration with Toledo (Photo courtesy of the artisan)

Almost all of Sanchez’s works are in private collections, with a large percentage owned by a former mayor of Monterrey. However, his work has had temporary exhibitions in various museums including those at the Painting Archive of the State of Nuevo Leon (2010), the El Centenario Museum in Monterrey (2013), the Centro Cultural Tijuana (2016) and very recently a show and sale at the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City. He has also had pieces exhibited and for sale in art galleries in the United States.

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Sanchez with Mexican president Felipe Calderon (photo courtesy of the artisan)

Sanchez’s work has earned him several prestigious awards and other recognitions. He received the Presidential Award in the popular art category from Felipe Calderon in 2007. The state of Nuevo Leon has officially named him a “contemporary amanteca.” The Mexican federal handcraft agency FONART named him a living legend, and the Fometo Cultural Banamex named him a grand master of Mexican folk art.

All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.

 

Black and gold and other colors

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Gaspar in his workshop

Mario Agustin Gaspar is recognized as a grand master of Mexican folk art national, has won various awards from his home state of Michoacan and has even traveled to the Vatican to present his work to the Pope.

But unlike many of Mexico’s maestros, he does not come from a folk art family. His father was a farmer from the Lake Patzcuaro area and his mother comes from a family of teachers from Guanajuato, which had to escape Guanajuato because of the violence there during the Mexican Revolution. Her father, took on whatever teaching jobs he could find, and was often paid only with food to feed his family. However, when the war ended, he was one of the first to get an official position teaching primary school, a tradition that has been handed down through his daugther and granddaughters.

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Traditional fisherman on Lake Patzcuaro (credit: Gengiskanhg)

Despite the emphasis on education at home, young Mario was not quite enamored of school, spending much of class time drawing, drawing complaints from his teachers and scoldings from his mother, who could not see how her son could possibly make a living from it.

But school did help him in his future career. Back when Gaspar was growing up, children attended classes in the morning and learning trades, handcrafts and other practical skills in the afternoons. One of Gaspar’s teachers was craftsman Francisco Reyes, who taught how to make traditional Mexican lacquerware. Gaspar found that he much preferred to work with his hands and became so interested in the craft that he began apprenticing with the maestro after school.

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Gaspar’s wife; Beatriz Ortega Ruiz; painting a lacquered plates with oils

The lacquering techniques he learned Gaspar calls maque (see the Mexican lacquerware article for a full description), where background color and designs are rubbed into the wood base, which seals the piece as well as decorates it.

But Gaspar went beyond the techniques of maestro Reyes. He met friends who knew how to work in gold leaf and began apprenticing with Pedro Fabían and Salvador Solchaga in this work. He particularly liked the idea of applying the gold over lacquer and worked for five years perfecting his technique. His work was recognized by yet another workshop, who allowed him to concentrate on this work while he learned more about design. The experience under the various maestros and workshops allowed Gaspar to develop his own style.

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Tiny plate with gold leaf

In the mid 1970s, he and several other Patzcuaro artisans approached the Michoacan Institute for Handcrafts to see about getting access to then-empty spaces at the Casa de los 11 Patios in the historic center of the town. The Institute agreed with the stipulation that any handcrafts sold must be only those made by the artisan, no reselling of others’ goods. Gaspar, wife Beatriz Ortega Ruiz (a craftsperson in her own right), and their children have worked in the same location ever since.

It is separated into two parts: a showroom in the front and a workshop in the back. Mindful of the role tourism plays in the handcraft business, the showroom area has various small placards in Spanish explaining what Mexican lacquerwork is, its processes and its history. The back work area is not truly separated from the showroom. Visitors can easily and are encouraged to approach family members while they work and ask questions.

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Part of the showroom at Casa de los 11 Patios
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Gaspar at his bench in the back

It should be noted that while many handcrafts, including lacquerware, is sold in many of the spaces of the 11 Patios building, only the Gaspar family still abides by the original 1970s agreement of selling only what they produce.

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Gourd with red lacquer background and no decoration

The family¿s works of art begin with wooden pieces shaped from Mexican alder or cirimo by carpenters. These woods are preferred as they have a low resin content and hold the lacquer better. The bare pieces are throughly dried then sanded and sometimes cracks are repaired.

The most traditional lacquer application is called “maque,” the pre-Hispanic method that Gaspar learned as a child. For traditional pieces coming out of Michoacan, the lacque is made from a mixture of chia seed oil, a wax from a local insect larvae called “aje” (pronounced AH-hey), with pigments made from local minerals, plants such as indigo and marigold petals and the cochineal insect. The background color is applied by rubbing the lacquer in, one small section at a time. Then the piece must dry for a minimun of 22 days. Then the design is applied one color at a time. For each element of that color, the background is scraped off in the shape of the element, then the new color is rubbed in. Each color requires another 22 days of drying time. This means that even small pieces with multiple colors take between 4 and 6 months.

The workshop also makes pieces with fine gold work and even those that are a mixture of lacquer in various colors along with the gold. In general, the gold is not used to fill in areas, but rather is more like a decorative web of lines reminiscent of filigree jewelry.  In these pieces the background color is almost always black to let the gold stand out.

Ortega Ruiz makes most of the lacquer and other paints they workshop uses. She also makes pieces which are not true “maque.” In this case, application the background color is still traditional, but the scraping and filling process is replaced by painting with oils, achieving much finer elements and lines. These pieces are designed by her, generally tradtional working from memory, but she has a few that are her own invention.

Both Gaspar and Ortega Ruiz do custom designs and large pieces by special order, but most items are relatively flat, especially a large traditional shallow tray called a “batea” and plates. The largest of their pieces can take up to three years to complee and cost 50,000 Mexican pesos and even more.

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Beatriz Ortega Ruiz working on a plate
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Bundled cornstalks and head of an image at the workshop

A large part of Gaspar’s continued interest in crafts is to conserve and promote the traditions of the Lake Patzcuaro area. This has led him to work with researchers and other artisans to revive a craft technique called “pasta de caña” or “pasta de maiz.” This also has its roots in the pre Hispanic period, and consists of making figures using bundles of corn stalks along with paste made from the same. The Purhepecha of that time used it to make religious imagry. Although the Spanish destroyed these gods, they were impressed with the technique as it resulted in images that were much lighter than those made from wood or other materials, making them very suitable for carrying in processions. They have proven to be durable as well with a number of crucifixes still surviving from the early colonial period. The technique died out in the 1930s, during the Cristero War when the government banned the making of religious images. Gaspar’s and others’ work in the materials dates back only about 20 years or so. It has not been well-commercialized as it is still used almost exclusively for images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints.

The workshop can be contacted at seshashimexico@gmail.com

 

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baskets and more in Mexico

Although the term “basketry” will be used in this article, it really does not adequately describe this branch of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. The Spanish term for it literally translates to “stiff fiber handcrafts” as what is produced is significantly more than baskets. It includes the use of all kinds of fiber stiffer than those used to make fabric in the traditional sense, from thin tree branches to the course threads produced by maguey and henniquen plants. Most items are indeed meant for the carrying and storage of food and other goods, but the variety of items made are far wider than this.

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Basketry stand at the Tiangus de Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan
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Basketry items for sale in Cuitzeo, Michoacan
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Nopiloa style female figurine from Veracruz 600-750AD (credit: FA2010)

Basketry is most likely Mexico’s oldest handcraft, predating both the handling of fire and the making of pottery (which of course is dependent on fire). The need to carry and store food along with other raw and worked materials is a primary need, and baskets provide a lightweight and sturdy solution. But by the time the Spanish arrived, indigeous peoples had devised a wide array of goods made from various kinds of stiff fibers including sandals, boxes, mats, sombreros and much more.

 

 

 

 

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19th century drawing of Mexican basket-seller, artist unknown

Unlike pottery, basketry items are completely biodegradable and expendable, which makes the study of their evolution extremely difficult. There are no complete specimens dating before the 1960s. Pieces, fiber fragments and impressions in pottery are the only direct evidence and these are generally found only in sheltered areas with extremely dry climates. From the colonial period, there are some depictions of basketry items found in codices and other records. These show that there used to be an even wider array of basketry items than today.

In the 19th century, more pictographic evidence comes in the way of drawings, etc. often done by foreigners documenting their experiences in the country. In the 20th century, academic research into handcrafts began after the Mexican Revolution. These records show effects on the craft due to environmental change. For example, a large number and variety of basketry items were made in the Valley of Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century, but it eventually disappeared as the areas five lakes were drained (and almost completely destroyed) and modern urban sprawl drove out most handcraft traditons.

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16th century Tovar Codex depiction of Aztec emperor Tizoc standing on petate with basketry backed throne.
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Exceptional examples of modern petates from southern Puebla at the National Musuem of Popular Culture

Basketry in Mexico overall shows a mixture of both indigenous and European influences in design and technique, with the indigenous dominating, especially outside central Mexico. There are two reasons for this. First, indigenous basketry was highly developed and sophisticated. One important example of this is the petate, a large mat which was (and to some extent, still) used to wrap goods, dry seeds and other foods, sleep on and even wrap the dead. Fine petates were as sophisticated as any European tapestry. The petate was so important to indigenous life until relatively recently that there are a number of idiomatic expressions related to life and death based off of it.

 

 

 

One reason why the indigenous character of basket making survived relatively intact was that unlike a number of other crafts, basketry was considered to be a completely domestic production, and was not regulated by authorities. Many indigenous techniques and designs continue unchanged, especially in areas outside of Mexico City region and with large indigenous populations, as Spanish had less cultural impact in these areas. Important traditions continue in the states of Sonora, State of Mexico, Michoacan, Veracruz, Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Coiled pine needle basket with “silver” decorative edge from eastern Michoacan
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Ixtle mat from the state of Hidalgo at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The stiff fibers used vary greating depending on the flora of the region, with about 80 species from 20 botanical families. The most common are various types of reeds and rushes harvested from shallow lakes, ponds and slower- moving rivers and streams, but a number of more unusual materials are used as well. These include willow and other thin tree branches, yucca leaves, palm fronds (from many species), yucca leaves, long pine needles, dried lily plants, wheat and rye straw, and long thorns and other parts of cactus and other succulents. The oldest technique is coiling, with the best-known example of this being the corita baskets of the Seri and other peoples of northwest Mexico. This is followed by twisting of more pliable fibers, such as bullrush leaves and ixtle fiber from maguey. Weaving like techniques (often close to European style baskets) are found with reeds, thin branches and palm frond work.

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Various style of palm frond sombreros for men and women at a fair in Mexico City

In addition to petates, other distinctive items include boxes, fans (for building fires especially in braziers), carrying bags (often from ixtle) and sombreros. The last are found in quite a few areas of the country with some of the lightest and finest made in the Yucatan penninsula. Dolls and decorative items from corn husks is an important craft in Oaxaca.

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Figurines and facade of a church all made of corn husk at the Noche de Rabanos event in the city of Oaxaca

The making of basketry items has benefitted from interest in Mexican handcrafts in general, first by artists and intellectuals after the Mexican Revolution and then from the tourist and collectors’ that bloomed after the mid-20th century. But basketmakers have not benefitted as much as those in other fields. One reason is that the ephemeral nature of baskets, lasting only a few decades at best, make them less suited as collectibles. Another is that the vast majority of items are made by communities far from tourist centers, generally for local markets, and face competition from cheaper modern alternatives.

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Corita basket from Punta Chueca, Sonora

One important exception to this is the corita basket of Sonora and Baja. Until the rise in popularity of ironwood carving, these baskets were the main handcraft sold by the Seri people. The success of this basket probably has much to do with the area’s proximity to the United States and their similarity to more expensive baskets made by indigenous peoples in the US. southwest.