Doing what you love and safeguarding history at the same time

On one of my visits to San Miguel Allende, I was told that many gringos still come there hoping to find an old colonial building they can fix up. In San Miguel, the opportunity to do that has long since passed, and many who live there now have to make do with new construction or even housing developments if they want to create their home.

If we think outside of the box a little bit, Mexico is full of old houses and other buildings which could benefit from such impulses. But it takes a special kind of person to be able to live completely in a foreign environment. This is why migrants of all stripes usually congregate into communities of their compatriots. Gringos are no exception.

Front of former mansion and giant kapok

Stories of people who go their own way intrigue us, which is why the story of Per Andersen is compelling.

Per Anderson demonstrating paper making

Anderson was born in Sweden and trained to be a graphic artist there, specializing in artistic lithography (printing over stone). In 1974, he received an invitation to teach this specialty at the Universidad Veracruzana (UV) in Xalapa, the mountainous capital of the state of Veracruz.

What Andersen found there both discouraged and challenged him. Not only was the school workshop providing the bare minimum, the real problem was that after learning how to make high-quality prints, students would not be able to open their own workshops, as all of the equipment and supplies were imported from abroad. Graduates would need up to a millions pesos just to get set up.

Although Anderson’s life took a couple a detours, one back to Sweden and another living a secluded ranch life for a time, he has spent his life since the 1970s looking for ways to make artistic printing economically viable in Xalapa.

The latest incarnation of this goal is an organization called La Ceiba Gráfica (The Graphic Kapok). It is a combination restoration project and cooperative graphics workshop located just south of Xalapa, in the former hacienda called La Orduña.

Fifteen years or so ago, the idea came together… a collaborative, cooperative space for various artists to use, and a hacienda main house that was a historic site, but in desperate disrepair. Incorporating as a nonprofit with the official name of Artistas Veracruzanos Bajo La Ceiba A.C., the organization convinced federal historical authorities (INAH) to rent them the former house cheaply and provide funds for its restoration.

Lithographic press using Mexican marble

To both ends, Anderson and the other members of La Ceiba had to become a kind of modern Renaissance men. Funds were limited, and the best way to use them was to make and build just about everything themselves and/or with the help of local craftsmen. This is true from the printing equipment to restoring everything in the hacienda building from windows to roof, to all the furniture.

Such work also fit in with the ethos of La Ceiba, believing in sustainability and the local sourcing of all supplies, from Veracruz marble for the presses, to local soils and plants for the inks, and even growing their own Japanese mulberry trees for the fine paper used in the facility.  In fact, one way to know you are the in the right place (aside from the giant kapok tree out front) are the racks of gleaming white sheets of paper drying in the sun.

While all of the organization’s graphic work can be called “artisanal,” it is the paper making that is the most fitting of the term. Paper use for fine art and some other uses needs to be of the highest quality. Such paper was not manufactured in Mexico.

In the United States, Anderson learned about the Japanese paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera). It not only provided the quality of paper needed, it would also grow in Xalapa’s high mountain tropical climate. Today this plant is grown and harvested on the hectare surrounding the house, along with several rented fields.

The former hacienda garage was transformed into the “Living Museum of Paper” (Museo Vivo del Papel), a workshop where all of La Ceiba’s paper is made by hand and classes are held to teach its making. The workshop produces a surplus as well, which is sold in Mexico and abroad.

The main goal of the organization is to be self-sustaining, to take no government monies aside from those for the restoration and maintenance of the physical property. After a few rocky years, the organization found a way to do this, with its major income from artist residencies, dedicating the second floor to dormitories and a communal kitchen. (Workshops are on the ground floor.) This program has drawn artists and students from countries such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Argentina, Chile, France, Spain, Indonesia, Brazil and Colombia, and has attracted notable Mexican artists such as Francisco Toledo and José Luis Cuevas.

Wood block cut

Not a fan of capitalism, Anderson believes that with the La Ceiba project he has worked out many of the problems that economic cooperatives can have. “Everything can be resolved without resorting to commercial projects, if only you reflect on how to resolve the challenges of contemporary art.” he says.

Pressing water out of paper recently strained and shaped

La Ceiba Gráfica has become a model for similar projects, with about 35 organizations in Mexico following its lead in some way. In 2013, it won the Sustainable Printmaking and Community Award from the Southern Graphics Council in the San Francisco Bay area.

La Ceiba’s website can be found at (in Spanish)

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