A rant about scorpions

I have been writing this blog for almost 3 years and those of you who read regularly know that I keep it positive.  There is so much good that happens in this field that when I come across a craft or artisan that, shall we say, is not the best, it is easy to simply ignore it.

However, there is one “artesanía” here in Durango that comes up on all the tourist websites and many other resources related to the state. In fact, if you believe some of them, it is almost the only one… this is the encapsulating of scorpions in plastic and using this to decorate souvenirs. I will say up front that I am not a fan of this.

I could simply say that this is a cruel way to dispatch these creatures, but that is kind of hypocritical. I have no problem with leather, bone and other crafts made with animal parts. I could also say that the problem is that the resulting “crafts” are purely tourist souvenirs, but it is the tourist industry that supports much of Mexico’s handcraft industries… for better and for worse.

I think the main problem I have with it is that it is not really creative. It does not take talent to drop a scorpion in hot plastic then glue the result onto something. Unlike other animal-based crafts, it also has no historical value. It does not create something that was useful now or in the past. It does not represent a way to use a part of an animal that might otherwise go to waste. The animal is killed specifically to create the souvenir. It does play on the very real danger that the arachnids had, and to some extent, still have. But the result is still kitsch. I would class it as a “manualidad” not an “artesanía.” I have no problem that people need to make a living, but I do not think this activity should be in the same class as others with much higher cultural importance.

The state of Durango does have some real artesanía that is lost behind the overwhelming abundance of dead scorpions in the Gomez Palacios market. My hope is that in the next few months, I can showcase them here.


Innovating to maintain tradition

JavierRamos028Javier Ramos Lucano is a recognized master of Jalisco traditional burnished pottery, especially the petatillo subspecialty. Born in 1957 in Zapotlán el Grande, Jalisco, he is the seventh generation to work with clay from a family whose work has been documented back to the mid 19th century. He has trained the 8th and 9th generations, with his children all knowing the craft, even some grandchildren.

His training as a craftsman started very traditionally. At the age of 6 or 7, he began playing with clay in the family workshop. Ramos believes this is extremely important to the formation of good artisan as it gives time to know the feel of the materials. Rolling clay around led to the formation of simple figures such as birds and cats, often making his own toys to play with. As an adolescent, he was taught to draw, taking ten years to master this skill.

Piece by the maestro on display at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Most of his training was with his family, but both he and his family took important steps to learn beyond what previous generations did. Ramos took classes at a local art school, learning pastels, charcoal and other techniques.  He became a young man in the 1980s, a time when newer styles of ceramics were beginning to dominate the ceramics industry in the traditional production area of Tonalá, Jalisco. Ramos had the opportunity to work with American master ceramicists Jorge Wilmot and Ken Edwards, who were spearheading the establishment of high-fire work. Ramos worked mixing pigments and paints. In exchange, the masters helped him develop his own style of painting as Ramos worked via trial-and-error. His work with other ceramicists meant that Ramos learned how to do a number of styles of ceramics, such as glazed and high-fire in addition to the family’s traditional burnished pieces. He credits his time in these workshops to making him a more well-rounded craftsman, but he found that the new styles were displacing the traditional pottery of his ancestors. He decided to quit working for others and dedicate himself to preserving and promoting these styles.


Example of simple pottery

In addition to the surge in newer styles, the traditional pottery had the problem of having devolved into very simple designs and execution, generally made for the markets lining the Mexico/US border. This market brought down both the quality and reputation of brunished ceramics. To revive and conserve burnished ceramics, it was necessary to raise the quality of production. Ramos’s answer to this was to specialize in petatillo. Petatillo ceramics are distinguished from other traditional burnished work by its painting/decoration motifs. There are no empty spaces among the various elements. Instead, these spaces are filled with delicate, time-consuming cross-hatching, and in some areas, fine dots. The fine execution of both major elements and this infill makes the ceramics suited for high-end craft markets.  While elements of this style have a long history, as a distinct style it only traces back to the 1920s and had nearly died out by the time Ramos began working. Since then, it has made a comeback.


Ramos’s major motifs in his work include Catrinas, other skeletal figures, eagles, flowers, figures from history and folkloric scenes from his areas of Jalisco state. His range of production includes toys, miniatures, shot glasses, tiles, dishes, platters, pitchers and large storage jars called tibores.  Sizes range from a few centimeters to up to 2 meters in height.

JavierRamos026Ramos is dedicated to conserving traditional Jalisco ceramics, especially the style of his great uncles and aunts. Innovation is not done for the sake of innovation but rather to adapt to modern realities, keeping as much of the old as possible.  One of these adaptations is the need to avoid lead, especially for pieces going to the United States.  Decorative pigments are traditional and include white, green and red (for the Mexican flag, white and green, etc. His “new” colors such as violets go back at least to the 1980s. While in the past all colors were made using pigments mined from local sources, others now must be used as local ones cannot handle the heat of modern gas kilns, now mandated by local ordinances.  The most traditional is the use of local clays, with mixtures of black, white and red, tempered with local sand.  Percentages vary depending on what is being made; for example, larger pieces require mixture that give stronger internal support. But even this is under pressure as traditional mines for both clays and pigments get covered over with the urban sprawl of the Guadalajara metropolitan area. One last modification is that they capture rainwater or purify the water they use as modern tap contain contaminants  that can affect the clay and the pigments.


Most of his and his family’s work sell and exhibits regularly in Europe, Israel, the United States and Central America as well as in Mexico.  The family living room walls are filled with many awards from local, state and national competitions. Ramos says the recognition is not only important for sales, it provides incentive to keep working and improving.

The Wild North

Image result for durango mexicoFate has taken me from Mexico City to Victoria de Durango, the capital of the state of Durango. Despite being a state capital, Durango City is small and isolated. It is connected to Zacatecas, Parral, Mazatlán and Nayarit though highways, but major highways here did not exist as late as the 1980s and even in the 1960s, only dirt roads led to the town.

Although this is changing, Durango still gives the impression of a cowboy town. While there are efforts to bring tourism here, the city’s economy is still that of a regional center, where people from the country come in for supplies.  SUV’s and trucks are a common sight as are women in traditional Tepehuano dress.

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Puente de Ojuela
Tepehuano indigenous dress

It is an interesting mix of central Mexican colonial buildings (the northwestern edge of where you will find this), food based on beef and green chilis (mostly poblanos) as found in Sonora and parts of Chihuahua and the urban sprawl that has grown up in the past couple of decades. A local gringo told me that Durango lost its complete isolation once the first Walmart opened in 1993.

The state of Durango is very rugged territory. Many areas are still not accessible directly from the state capital and the state boasts four indigenous peoples, many of whom still live traditionally. The most numerous are the Tepehuanes, but there are important communities of the better known Huichols and Tarahumaras as well as some Nahuas which migrated here from central Mexico after the Conquest.


Like much of the US’s Wild West, northern Mexicans come from (sub)cultures accustomed to self sufficiency, and most of the state’s handcrafts reflect this fact. Also reflected is the fact that is this Aridoamerica, which did not see the rise of major empires as those that developed further south. This means that most crafts here are of the utilitarian sort and not usually geared toward any kind of goods for upper classes. Much of it is done by the native peoples, with a small but growing number of artisans associated with the state’s School of Painting, Sculpture and Crafts. The two largest categories of crafts relate to pottery and textiles, which vary from extremely rustic to reinterpretations of traditional designs. Heavily represented for their small size are the Huichols, who are famous for their yarn paintings and beadwork, although this work is better known in Jalisco and Nayarit.

A visit to the state’s Museo de Culturas Populares gives a brief but good overview of this, with guides ready to give a tour in Spanish. Unfortunately, individual items and shelves lack labeling, though most of the rooms have signs in three languages (Spanish, Tepehuana and English) to explain the unifying theme.




20180812_121703_HDRBy far, the finest of what is to be found here are related to the production of the School of Painting, Sculpture and Crafts as well as winning pieces from the state’s annual handcraft competition, which provides the best of the state’s indigenous creativity. School pieces tend to lean toward pottery and glass work. The rest range the entire gamut of materials including wood, leather, maguey fiber, wool, clay, basketry beads and paper mache (cartonería).  There is also a large and interesting collection of decorative masks, the likes of which seem more African than Mexican. The staff here is friendly and willing to help with contact with Durango artisans.


Largest plant “carpet” in the world

Carpet in progess in Acaxochitlán, Hidalgo

Mexico takes its parties and festivals very seriously. It has a number of craft items that are specifically made for an event, only to be destroyed during or discarded after. If you have ever had the pleasure of whacking a piñata or seen the presentation of ice sculptures or intricately arranged food, this concept should not be particularly strange.

One of these crafts is the making of “carpets” from various organic materials, which are arranged on the ground in patterns and/or images. These originally developed as a way to prepare routes for religious processions. This makes sense on several levels, it marks the route as sacred space as one or perhaps more religious icons will be passing by, and it probably also worked as a way to cover up rather ugly road, especially in the old days when horses and other animals left their droppings on often muddy thoroughfares.

This tradition still lives on in many parts of Mexico and Central America and can even be found in part of the United States. The carpets are made from materials which are locally abundant, and in the case of live plant material, seasonal. These plant materials include flowers, leaves, small branches, wood chips, seeds and bamboo. Another very common ingredient is sawdust which has been colored,  a way of using what might otherwise be simply discarded.

Face of the goddess Yolihuani in the Feria de Flores carpet

In the past century, the making of these carpets has extended from processions to other events, both religious and secular. Holy Week, Corpus Christi and certain patron saint celebrations are still the backbone of this tradition but carpets of varios types are being made for other occasions and being placed in other venues, not just roads. These include Day of the Dead monumental altars, in plazas for cultural festivals and even recently for the official opening of Disney’s movie Coco.  Certain towns and events are particularly associated with this tradition, in particular the Night No One Sleeps in Huamantla, Tlaxcala, where volunteers spend the night making the carpets that the procession honoring the city’s patron saint will pass over.

Figure of a stork in wood chips, bamboo and other materials

The growth in importance of these carpets has been matched by growth in size. Previously, the use on roads meant that while length was not restricted, width was. The use of plazas and other venues gets rid of that restriction. The result is the creation of carpets that are more works of art, rather than repetitions of decorative motifs.


dsc_01481.jpgOne of these carpets is created each year for the Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair) held at the Xochitla Ecological Park just to the north of Mexico City in August. The purpose of the fair is to cultivate awareness of Mexico native flowering species and their role in the culture. Each year the “world’s largest carpet” is created in an open field at the park, every time with a different theme. The theme for 2018 was Yolihuani: fuente de vida (Yolihuani: source of life). This carpet was on display during the weekend of August 4 and 5, extending over 2,500 square meters. The size meant that materials with larger sizes were used, including pine branches, bamboo, various types of live potted plants (including some in danger of extinction in Mexico), nopal cactus pads, grass, thousands of flowers and even trunks of trees cut into circles to provide visitors paths to walk within the carpet without messing it up.

The work was designed by Alfombristas Mexicanas of Huamantla, Tlaxcala, who have done such works in various parts of Mexico and abroad in countries such as the United States and Australia. They were assisted by dozens of volunteers who come to the park in the days preceeding the event to arrange the ton of materials needed to make the image.

Although more of a painting that a carpet, it did share one very important aspect with its antecedents… at the end of the event, it disappeared.


From paper to wire

My apologies for not writing for the past weeks. I had to dedicate the past month or so to finishing my book and getting it off to the publisher!

Female skeleton with violin by Saulo Moreno

A little over a week ago my Facebook lit up with expressions of sorrow for the passing of maestro Saulo Moreno Hernández in July 2018. The name rang a faint bell, but I didn’t really know who he was. However, the praises of Moreno’s work by Mexico’s cartonería community obliged me to look into his story.

And I’m glad I did. Maestro Saulo was and was not a cartonero. He was both an artisan and an artist. He was born in a village so small in the state of Puebla that his birth certificate does not state a town. Son Mario believes the community has since disappeared. However, Moreno grew up in the hustle and bustle of one of Mexico City’s major markets, where he was first exposed to various kinds of traditional handcrafts for sale there. His artistic abilities  appeared early in life, as did his desire to make things from castaway materials- bottle caps, scraps of wood and metal and much more.

His artistic talent was such that he was accepted into the prestigious Academy of San Carlos in 1950, but he only lasted here a year. Not only were finances an issue, he did not like to be told what to draw and paint and how to do it. The experience left a bad taste in his mouth and he abandoned the art world for good.

Instead, he continues tinkering with making items, skeletons in particular, out of various materials, doing sign painting to earn enough money to live on. He spent more years in the city but eventually moved to the small town of Tlalpujahua, Michoacan to be with his second wife. Here is where the maestro developed his reputation as an artisan.

Though he did a number of creative works, including painting, he is best known for his wire and paper figures he named alambroides. These figures are Moreno’s reinterpretation of cartoneria, Mexico’s paper mache tradition. For traditional craftsmen, an “alma” (lit. soul) is a support structure made of wire or split reeds, meant only to give pieces (especially larger pieces) sturdy support. The best of these artisans almost always work to hide that this alma even exists.

In Moreno’s case, the wire is as important and most frequently more important than the use of paper. In all pieces, the wire is meticulously worked to form details and give shape far beyond what other artisans do. Some pieces, usually skeletons, are mostly or completely covered in some layers of paper and can look fairly traditional. But in most cases, especially with real and fantastic animals, the paper covers only a small percentage of the piece, allowing the wire work to shine. In some cases, paper is left off completely.

Alambroide figures by son Mario

For this reason, much of Moreno’s work was not accepted by traditional cartoneros. This is one reason why he is not as well known as other artisans from his generation. Other reasons include that he was reclusive and eccentric, living in an area with no cartonería tradition.

That is not to say his work was completely overlooked. He was actively promoted by various popular art experts, collectors and gallery owners such as Chloe Sayer, Marta Turok and Rick Hall. He was invited to exhibited and talk about his work in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Until only recently, it looked like maestro Saulo’s alambroides might die with him. However, he had five children very late in life and the oldest, Mario, became recognized as Saulo’s heir, but not until the 2010s. He is young man, married with small children. In some ways, he has his feet more firmly planted on the ground. He moved to nearby city of Atlacomulco and learned to repair computers and the like to provide better for his family. However, when it comes to making alambroides, the artist shows through. He not only conserves his father’s style with only small changes, he mentioned several times how “jealous” (celos) he is regarding this work. He is somewhat adverse to teaching others and publicity, and while he admits his father’s negative experience with traditionalists, he himself is loyal to this new tradition. The good thing about this celos, is that maestro Saulo’s legacy will live on and has a bright future with this young man.


My many thanks to Mario Moreno and his family for receiving me only a week after maestro Saulo’s death in order to be able to add him to the book.