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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.