Hammers and crosses

Credit: Lugares de México

Hammered metal existed in Mexico before the arrival of Columbus, but it was limited to gold and silver, with copper in its infancy. The Spanish introduced the mining and working of iron to Chiapas and the rest of Mexico.

Today, traditional iron working in this state is concentrated in San Cristobal de las Casas, one of few produced in this city better known as the place to sell the products of the state’s very rich handcraft tradition.

Credit: Hola Chetumal

Both wrought and cast iron can be found, but wrought is what can be seen in balconies all over the city. Even more unique to the city are the intricately-made crosses called Passion crosses, named such as they contain allegories of the Passion of Christ, along with some indigenous ones.

Placed on the roof when it is raised, these can been seen all over the city, considered to “bless” the house on which they appear. In the past, these crosses were used in processions, especially during Holy Week, likely because the thinness of the metal made them relatively light.

Hermosilla and Torres

Guadalupe Hermosillo Escabar may be the best ironworker in San Cristobal. Born in Tapachula, Chiapas in 1962, he began working with scrap metals and old tin cans when he was only 11 or 12 years old, as these were the only materials available to him at the time.

When he was 17, he moved to San Cristobal and in 1985, started to work Flores Nájera family workshop, and even married one of their daughters, Maria Esther. Despite the fact that Maria has 9 siblings and the family has three generations of experience prior, it is Guadalupe who has excelled in his generation, but the workshop remains in the family with members the following two generations (sons and grandsons) showing promise. Hermosillo has his eye on one grandson in particular.

HermosilloTorres003Hermosillo and the family makes all kinds of reproductions of item from Chiapas’ colonial period, still using almost all of the same techniques and tools from the past. All pieces are hand-hammered. These include door and padlocks (including giant versios, door knockers, hinges, etc. However, his most popular item by far are the Passion crosses, followed by a metal version of the Tree of Life. His largest pieces to date are these same two, the largest of which are up to three meters tall. One of these can be seen at the family workshop museum and another at a museum in San Miguel Allende.

Like just about all handcraft traditions in Mexico, wrought iron work is under pressure to change both techniques and styles to cater to the largest craft market… that related to the tourist trade. But Hermosillo sees his work as something more than just creating things to sell… rather a way of preserving the past.

Mexican seal in iron (credit: Gerardo Hermosillo)

The is the impetus to the family’s private museum, the Museo de Metalistería Hermosillo. Its main purpose is to educate about the history and techniques of traditional ironwork, to help keep it alive. Almost all of the pieces have been made by the family, including reproductions of colonial-era torture devices. However, these items are never made for sale to the general public.

Hermosillo’s work not only stands out due to its adherence to tradition, there is innovation as well. In particular, many of the pieces stand out because of the addition of silver, blue, gold, red and other tones, sometimes mixed on the same piece. These tones are created only through the spot application of heat.

Hermosillo’s work has been recognized in a number of ways. He began to be invited to give classes in ironwork in the 1990s. Since then, he has given lectures, demonstrations and classes. He particularly focuses on the training of youths, but says that he can only teach the basics. Really inspired work must come from within the artisan.

He has been invited to give lectures and demonstrations as well as to sell his work in various parts of Mexico and even the United States. He is one of few artisans who is invited back to the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala, Jalisco for 5 or more years. Most of the family’s sales are through galleries and the like, focusing on Mexico’s tourist hotspots as well as exports to the United States with some to Europe and even as far as India. However, son Gerardo Hermosillo maintains a Facebook account with allows direct contact.

Hermosillo’s awards numerous one at the local and state level, including the 2002 Fray Bartolome de las Casas Award, the highest artistic prize awarded by the state of Chiapas. National recognition is through inclusion in the Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art guide by Banamex… This periodically updated book allows only about 100 entries for artisans of all kinds in the entire country.


From living animals to a Jaguar Woman

Xolotl054It is often the assumption that all of Mexico’s craftspeople are born into the profession, that is… from families that have been doing one kind of craft or another for generations This is indeed the case for many, but the call to be creative is deep in the Mexican psyche. This and Mexico’s ever-changing economic conditions has brought in unexpected new artisans.

This call has proved irresistable even to those with professional careers. Leticia Mosso Castillo and Arturo de Jesús Vázquez were a wife and husband veterinary team in Mexico City, with a practice specializing in dogs and cats. It was a comfortable life until one of Mexico’s several severe peso devaluations in the late 20th century meant the end of their business by the end of the 1980s.

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Polishing the Jaguar Woman

By chance, a family member came upon a jewelry worker selling the contents of his workshop and interested in the idea, bought the entire inventory. Making some contacts and working for years, the family worked with the equipment learning the basic processes of shaping raw silver into works of art. Mosso and Vázquez particularly  became hooked, and even though the country’s economic situation improved enough to return to veterinary practice, the two decided to establish the Xolotl (Nahuatl “dog”) jewelry workshop.

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The more than 25 years of working silver has resulted in the creation of their unique style. Working almost entirely in silver (with some forays into gold and bronze), they have built up an inventory of unique designs. Like William Spratling long before them, they take most of their inspiration from Mexico’s pre Hispanic past, creating motifs from codices and other images. Some of these are direct reproductions, but the more interesting work takes a single elements and creates a highly detailed version of it.


Their cultural explorations in silver do not stop there. They have also created pieces based off of Art Noveau designs, elements from modern art (the work of Remedios Varos is a favorite) and even designs from other historic cultures such as the Vikings. They also design and create jewelry to order.

Although they are proficient in several metal working techniques, the vast majority of their pieces are cast through the lost wax method, which allows for replication of designs. Their workshop has a “library” of about 3,000 designs, including boxes on boxes of little wax versions of their pieces, waiting to be used to cast the next piece. These range in widths of millimeters to a 5-6 cm disk reproduction of the stone disk depicting the dismembered  goddess Coyolxauhqui found at the excavation of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

Jaguar woman in wax

Although the lost wax method is the least labor intensive method of creating the basic form of the piece, this does not mean that it is easy or fast. Even if cast absolutely perfectly (never a guarantee), there is still much work to do in cleaning up stray bits and polishing (sometimes ageing) to make look like the piece popped out out of nowhere.

The beauty of Xolotl pieces are even more astonishing when the workshop and processes are seen. Located in a typical suburban house in Tlalnepantla (just outside of Mexico City), the tools are professional but the kiln, centrifuge and other machines are rustic, to say the least. One, to shake out air bubbles in the plaster cast, is completely jury-rigged, as a professional version costs up to 50,000 pesos. The centrifuge is compltely spring-loaded.

The important thing is that it all works together to create fantastic and unique pieces that honor Mexican and human heritage.

Featured image: Jaguar woman (full name of piece- Mayan Woman with her Animal Protector…. a Jaguar!)  

All photos by the author or used with permission of Xolotl Workshop


Raising the humble piñata

First prize winning piñata Con la ciudad a cuestas by Colectivo Atelier Arte y Papel of Coacalco, State of Mexico, paper mache with yarn painting

There is no craft object more emblematic than the piñata, but oddly, its making is perhaps one of the least-considered among Mexico’s craftspeople and certainly one of the least sought after by collectors.

One reason is that almost all piñatas are made with flimsy paper mache, to be broken rather than to be kept as a decoration. Of all the objects made with paper and paste in Mexico (cartonería), most cartoneros do not make them. Instead they are made by small workshops, market stalls and party-favor shops.

Another issue is that despite copyright laws, the market for piñatas overwhelmingly demands images of cartoon figures and other images from popular culture, in particular movies and video games. Classic designs such as stars or the stereotypical donkey are very notably absent most of the year (Christmas excepted for the stars).


One important mission of many of Mexico’s handcraft museums is not only promote what is already made in the country, but also to encourage artisans to create new and better products. The most popular way to do this is through handcraft contests, both because of the purses and the publicity that winning “concursos” has for artisans.

Puro Corazón: Marquez Becerra by Israel Marquez Becerra
Cthulhu duerme by Jose Francisco Muñoz Quintero

The Museo de Arte Popular holds and/or sponsors a number of these events, and is very likely the only one which sponsors a piñata making concurso on a regional level. This annual contest has been held for a number of years. In its first incarnations, entries were not terribly impressive for a fairly large concurso in a well-known institution, indicative of the poor state of piñata making… even in the region where the making and breaking of modern piñatas first took hold in Mexico.

However, this year’s event shows there is promise for finer piñata making in Mexico. The award ceremony for the best piñatas occurred last Saturday, with the top three prizes of $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000 peso prizes for the top three. This year’s addition attracted entries from not only Mexico City, but also the State of Mexico, Guanajuato, Hidalgo Veracruz and Zacatecas. But the most important elements this year was the significant rise in both quality and creativity.

Cantina (El maguey de recuerdo) by Maria Guadalupe Rubio Mendoza

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia (Featured image: Second prize winning piñata Folkloricromía by Silvia Azucena Nájera Barajas of Ecatepec, State of Mexico)

Growing pains at the Feria de Maestros

One of Creative Hand’s first blog posts when we started 2 years ago covered the Feria de Maestros. This is a special handcraft fair in no small part because it sponsors participating artisans, paying their way to  the expat enclave of Lake Chapala, Jalisco and even housing them in local homes. While there are government and other programs that sponsor artisan participation in national and international handcraft events, the Feria de Maestros is unique in that it is completely private. More details about its history can be seen here.

We went back to visit the 2017 version to see how the Fair is holding up. While the basic premise is the same, there have been some changes and challenges.

Wood carving by Jorge Alberto Gonzalez Moreno of Chiapas
Guadalupe Hermosillo Escobar and Maria Estela Torres Najera of San Cristobal, Chiapas

The first and perhaps most obvious superficial change is that there are more vendors than there were in 2015, for better or worse. Of course it is always better to give more of Mexico’s fine craftspeople the opportunity to sell to customers who truly appreciate fine work (and not to mention have the money to spend on it). The growth has been despite founder Marianne Carlson’s original idea of keeping it small and local. However, there seems to be strong pressure to expand the Feria, both because of the larger crowds of shoppers (1400 on the first day alone in 2017) and types.

Because the organization behind the Feria has done great work in discovering new and varied talent, the Feria is now attracting major collectors, wholesalers and cultural experts from the US who buy out the best of the best of the merchandise on the first day.  A number of artisans sell 90% and even sell out in the first 8 hours. One reason, according to Feria president Antje Zaldivar, is that new vendors severely underestimate how much they will sell, despite all efforts to convince them to bring as much as possible.

Arte Casbal of Izucar de Matamoros, Puebla
Pottery by Guadalupe Garcia Rios of Michoacan

There is no doubt that the Feria could double and perhaps triple the number of vendors and still allow all participants to sell more than they might at any event of its kind. But to do so would mean redefining the Feria. Carlson’s original idea was to give artisans a chance to sell to the Chapala expat community and allow the two groups of people to interact with each other. Central to this idea is having artisans housed in local homes. This does keep expenses down, but its main purpose was to give people from very different life situations a chance to get to know each other. However, this arrangement and the traditional space of the Chapala Yacht Club limits the number of vendors the Feria can accomodate.

While the Feria has always supported a number of other civic initiatives in the Chapala area, the cultural and educational aspects of the event have also increased. There is still the fashion show to demonstrate rebozos and other traditional garments, but this year there was also a booth selling local children’s art, an art contest for children using recycled materials and various video and live presentations about selected artisans and their work.


L to R: Salsa tasting, winners of upcycling art contest and booth selling local children’s artwork

The growth of the Feria not only because of the increase in shoppers, but of sponsors as well. Los Amigos de Arte Popular has been until recently the Feria’s major donor by far, footing most of the bill for the busses that bring artisans from major areas in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacan. But other organizations, including those in Jalisco state, and the National Ceramics School have also begun to support the Feria. The Feria has also become successful enough to attract support from businesses such as national cable company Megacable as well as several major firms in Guadalajara.

Participant in the rebozo fashion show

It is also important to note that there has been a shift in how the Feria is managed. Back in 2015, organizational activity still centered around Marianne Carlson, who told us than that she and others were working to bring in new blood, in particular the support of Mexican fans of Mexican handcrafts. These efforts have borne fruit. While most of the volunteers and board members are still foreign expats, there are now three Mexicans on the board of directors, including president Antje Zaldivar. This Mexican inclusion is important because it allows the Feria to have connections they probably could never have had otherwise.

The growth of the Feria, both in size and popularity, is satisfying to the board of directors , but it does bring the event to a crossroads. It is obvious that events of this type are extremely important in connecting buyers and others to true Mexican craftspeople. The pressure to grow is enormous, and although Zaldivar indicated a desire to scale back to accomodate the event as it has been traditionally held, this may not be possible in the long run. The next few years will be important ones for this unique and important showcase of Mexican culture.

Of men and Virgins

Details from an altar en La Enseñanza Church, Mexico City (CPeralta)

If you spend time in Mexico’s old colonial cities, especially in the center and south of the country, you are bound to visit churches which date back hundreds of years and often contain elements that are equally old.

The most interesting of these elements are those from the early colonial period, when an extremely ornate Baroque style called Churrigueresque dominated the architecture and decoration of churches. The overwhelming details both inside and outside of these churches had two purposes 1) the elements served to evangelize and reinforce Church teaching, often through depictions of Bible stories and saints and 2) to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Church.

Needless to say, statues and other elements from this time are invaluable and there is unfortunately a black market for stolen colonial splendor. But it is possible to own a piece of history without harming Mexico’s cultural heritage. For example, towns like Apaseo el Alto in Guanajuato are known for their authentic reproductions in wood of crucifixes and statues of saints.

Also in La Enseñanza (Frankmx)

While wood was the most common material for church interiors, other materials were important as well. There are fewer artisans who have revived these, but their work is special indeed.

Two of these artisans are artists and business partners Noé Arreortúa and Ramiro (Troché) Herrera.

While wood makes for fine art, it is quite heavy. Processions were (and still are) extremely important in Mexican Catholicism, in no small part due to the fact that they were also a part of pre Hispanic religious tradition. In Michoacan, the Purhépecha had developed a way to create lighter-weight religious images, but the Spanish brought a technique as well.

Arreortúa and Herrera have a business/workshop called Galería Capilla de la Soledad. It has had several locations in the greater Guadalajara area, but today it is located just off the main square in the tourist haven of Tlaquepaque. It is a natural fit for the more upscale stores and clientele.

401px-ArreortuaHerrera003They work with a kind of paper mache technique called “encolado.” Instead of using layers of paper held together with a flour-based paste, the adhesive is a natural glue tmade with boiled animal parts. Introduced in the early colonial period, This technique dates back much further than the use of paste in Mexico. There are a number of pieces showing the use of this technique, including in the collection of the Franz Mayer Museum. Unfortunately, few colonial-era images survive, both because of the fragile nature of the material and also because these images were valued less than their purely-wood counterparts.

It was introduced for the making religious icons, usually limited to the body. Intricate and most important aspects would still be carved from wood. The reason for this use of paper was that it was cheaper than a wholly carved piece and lighter, allowing the image to be more easily carried on procession. This was particularly important to Virgin Mary images as these were often carried by women.

401px-ArreortuaHerrera002Both men work on the making of various types of Virgin Mary images with this, but it was Ramiro (who prefers to go by the name Troché (TroSHAY – “hummingbird”)) who initially worked to rediscover and revive the technique. He learned the basics from a Canadian friend, but the refinement was due to his own research and diligence.

The technique is best adapted to the bodies of saints and the Virgin Mary, as the layers of robes and other clothing eliminate the need to create a defined form between the neck and ankles. It is particularly good for many Mexican images of the Virgin Mary, whose body is often only hinted at with a large cone structure. The body and clothing are constructed using the encolado technique. The body needs to be quite thick and rigid to support the weight of head, hands and clothing. Kraft paper of various thicknesses are used. Heads and hands are created from either resin, red clay or a fine white clay. Most are now made from resin as they no longer have space to work a kiln for the making of the clay pieces. Faces for commercial pieces, particularly small ones, are generally made with the use of molds. Those made for art exhibitions are modeled by hand. For example those made for a series they did of Virgins with indigenous faces. When the piece is assembled it gets a coast of blanco de españa (a chalk-based plaster). The effect between the paper paste and blanco is to somewhat simulate what was done with wood statues using stucco.


Their work with encolado and other paper techniques is not limited to the making of Virgins, although they admit that the images are their bread-and-butter (with images of Frida Kahlo coming in second). Both work as both artisans and artists (seeing little difference between the two), but Noe states that it is Troche who has the patience for the detail work of the recreations. Both do modern art as well with some truly novel uses of paper, such as coating fiberglass bases with a paper paste to give a more natural appearance to the work.


They still use animal-based glues for their work, despite the fact that when moist, this glue has a very strong, unpleasant smell (like a dead dog). The reasons are both for authenticity as well as the fact that the finished piece is far more rigid and solid. They called this glue cola de conejo (rabbit tail) but it is also known as horse’s tail in other parts of Mexico.

401px-ArreortuaHerrera019The partners’ interest in recreating the past is not limited to encolado. They have also joined with Michoacan craftsmen to revive pasta de caña … image made with bundled cornstalks and cornstalk paste. Like encolado, this technique has historically been limited to the making of religious icons… but in the case of pasta de caña, this history extends back into the pre-Hispanic period.

Noe and Troche have exhibited both together and separately in various parts of Mexico, including the states of Jalisco, Sinaloa, Veracruz and Oaxaca. They have had one exhibition abroad, in Argentina. They regularly give workshops in the Guadalajara area and sell at the Saturday market in the city’s trendy Chapultepec neighborhood.


All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.