Painting life and spirituality

Chiapas México
Chiapas, México

Leonor Chacón Vera greeted me at the door of her former home, now studio, wearing a Yucatan-style huipil and apron. The initial impression is that of a middle-aged housewife, but she is much more than that.

Chacón is a survivor, an artist and fierce fighter for nascent artists in the state of Durango.

Like most artists and artisans, she discovered her talent and passion early. Growing up in Durango, she did not have dolls because of her family’s economic situation. So she began drawing dolls and clothing for them from cardboard and paper, discovering that she liked using her imagination. At preschool age, she was given a “marvelous” gift, a set of colored pencils. The use of color and range of colors has captivated her ever since.

Her teens and early adult life were wandering years, filled with challenges. Problems with her authoritative family over her behavior, such as participation in sports, forced her to leave her parents’ home, live with several friends and even be homeless for a short time. A sympathetic brother found her sitting in the bus station to escape the cold and managed to get her to an aunt’s house in Aguascalientes, also paying for her schooling. Chronic pain in her legs led to a doctor’s diagnosis of a “rare illness” that gave her only a few years to live, depressing her to the point that she thought about suicide.

Despite this, she graduated high school and married an agricultural engineer, whose work took them to various parts of Durango, Zacatecas and eventually Tabasco. The union produced two daughters, which helped Chacón will to live although the pain was spreading to other parts of her body.

La vendadora

Although she had no formal training there, her years in Tabasco were a formative period for Chacón, discovering the joys of rural life, in particular alternative medicine and the use of local materials that the Earth provides. Locals recommending apitherapy for her chronic pain, she began working with bees, eventually becoming a successful beekeeper. In the meantime, she was stung “in every part of her body” considering every sting to be a “blessing.”

As a child and young adult she had had no artistic training.  But in Tabasco, she learned about natural pigments, using clays and plants to produce colors and painting on whatever paper, cardboard, etc she could find as art supplies were nowhere to be found in the extremely rural, interior part of the state.

Due to the breakup of her marriage and other family concerns, Chacón eventually decided to return to Durango with her growing daughters. There was a stint in Mexico City, where she took open classes at the National School of Painting. Later, after several problematic starts, she managed to get a degree in visual arts from the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts in the city of Durango.

Chacón’s formal training means that she can and sometimes does, produce the kinds of paintings one expects from an artist, still lifes, portraits often realistic. But these are not her passion. Her life experiences have led her and her art to embrace native spirituality.


It would be extremely unfair to call it New Age, as the term has taken on a negative connotation, plus Chacón’s spirituality is also highly nationalistic. Although she is from Durango and with northern indigenous blood, she identifies more culturally and spiritually with the center of the country, making regular pilgrimages to Teotihuacan and other sacred sites in the region. She is also an integral part of Durango’s temazcal community, which comes together to celebrate ritual steam baths for both physical and emotional purification.

Her most important artwork also reflects these beliefs, depicting pre Hispanic gods, sacred animals, stylized landscapes and indigenous ceremonies. All elements in these paintings have specific significance and their style is more purposefully “rustic” rather than the refined Western styling of work asked of her by patrons.

Chacón states that as a woman, it is very difficult to break into Durango’s extremely small art world. After graduating from the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts, she found doors closed to her because she had not had exhibitions anywhere else previously. Her answer to this was to form her own art associations with people in similar situations. Her first was a group of women artists in Durango, which succeeded in negotiating the staging of collective shows in venues in the city, allowing the women to have something on their CVs to gain access to more traditional events. After a number of years with that group, she left to form a mixed-sex group, Yolotl (heart in Nahuatl), which she continues with to this day. The group has staged nine major shows over the years with the tenth in the planning stages… negotiating support from European sources. All shows are open to all artists, regardless of their exhibition experience, only their artwork needs apply. They even set up sections for children to exhibit.

All this while working a full-time job with the state government, from which she only recently retired.

More of Chacón’s work can be seen at Her Facebook is leonor.chacón.79


Crafts of the mountain people

Image of a Tepehuan woman in traditional dress at the Museo de las Culturas Populares in Durango City

The state of Durango has been multi-ethnic since well into the prehistoric period. Due to its geography, it has been a connection between Mesoamerica and what is now northwest Mexico and southwest US.  Today, there are several important indigenous groups: the Mexicaneros, the Tarahumara, the Huichol and the largest ethnicity, the Tepehuans.

They are divided among a group that lives in the north of the state and several that live in the south… a division that came about with the Spanish conquest and Tepehuan resistance.  Although southern Durango is only about 11 hours from Mexico City, Tepehuans speak a language which is more closely related to the Pima of Arizona than the Nahuatl of central Mexico. The largest Tepehuan communities are Santa María de Ocotán, San Francisco, Teneraca, Taxicarinaga, San Bernadino de Milpillas and Lajas.

Tepehuan morral at a temporary exhibit at the San Luis Potosí Railway Museum

Tepehuan beliefs are a syncretism of indigenous and Catholic. The most important type of ceremony is the mitote or xibtal, which centers on a dance around a bonfire, accompanied by one-stringed bow instruments.

The state’s indigenous people in general produce pottery and textiles, almost always for utilitarian and ceremonial purposes. The southern Tepehuans are noted for the making of traditional carrying bags called morrals, distinguished by bags made by other groups by their geometric designs. These and certain other small items are woven on backstrap looms and the designs are woven into the fabric, embroidered or both. Most Tepehuan women and many men still wear traditional dress, but the material used for these garments is commercially-made. The women’s dress bears a striking similarity to that of Otomi women, which makes sense as the Spanish brought indigenous from this and other central Mexican groups to Durango to help conquer and settle the area.

Pottery is also done but all of Durango’s native peoples. The state does not have a large or long history of fine pottery making and that made by Tepehuans and others is particularly rustic. It is mostly limited to simple bowls and other containers as well as some figurines, especially those of deer.


Despite being told that this was all that the Tepehuans do. I did come across a cooperative doing one other craft, pine needle baskets. Durango has wide expanses of pine forests. The O’dam Cooperative is based in a very small town about 200 km from the city of Durango (I could not catch the name) although they have a presence in the city. I found a young boy selling these baskets at a park and bought a small one.

DSC_0464 - copia

I met briefly with the representative of the cooperative, Rosalio Caldera, who told me the family group began with collecting wild oregano, but moving on to several handcrafts as oregano is seasonal. Pine needles are abundant here, but lighter in color than those used in State of Mexico/Michoacan to produce their baskets. Nevertheless, Caldera told me that one of the main purchasers are handcraft merchants from this area who buy Durango wares to sell.  Their work is as good as anything from there, but unfortunately, the lack of connections and poverty means that the cooperative is still dependent on such middlemen to make any sales at all. They can be contacted, however, through email at or Rosalio Caldera can be found at Rosalio caldera on Facebook.



Going his own way

DSC_0302Roberto Macias is hard to miss. He is a big sturdy man, sporting double-pierced ears and other prominent jewelry. While definitely duranguense, he comes across as a bit of a stranger in his own land.

He began to show artistic inclination as early as age 5, surprising teachers with his ability to model clay. However, he was also getting into trouble for carving figures out of his wooden pencils instead of paying attention in class. Although he took some classes at the city university, Macias considers himself self-taught, indicating that he was (and still is) something of a rebel among Durango artists and artisans. But it is people like Macias who think outside the box, and create surprising new forms.

His most prominent work is the making of decorative masks using the petioles of palm fronds, which after the thin part of the frond is cut off, make for a kind of thick triangular or diamond shape. This shape forms the basis of his masks, making most elongated, almost African-like. In fact, a number of his works even have cowrie shells, which he states is his recognition of Mexico’s African heritage. Macias says that Mexico does not like to acknowledge that the country even has one, but since African slaves were more numerous than Spaniards in the colonial period, he considers them more important to Mexico’s mestizo heritage than even the Spanish.

DSC_0290He began making masks in relation to theatrical productions, as a way to earn money. He still does this… and makes certain artistic and specialized musical instruments. He began experimenting with working with palm frond petioles while in college, although he says that he took some flak for this from his teachers. He claims that the local art teachers have little imagination and are mostly interested in doing what was done before.  Despite this, he has continued to make masks of this and other materials, particularly ceramic and various metals, finding enough of a collectors’ market to make the activity viable. While the masks have a definite signature style, one that influences masks made with other materials, no two are exactly the same.

Macias’ creativity extends into other areas as well.  There is a gray area between folk and fine art and Macias’ work not only blurs the line, sometimes it stomps all over it. He has experimented with just about any material an artist might use, and then some. But aside from the masks, most of his work has been wood sculpture and a novel take on cartonería.


In Durango City, one can see a number of dead trees, often very large ones, which have been converted into sculptures. The tree itself often determines what will be carved but almost always it is something figurative and human. Macias’ work of this type mostly dates from the early 2000s and in locations just south of the city center. While his fotos, taken during and just after completion show his talent, unfortunately these sculptures have not been maintained since.

Cartonería is at best nascent in Durango, but it does exist. Macias take on it is to create a base form with Styrofoam then cover in paper and paste. The purpose behind this is to avoid having the final structure hollow, making it sturdier and less-prone to collapse. The innovation does not stop there. Most of his works are then given other layers, usually with amate (a bark paper whose history goes back at least as far as the Aztecs) and often with leather and even metals.


Taking his own road has had its benefits as well. He has a permanent exhibition of his palm and other masks at the Museo de las Culturas Populares in Durango and has had a number of exhibitions of his work, most recently at the Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura in the city of Durango.

The maestro can be contacted via his cell phone at 618 134 5683. He does not have a web presence.

Mexican mandalas

Sometimes when exploring new areas, you see something that seems quite out-of-place, but upon learning more, find out it is not.

This was my experience discovering a craft called “woven mandalas.”  I knew the term “mandala” as related to the ephemeral artworks made by Buddist monks but did not know the word’s meaning has been extended to cover a number of artistic and semi-artistic objects with a spiritual, cultural or psychological significance.

GodsEyeGreen440Ojos de Dios or God’s Eyes. People of my generation at least remember making these in grade school with colored yarn and Popsicle sticks. I’m sure I was told of the Eye’s cultural history, but I forgot it until I came to Mexico many years later and saw them again in Jalisco.

The Folk Culture Museum in Durango city has a temporary exhibit of the “woven mandalas” (mandalas tejidos) called “Cardinal Points” by an artist and artisan called Patricia Gonzalez. Like God’s Eyes, they are of various types of colored yarn and/or other types of string, wrapped around thin wood sticks that criss-cross in the center. But these weavings are far more complicated than any God’s Eye.

Intrigued, I managed to get contact information for Gonzalez from the museum (which is quite helpful in this respect) to see if I could learn more about her and the mandalas.

37031082_439954809815409_2079566260701495296_nPatricia Gonzalez is a 27-year-old native of the city of Durango. She comes from an average family with deep roots in the state. However, this family does not have an artist or artisan history. She is the first to study visual arts, attending the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts affiliated with the Juarez University of the State of Durango.  She graduated four years ago with abilities in various arts and handcrafts, including sculpture, photography and cartonería.

She began drawing and making figures when she was a child, especially in school.  When it came time to go to college, she originally wanted to study marine biology but her parents made her stay in Durango. After looking at a number of options, none of which she liked, her father brought home a brochure for the program at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts. She was particularly drawn to the program in graphic design but opted for the more rounded program in visual arts. Her mother was not terribly supportive of the decision, and worries that Gonzalez will “die of hunger.”

37026364_10211945982621232_5441877796307599360_nNeither Gonzalez nor anyone in her family is Wixáritari (Huichol), but she became interested in God’s Eyes after meeting a Durango Huichol woman and began researching it while Gonzalez was still in school. Quite possibly out of respect as well as artistic curiosity, Gonzalez quickly moved away from doing the Wixáritari-style Eyes to new forms called mandalas.

The origin and development of these complicated weavings is unclear. Almost nothing at all seems to be written about them but a Google search brings up the work of several artisans in the United States. Gonzalez says she has seen similar weavings from Europe and even Brazil. Gonzalez believes they are derived from God’s Eyes, but also have various foreign influences (including the name).The craft also has a strong connection with psychology, used both to help diagnose patients and as therapy, and Gonzalez works with a local psychologist. She says one use it diagnostically can be to give a patient very thin string or yarn to work with. If the patient is highly anxious or stressed s/he will have trouble working the delicate material, and may ask for something sturdier.


However they developed, most of Gonzalez’ work has the same basis as God’s Eyes, two crossed sticks that represent the cardinal direction (NSEW) with others added depending on how complicated the final weaving is to be. No two weavings are alike and there is much flux in what is made. Some of her displayed work abandoned the circular format completely and some adds other media such as masks and dreamcatchers (itself considered a type a mandala).

Thanks to the artisan for images of her work. She can be reach through her Facebook page.