Crafts

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Crafts

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Black Clay from Oaxaca

In the hills east of San Bartolo Coyotepec “the cradle of black clay”, surrounded by green luscious beauty, are the mud mines. The smell of wet earth permeates the air as the collectors dig and descend to the wells to extract the earth. It is never taken from the surface. Heavy sacks, about thirty kilos each, weigh them down on their way to the workshops in town.

Expert hands and soles of feet dig into the earth, looking for debris it is cleaned and extended. Water runs through the earth making it into clay to be molded. Skilled hands work through the clay, knead it, as they feel for the humid richness of the earth and create the backbones for each handmade piece reflecting the religious, philosophical and environmental context of the artisans and their families.

While the pieces dry, the process starts all over, the artisans’ hands never tiring of the wetness of the clay or the smell of the earth they love. Each piece is re-polished with a quartz stone or another smooth object to close the pores and let dry before being placed in the oven. The heat of the 900ºC wood ovens burns the cheeks of those standing close, drops of sweat frame the faces of the artisans as the heat in the workshops intensifies the already humid and scourging heat of the region.

The pieces are carefully watched for 8 to 12 hours and polished again taking the artisans anywhere from 20 to 40 days to create each handmade piece. This technique, discovered by Doña Rosa Real in 1950, allows each piece to emerge with a deep black gloss exalting the designs making them unique and popular among collectors.

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Alebrijes from Oaxaca

Transported into a forest, creatures seem to roam freely, creatures never before seen, with color combinations from a mythical place; but we have not left Mexico. In very few places we can see mythical beasts like in San Martín Tilcajete and San Antonio Arrazola. We enter into a fantastical place, a forest only possible in our dreams where a donkey has butterfly wings, a lion an eagle head and a colorful bull is full of textures. In Oaxaca in the 1980’s, Manuel Jiménez and María Sabina combined the wood carving tradition of the region with the alebrije technique (mythical animals made of cardboard and papier-mâché) of the State of Mexico.

Artisans carve each piece from the magical copal wood, splinters flying from their block, sculpting their canvas from materials ever present in the region. The animal, mythical or real, takes shape in the hands of masters only to come to life with their brush and dotted strokes. Imagination, creativity and skill are the pillars behind each of these pieces, a process that takes 6 months to 2 years, depending on the complexity of the piece. Combining the cultural heritage of the Mixtec-Zapotec cultures and each artisan’s imagination of what an alebrije can be, the alebrijes from Oaxaca have become a representation of Mexican artistry at its finest.

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Ceramics from Guanajuato

Since ancestral times, pottery has been an outstanding art that the human being has developed to help in its daily survival. We can imagine entering into pre-Hispanic homes and seeing families make ceramic plates and cups, sometimes painting them to make beautiful pieces, or maybe just using them for food and water or religious decoration. In Tarandacuao, Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s finest ceramists continues this lively tradition, making his ceramic pieces into pieces of art.

The production process is extremely complex. Our artisans mix clay, kaolin, feldspar and mud, to make three different combinations of pulp used for different aspects of the ceramics. Walking through the workshop, the smell gives away the first step: aging or fermentation step. This is the “secret” of ceramic artists, to use water and pulque, a fermented alcoholic drink from the pulp of the maguey plant, to let the paste rest. The one used for turned parts is kept at rest for a month; that time is doubled or tripled for the pulp for molded pieces. After it absorbs the water and pulque mix, it is dried by evaporation and packed in bags preserved at the exact point of moisture to mold it.

If you’ve ever seen a master potter at work, you would marvel at the way their moist hands give life to the mass of earth in pulp form in their power, how it turns in their grasp leaving remnants of what it was in the skin of the artist, curves forming until finally revealing itself for what it was supposed to become. After the pulp is given life, it is left to dry for one or two days (some large pieces require 15 to 20 days) and then moves on to polishing. To polish the piece is to clean it, give it luster, to take the pulp from dry form to a canvas ready for the artist. The piece is enameled inside to make the piece impermeable, which allows the piece to be used with food and water without contamination from the high content of loin in mud and clay.

Now the masters really get to work. First the piece is prepared with pencil, sketching the basic lines. Then comes the brush, freehand strokes of symmetrical drawings of flowers, crosses, points, lines, curves, or wherever the imagination takes the artist. Imagination guides the artist in the way they mix colors, forms and textures, each unrepeatable. No piece is like any other. Observing the piece, carefully turning it to see the angles, the master says its ready. The almost finished piece goes into the scorching heat, a ceramic-fiber covered oven at 1,260ºC, for 6 to 7 hours. The finished product is the art form representing Mexican mestizaje; the elegant design reminiscing of the churches where our indigenous population embedded their religious and cultural beliefs along with the catholic ones, one where the past meets the present in a unique and useful work of art.

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Ceramics from Chihuahua

Among mud walls framed by a backdrop of green mountains, we find ourselves walking along the ancient city of Paquimé, Chihuahua. The way the city looks today, it seems to be a sculpted-earth labyrinth pointing to the past, allowing us with every step to discover something new about the culture of Casas Grandes. We can imagine wooden ceilings, families busting about, earth-toned beautiful items used around the houses, a whole culture expressing itself through architecture and art. It is no surprise Paquimé is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In Mata Ortiz, a small rural town near Paquimé, ancestral pottery comes to life with Greco lines and symbols. The master Juan Quezada revived the tradition from pottery he found in the caves of the area while working as a lumberjack. A self-taught master, Juan Quezada taught his family and friends, thus making Mata Ortiz ceramics known throughout the world and more than 300 families are today dedicated to its elaboration. The ceramics from Mata Ortiz embody the symbols of the cultures of the north using instruments for their elaboration found in nature. Each piece is fragile thanks to its perfection and unique combination of pre-hispanic and artistic designs: straight and thin lines, curves, diagonals, circles, mixed with animals and plants, men and emblems of nature. The soft texture and colors of each piece is achieved by using materials found in the desert (honey, fruits, maguey pencas, earth, among others) thus creating pieces that blend ancestral practices and images with modern cultural representations. Mata Ortiz ceramics brings to life the culture of Casas Grandes in each piece with the heart of the people from Mata Ortiz.

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Copper from Michoacán

A vase seems about to fly away, its monarch butterflies in full flight, ready to take off leaving behind the finished copper and beautiful reddish hue. Right next to it a copper and white flower garden adorn some pots, their intricate and delicate lines breathing life to each petal. Functional art perfectly describes each piece of finished copper, with its reddish hue, metallic finish, and painted designs, whether they be pots, vases, cups, trays or jewelry, sometimes even a bathtub. The process takes several months from gathering the raw material by extracting it or collecting waste to the finished product. After carefully selecting the raw copper to be used, it is placed in a hole covered by ash and oak logs, and filled with coal. The copper melts at 1086ºC looking like molten lava or liquid fire. The next step is forging; metal on metal screams as the teams of artisans hammer the red copper, the men dancing around the anvil to a hundred-year-old melody, alternating places while they pound. Sweat and furrowed brows adorn the faces of the hammering men. There are pauses in the metallic melody as the piece is heated, a couple of seconds, and then renews with equal vigor. The copper hardens with each blow, is extended or deepened, until months later a finished piece emerges. Different tools are used to give form and artistry to each piece, tools such as bigornias, candongas, punzones and chisels.

This artisan tradition is handed down from generation to generation. The children of Santa Clara del Cobre (cobre is copper in Spanish) learn how to chisel and hammer in school since the age of five. Workshop School prepares the next generation of teachers of the trade. The skill of hammering, contact with fire, and design of copper takes a long time to acquire and children are taught from an early age. The love and creativity of each piece, on the other hand, are not taught but brought forth from within each artisan as they transmit a little of themselves and of their culture to the world through their art. Each piece carries unique details and the tireless work of the artisans of Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan.

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Mexican Fine Crafts

A collection of unique pieces of art.

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