Silver in a cowboy town

DSC_0015Taxco, Guerrero is Mexico’s best-known silver smithing community, but the reality is that the working of this metal (as well as gold) has been done in numerous parts of the country. Mexico City’s Franz Mayer Museum has an important collection of colonial-era silverwork both for ecclesiastical and secular uses. Much of Mexico’s silver working did die out, but efforts since the early 20th century have brought it back. Often this is due to the work of one person.

Jewelry is made in several municipalities of the state of Zacatecas, but one stands out: the small town of Jerez, just to the west of the state capital of the same name. It is best known for its cowboy culture, in particular its signature way of celebrating Holy Saturday by drinking while dressed in traditional charro finery and riding horses around the town. However, respect for tradition does have its serious side and has supported the return of a number of classic crafts.

Alfredo Perez Aguirre was born in Mexico City, but has deep roots in the town of Jerez. His mother was from here. The family moved back to Jerez when Perez was very young, so he grew up here. However, he comes neither from a charro or artisan family. His father was a housewife and merchant and his father worked as a landscaper and landscape architect. However, his father had some creative ability as he did some painting and sculpting.

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His mother had a jewelry store in town, but it was initially dedicated purely to resale. However, one problem the business had was not being able to sell a ring or some other piece because it was the wrong size. This is how Perez began back in the mid 1990s. He learned the absolute basics of cutting and soldering metals to resize rings. He then went on to repairing jewelry, making the business the only place in Jerez where such could be done.

DSC_0021One day a client asked for a custom-made piece to be made by him. At first, neither Perez nor his mother could believe that he could do it, but the client insisted. So he did, and that was the beginning of making his own work.

His development as an artisan jeweler was almost completely through trial-and-error. Over time, Perez developed both modern and traditional pieces. His inspirations are mostly from colonial Mexico and others that dominate the town of Jerez. One piece that is particularly in demand is his filigree earrings. Half-moon earrings are a common traditional design in central and north central Mexico. In Zacatecas, they are created with the use of twisted fine wires, often with very small accents, like flowers. These are Arab in origin, brought to Mexico by the Spanish. The making of these earrings in Jerez dates back over two centuries. The most traditional of these earrings are done in gold, and about 30% of Perez’s business is in this metal. But silver dominates in part because of cost.

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About 70% of Perez’s business is still connected to the town of Jerez. Some are to people living in the area, but much of this are those who have migrated to the United States and come back to Jerez to visit. Much of this business occurs during the Christmas holidays and in April, when Jerez celebrates its patron saint. These pieces go with the migrants back to the US as a piece of home. About 20% is international (Europe and South America) and the rest at national fairs such as the Charro event. Events are still extremely important to his business as he finds new clients this way, especially the international ones.

Perez is making the craft a family tradition.  One son, Jose Albert 18, has followed in his father’s footsteps, winning handcraft competitions starting in elementary school.

The maestro can be reached via his Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alfredo.perezaguirre.5

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Art and craftsmanship

GeneroMoreno015While I understand Género Alejandro Moreno Ramirez’s need to be taken seriously as an artist, it is a shame that his chosen media makes him a bit defensive.

Many artists and artisans cross the very fuzzy lines among fine art, folk art and handcraft, often enriching all of the various pursuits. Famous examples include Diego Rivera’s inclusion of folk art images in his paintings as well as patronizing several artisans whose work he admired.

Many artisans take artistic training as part of their professional development. And there are many who consider themselves to be both artists and artisans both for artistic as well as economic reasons.

But there is tension between the idea of “serious art” and “just handcraft.” It is even worse when said handcraft is associated as women’s work, especially that of housewives.

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Textile art is nothing new. The fine tapestries of the Middle Ages are considered to be art with no discussion. But it is true that the Western concept (at least) of true art is intimately tied with painting and sculpture in stone or wood.

Fine art, folk art, and handcrafts all have elements of creativity and craftsmanship to them. Artists need to master technique as much as cabinet makers do. Fine furniture makers, whether consciously or not, need to have an aesthetic sense. The distinction among the three is how it is judged by the culture… focusing on a message or feeling or more focused on execution of technique.

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In cases where both become important, we get the concept of folk art. There are cases in Mexico where handcraft designs make their way to a two-dimensional “canvas.” The best example of this is the amate paper paintings done by the Nahua people of Guerrero, who took traditional designs from their pottery to develop intricate works of art on a new medium.

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The problem for textile techniques is that 1) it is associated with women at home “wasting time” and 2) the resulting work of art is not as durable as paintings. Many paintings centuries old survive to this day. The same cannot be said for tapestries, no matter how well valued. Time is not kind to plant fibers without layers of paint to help preserve them.

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Be this as it may, textile is a fascinating medium which invites the study of how technique and imagination interact. Paint has limited variables, allowing for artists to tame it readily. The same cannot be said for fibers and dyes (especially natural ones). Even the best of weavers and dyers will have imperfections in their work. Those imperfections can be seen as a defect in the medium or an opportunity.

Only a true artist can see opportunity.

Moreno is not from an artist or artisan family, but like most artists discovered his passion for drawing and other creating in early childhood.  However, his road to his artistic vocation has been somewhat convoluted. He is currently finishing his studies in visual arts at the local university, but he studied and experimented with various paths before then. These included traditional painting, graphics and fashion design, found that none of them suited his talents and interests exactly. There is absolutely no tradition of textile arts in Durango, but Moreno was fortunate enough to discover the field in Guadalajara.

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He was worked with various techniques but has settled to two main ones, the dying of fabrics with natural materials and embroidery. Much of his inspiration comes from a number of Japanese textile techniques as well as western ones. Dying is with a heavy cotton material called manta, which is colored with natural materials specifically to create “imperfections.” The main technique is to take materials found in Mexico such as marigolds and cochineal insects, press them into the fabric and prompt the dying through the use of steam. This creates a series of stains in subtle colors. These stains become the basis and guide for the embroidery that is then applied. He mostly uses commercial embroidery thread for this, most likely because it provides a counter to the unconstrained coloring of the background. The goal is to create an image that is both expressive and harmonious.

 

What is fascinating about Género’s work is that it is indeed art. However, its artistic value comes from both expression and fine craftsmanship. It would not work any other way. It straddles the world of arte and artesanía in a way that the amate paintings cannot. In Genero’s work, all the media used is respected. In the case of the amate paintings, the paper is dominated by the painting. The paper is not respected in the same way. The initial idea to use it came from its ease in transportation and sale of such painting to tourist markets. The paper does give the paintings a folk art and ancient feel, but it appears more as a frame for the painting, rather than an integral part of the work.

Género’s work has value for both art and handcrafts, giving both new directions to explore.  It brings back the artistic element of the tapestry to needlework.

The artist can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/genaromorenor or through https://www.instagram.com/gen.genaro.gen/

(Photos from the artist’s Instagram account used with permission)

Finding handcrafts among cowboys

Mexico’s major handcraft-producing states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas have known for some time the value of having their better handcrafts for sale at major cultural events. States such as these have events dedicated solely to handcraft traditions, but often one of the better ways to find authentic handcrafts is to attend other kinds of cultural events as well.

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Most of Mexico’s major and best-developed handcraft traditions are located in the center and south of the country. This is not only because the Spanish conquered these areas first, but more importantly, these areas had major civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztecs, whose wealth and concentrations of populations allowed for the creation of what were essentially luxury goods for the elite. Here the Spanish simply added a new layer of such production and in a number of cases really didn’t even do that.

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Traditional filigree earrings by Alfredo Perez of Jerez, Zacatecas

The north of the country did not have major civilizations or major population centers until the colonial period. The Spanish found nomadic and semi-sedentary people, who were considered crude even by their southern indigenous cousins. Such lifestyles do not lend themselves to the creation of time-consuming luxury goods, especially those which require stationary installations such as kilns. There are a few exceptions, such as the Paquimé pottery found in Chihuahua, which has been reincarnated as Mata Oritz ceramics.

The state of Zacatecas is part of Mexico’s “wild” north, though the southern edge of such. It was home to nomadic peoples, almost all of which were wiped out in the colonial period despite fierce resistance. The Spanish dominated this area early in the colonial period because of the discovery of silver, establishing the city of Zacatecas in 1546.DSC_0058

Despite the lack of an indigenous handcraft industry, the Spanish had more time to transplant their traditions here. For this reason, there is more varied handcraft work overall to be found than in other parts of El Norte.

dsc_0042.jpgHowever, it is not as widespread or as well-developed as in the south, so handcraft fairs are rare and small. To see the best of what the state has to offer, it is necessary to go to events related to the culture’s strengths, such as the annual National Charro Congress and Championship which is held each October. The commercial pavilion is dominated by cowboy and charro gear, mostly but not always made in the state, but other elements of the state’s heritage can be found here, too. There are representations of many (but not all) of the state’s major handcraft traditions from leather, to various textiles to silver. It has a number of surprises, such as Huichols and their work, but notably absent was the state’s really fine cantera (volcanic stone) sculpting and relatively nascent paper mache (cartonería) work.

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The state has been more active in promoting and supporting its artisans, with programs such as Voluntariado, which seeks to give small artisans in very rural areas of Zacatecas a route for selling handcrafts, particularly traditional housewives making textiles.  However, efforts here suffer from the same problems as those even in the more developed states. There is little to no information available about the state’s traditions and their histories. In the state cooperative efforts, the creators of the items are not identified, nor even the place of origin. Emphasis is on immediate sales, not creating awareness, which hurts long term efforts.  Even questions to the people in charge of the booths and permanent stores in the capital yield the most rudimentary of answers, principally because they themselves do not know.

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That said, events such as this are fundamentally important, especially to the individual artisans fortunate to have a presence there. At the very least it is easy to determine which vendors are local to the state, from outside of it or are simply resellers. Those from the state proper do know their products and their history. For such serious artisans, events like this charro congress provide an outlet. Even if it accounts for only a small portion of their total sales,  it provides national and international visibility for their products.  One silversmith told me that international sales now account for up to 20% of his business, almost all contacts made through highly visible events such as this.

This year, the National Congress is on from 13 October to 4 November and definitely worth a weekend trip to Zacatecas, not only for the local products and food, but for demonstrations of some of the best of Mexico’s charros.

 

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Stage sets and artesanía

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Cactus at his home/workshop

For a handcraft or any other kind of artistry to stand out, there needs to be a personal and cultural connection between the creator and the creation. Straight out technical talent is not enough. That connection can be through family history, the material and/or the techniques used, but often this connection comes through the themes expressed in the work.

José Flores is best known by his nickname Cactus, prominent on his business cards. He is a native Durangan, born and raised in the city’s iconic Analco neighborhood. He does not come from an artist or artisan family; he came to be so through the movies.

Cactus lives in the modest neighborhood of Granja Graciela, but the interior of his home is an impressive reflection of his aesthetic sense and personal history. The garage has been converted into a kind of large foyer/bar area with a decoration style I’ll call not-quite-Wild-West. Kind of like Durango itself, it is the frontier but with a number of other elements of more “civilized” areas.

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I had a few minutes to look at several of his crafts, both completed and in-progress as I had gotten there before the maestro. Cactus’ wife pointed out a few of them. Without knowing much of anything about the creator, one type of craft stood out immediately – miniature facades of Wild West buildings recognizable from the cowboy movies of the mid 20th century.

That may seem odd for a Mexican craftsman. Cactus has been criticized for this work, especially with their signs and other elements in English rather than in Spanish. But knowing a bit about Durango and the artisan explains why this works in their favor.

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At the height of the Western in Hollywood, Durango experienced a heyday as a setting for many of these movies, starting with White Feather, shot here in the mid 1950s. This boom continued into the 1960s and 1970s, with John Wayne himself shooting a number of movies here, including The Sons of Katie Elder. Wayne even bought himself a ranch not far from Durango City. The movie companies used area towns and landscapes but also built sets recreating the classic scenes of one dirt road bordered by wood buildings representing saloons, post offices, general stores, etc.

DSC_0509Fast forward to the 1980s… Cactus grew up during Durango’s movie heyday and decided to become a movie set designer, studying in Los Angeles for a number of years. When he returned to Durango, there was still a movie industry but it had gone in decline along with the popularity of the western.  By the 2000s, many of the old stage sets had been abandoned or put to other purposes, including a tourist Wild West Show and one that has become a real town, with people living under the old English-language signs for 19th-century establishments.

Cactus worked on some restoration projects at some of the old sets at the turn of the century, but it became clear the he needed other sources of income. He has taken his artistic and design skills to produce lines of several handcrafts and some artistic works.

In addition to the facades, Cactus creates interior scenes and other miniatures such as log cabins and horse-drawn carts which keep more-or-less to the Western theme. Other works include small decorative chests and crosses. These tend to be Spanish in design but not Baroque. Rather they are simplified versions that at home in both Western settings and colonial Mexican homes. This also reflects Durango. While it is squarely in the North, it is also the outer periphery of the Central Mexican Plateau. Influences from farther south can be readily seen here in the architecture and the food.

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His artistic work runs from typical canvas paintings, to sculptures made from organic and recycled materials. The most interesting are his air-brush paintings, oddly enough. Forsaking gaudy colors and unrealistic space scenes, Cactus uses the technique to paint realistic images on old and cracked wood, most often salvaged from decayed buildings. He prefers this because this wood has character and he must “negotiate” with it in order to create an image. Indeed, one of his favorite themes in our conversation was the concept of “respecting the medium.”

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The artist can be reached through his web page at https://www.facebook.com/cactusoldwestart/

 

El maestro Trino Núñez

In a corner of Durango city’s main cultural center, the Casa de Cultura, works a quiet man whose humble appearance belies the impact he has had on this state’s handcrafts and art, especially ceramics.

At seventy years old, Trinidad Núñez Quiñones (generally known simply as maestro Trino) appears a good 15 years younger. Long hair streaked with gray, he was often be either stooped over a batch of clay, or working with students from ages seven to adult.

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Núñez’s work in the Museo de Culturas Populares

Unseen by the casual visitor to the workshop is maestro Trino’s long history and contributions to his home state. This career is due in part to a twist of fate. Núñez was born into a solid farm family in the tiny community of San José de Gracia in the municipality of Canatlán (famous for its apples). The youngest of six children, Núñez had a very traditional family life, which included taking care of family livestock. However, in 1953 this was turned upside down when another farmer came to kill Núñez’s father over a dispute about horses. The result was that the farmer laid dead and his family took revenge, burning the family home, forcing his father to flee to the mountains and the rest of the family to the outskirts of Durango city to start over. However, it was in public school here that Núñez discovered his talent and passion for creating. He says that no matter what else happened in his life, his art was always first… he true “mistress.”

He prefers that his work speak for him. As an artist, Núñez was trained in various fields of visual arts, but has specialized in ceramics and ceramic sculpture. He has his own workshop and gallery, Taller Toltecatl, where he works with his wife Norma Elizabeth Campos Galindo and one of his sons, Gerardo.  His work ranges from souvenir-type pieces produced serially to one-of-a-kind artworks. The line of handcraft that stands out most are covered vases and other decorative items that have been painted with a slip, usually burnt orange, blue or green then a primitive but finely-detailed sgraffito scratched into it. Like Mata Ortiz pottery, the decoration is inspired by the Chalchihuite culture (of historical significance to Durango) but unlike the pottery to the north, the vessels and their making are modern.

098355e5-8f6a-43e2-baa4-ded6dff62cffNúñez says the vessels do not have a long history in the state, stating that they are his creation and to date only he and students he has trained are making them.  Núñez makes two styles of pottery using acrylic paints. One line uses bright colors and bold designs and other uses a combination of colors to imitate the look of copper and bronze pieces. These imitations are surprisingly realistic, especially considering that acrylics are used and the piece is not fired again after decoration. The last straight-up handcraft line that the maestro does is a line of black pottery pieces that are inspired by the barro negro done in the southern state of Oaxaca.  However, the work done is completely his own, designs are either local to Durango and/or modern imagery and the black color is achieved by causing an excess of smoke in the wood-burning kiln during the firing process, so that the clay absorbs the black. It cannot be washed or rubbed off after the firing process.

NunezQuinones010Núñez is an artist as well as an artisan. Most of his artistic works are ceramic sculpture, often with a sexual or kind of a nightmarish appeal. These are followed by mixed media works combining painting on canvas or wood along with ceramic elements. He also does some purely paint-on-canvas pieces.

His career as an artist, artisan, teacher and researcher spans over four decades. A stint in the army interrupted his formal artistic training in the late 1960s, but he completed this and started teaching at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts, part of the Juarez State University of Durango.  In 2012, after almost forty years, Núñez retired from the university.

He estimates that he has taught over 8,000 students in various capacities. He is proudest of the students he has taught and mentored who have gone on to promote Durango traditions inside and outside the state. He has worked with extremely poor communities such as La Guajalota in Mezquital to teach pottery and ceramics techniques with the aim of making more and better pieces, both to use and to sell. In 2001, the federal government sponsored a project to teach the Tepehuan in several communities better ceramic techniques. Núñez had success in doing just that; however, changes in the government since then has changed the focus in these same communities from ceramics to textiles, particularly blanket-making, converting many of his ceramic workshops to this purpose.

Today, Núñez may be best known for the workshop with bears his name at the city cultural center. He founded this workshop in 1980 and it still the primary instructor here, teaching students by setting up projects for them and letting them come in and out of the workshop anytime between 3pm and 9pm Monday to Friday. Not content to teach only ceramics, although this still occupies most of his time, about four years ago he began making and teaching cartonería (paper mache) in particular the fantasy creatures called alebrijes. He considered several options for the second craft in the workshop but decided on cartoneria as it is very economical, making it accessible to more people.

Núñez has numerous awards for his work over the course of his career, mostly from the Juarez State University of Durango and the city of Durango. His biography “Clay, paper mache and Life” was published by Durango’s publishing house. The maestro has been exhibiting his artwork since his was 25 years old, mostly locally and in the state of Durango, but also with important shows at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City and the National Museum of Ceramic Handcrafts in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco.

Credit for the fantastic photos (all but the one at the museum) to Anthony Arena.

Mercado de arte Rosarito

Despite its short time on the Mexican handcraft and folk art scene, the Mercado de Arte Mexicano in Rosarito has become an important event promoting folk and fine artists from all over the country.

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Given its target markets of collectors in southern California, retailers in the U.S. and retirees in the Rosarito area, it was originally called the Mexican Folk Art Market but recently changed its name to the Spanish version. However, it still maintains its mission of promoting Mexican artisans to the U.S. market, promoting the event through Mexican consulates in the country and even offering transportation to Rosarito from San Diego.

mexican folks art market mercado de arte popular artesanos artesanias Rosarito Baja CaliforniaThe festival was established as a private initiative, but has since gained state support. It has been in operation only for five years, but has already become the most important Mexican handcraft event in northwest Mexico. It features well- established grand masters,  up-and-coming artisans along with Mexican designers and other products from Baja California, especially wine. This year, the event expects over fifty exhibitors including artists such as:Enedina Vazquez (Oaxacan ceramics), Angelico Jimenez (Oaxacan woodcarvings), Natividad Sanchez (Mexican textiles, traditional shawls), Dania Elisai (paper mache dolls), Jesus Hernandez (Oaxacan woodcarvings), Fernando Jimón (Tonala burnished ceramics) and Olivia Dominguez (Mata Ortiz ceramics).

It, among other events, has made Rosarito a cultural destination. The event regularly attracts artisans from well-established handcraft traditions such as those from Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Santa Maria Atzompa, Oaxaca, alebrije makers from Mexico City and Mazahua textile producers from the State of Mexico and Michoacán. Many of the artisans have won national level awards. Exhibitors from the fine arts include painter and sculptors and there are musical and dance shows as well.

mexican folks art market mercado de arte popular artesanos artesanias Rosarito Baja California2It is organized each year by the Los Naguales Arte y Cultura Mexicana with support from the Rosarito Art Fest and the Baja California Secretariat of Tourism.  The director of the festival is Benito del Águila.In 2018, the event will be held on November 10 and 11th at the Centro Estatal de las Artes Playas de Rosarito (Playas de Rosarito State Center for the Arts).

.For more information, you can contact the organizers (in English or Spanish) at
mexfolkarts@yahoo.com.mx o https://www.facebook.com/mexicanfolkartmarket/

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