Sunday, July 8, 2007


Generations of Michoacán artisans engage in a variety of crafts
Story ran May 13, 2006 in The Monitor in McAllen, Texas.

URUAPAN, Mch., Mexico — Abdon Punzo Angel’s thick hands tapped minute details into the menacing snout of the copper dragon that sat immobilized in a vise, its body seeming to squirm.

Beside him, another shiny dragon writhed from its base, teeth bared, tongue flickering, the scales across its back bristling. A candle holder sat on its head, another on its tail.

Angel, one of the best coppersmiths in Santa Clara del Cobre, spent two months working on the copper dragons to enter in the 46th Annual Domingo de Ramos Tianguis y Concurso Artesania in Uruapan; he was one of many artisans throughout the state of Michoacán preparing for the event.

In Zinapecuaro, J. Ventura Hernandez Benitez, 47, had already sent his two ceramic entries to the contest. He planned to be in Patzcuaro for another show during the weekend of Domingo De Ramos. However, in the shop behind his house, he demonstrated how he has worked clay for forty years, a craft passed down to him through many generations.

The workshop’s rustic brick walls held up a corrugated metal roof beneath which his creations seemed to gestate in the heat. His homemade plaster molds and their offspring – pots, vases and pitchers which required weeks of labor – lay about the shop in the hypnotic chaos of a true artisan. Small ceramic pumpkins sat on the concrete floor in front of a shelf of cracked boards loaded with vases covered with images of skeletons dressed in fiesta garb, geometric patterns of terraces and triangles, stylized dogs and monkeys. Pots in subtle hues of dark red ochre, greenish umber and bluish gray sat nearby.

Benitez ran a wet rag over the bowl spinning on his potter’s wheel, slithering streams of water shooting away as he smoothed the piece into a finer shape. When it was almost dry, he said, he would dip it into a tub of barro y kaolin to give it a particular hue. Paints, brushes and a stool sat near the door where brief glimpses of his artist’s soul would manifest themselves in dynamic shapes and colors in his work.

The collection of pumpkins on the floor reflected a relatively recent innovation. Zinapecuaro´s artisans have been making ceramic pumpkins for about 30 years; they used to make them from lead-based materials.

However, Trinidad Martinez Garcia, director of commercial development at the Casa de las Artesanias in Morelia, said the local crafts people began making the newer versions without lead-based materials about 10 to 15 years ago after learning about the harmful effects of lead.

Benitez said that the newer pumpkins, in softer earth tones of roasted coffee and autumn leaves and earth greens, are actually more attractive than the old ones. “They sell better than the glazed ones,” he said.

Angel Cuin Juarez, 50, from the village of Cuanajo, said people prefer the natural look of carved furniture to the brightly painted version. That’s why he decided not to paint his contest entry, an intricately-carved wooden chest. Just a few days before the event, he was putting the finishing touches on the piece in the shop behind his house. His 13-year-old son, Juan Esteban Cuin Augustin, had just gotten home from school and now went to work tracing designs into a panel of wood and then carving them.

The boy’s father began working in carpentry himself at age 13; he didn’t start doing the elaborate woodcarving for which Cuanajo is famous until about 20 years ago. That’s when a man in Erongaricuaro, near Lake Patzcuaro, asked him to do some work and, out of necessity, he learned the craft.

Elsewhere in Cuanajo, at a store called Casa de Artesanías (not the state agency of the same name) Elodia Garcia Romero and her friend, Norberta Perez Zirango, sat at their backstrap looms weaving material which would later be used for morrales — colorful cloth purses — just like the ones that hung on racks for purchase. Romero had already sent her two morrales to the contest; Zirango had entered two caminos de mesa, elaboratelywoven bands of cloth placed on dinner tables.

Zirango, 75, has been weaving since age 15, and she sat before the loom now as though she had always been there; the thick braids of her hair were tied together at the ends, her pleated blue skirt draped over folded legs. Her ancient hands fit the wooden rods through long strands of vertical thread, gingerly pressed them down and raised them up as the decades of artistry now interwoven into the fabric of her spirit manifested themselves in the cloth.

That manifestation continues to express itself in younger generations. Her friend, Romero, shows no signs of quitting; Romero’s daughter, Maria Concepción Guadalupe Garcia, 18, sat nearby weaving a scarf. She said she wanted to commit to the craft for the rest of her life.

More young people were committed to their copper work a few miles away in Santa Clara del Cobre, where the ringing and pounding of hammers filled the air in Angel’s shop. Punzo, who has won many national and international awards and has even made two presentations in Albuquerque, N.M., has 12 employees in his shop; all were busy at work this particular day.

Smoke bit nostrils and untrained palates, thunderous whops of hammers pounded objects into shape and disrupted the loud music crashing into the sunny yard, balanced simultaneously by the “ting-ting-ting” of tiny hammers tapping fine delicate details into copper pieces.

Hammers and tongs hung on the walls; sparks writhed in furious circles from a charcoal fire where a worker heated a copper piece before pounding it into shape over a long metal bar. Nearby, thick fire stroked the sides of a huge pot of boiling water where workers periodically placed copper pieces to give them their distinctive color.

All 12 of Angel’s employees are relatives — sons, nephews and other family members. Many of them have the name Punzo, a Purhepecha name passed down from his great-grandfather.

On this particular day, some of them were finishing up their contest entries. Son Carlos Punzo Chavez, 23, crafted the final accents of the flutes in a shiny vase. Another employee, Abdon Punzo Chavez, 20, tapped the details of butterflies into a silver pot. The 20-year-old artisan had already pressed the shape of the butterflies into the pot from the inside out, and then filled it with a substance called chapopote to keep the butterfly images intact while he put more defined details.

“When it hardened,” he said through an interpreter, “that’s when I began hammering little indentations into the butterflies from the outside.”

Once he tapped in the minute lines that would reveal the insect’s body and antennae, he would melt the chapopote.

Abdon Punzo Chavez had high hopes for this entry which he had worked on for a month.

“This is different, it’s unique,” he said. “It will probably win something.”

Why did he decide to make a silver piece instead of copper?

“It’s prettier, it’s easier, more smooth,” he said.

His father had also been working on an entirely new design, two dragons, one with two candleholders, and the other strictly decorative.

“It will have an impact in the contest,” he said with eager enthusiasm. “I had thought of making a candle holder, and I thought of making a dragon.”

However, Angel later decided not to enter his dragons in the contest.

“I couldn’t finish them in time,” he said. “I need to put the finishing touches on them, on the whole thing. I need about 22 more days. I’ll probably enter them in the Patzcuaro contest or the next Uruapan contest.”

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