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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.