Lucina Tulais Lopez brought out a scalloped crown fashioned from a gourd and decorated with images of flowers. Delicate stems with “florecitas de campesinos” flew like carefree butterflies from roses energized with soft shadows; light spilled from those shadows, caressing the petals with a soft suggestion of life. Tulais, dressed in jeans and black shirt shrill with the white outlines of leaves and flowers, had been applying the flowers of the crown in a process called maque.
Uruapan, Michoacan’s second largest city, is famous for its maque, a form of lacquer ware in which successive layers of color are applied using earth, aje, and linseed oil. Each time the artisan applies a color, it must be allowed to dry for four or five days before applying the next color. Aje is an animal fat obtained from the female coccus axin, an insect found in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan.
The crucible in which Lucina, her husband Bruno, and sisters Rosa Maria and Margarita performed their magic was the workshop behind their home beneath an open air shelter made of corrugated tin supported by course timbers and a wall of brick and concrete. Sunlight slung shreds of shadow across the wall and fell into a scorched stain from a brick and stone hearth where the family prepares rice and mole con pollo for visitors during Paseo de la Magdalena in late June. There was certainly a powerful flavor in the family’s artistic creations. The crown Lucina would soon complete was intended to be worn by the Queen of the Fiesta de la Magdalena when a parade passes through Colonia Magdalena where the Tulais family has lived for generations. Just up the street from where Lucina and Bruno lived sat a corner house where Dona Francisca, her father, and grandfather were all born. Her father later purchased the property where Lucina now lives.
Against the wall leaned a paddle used for removing bread from another, much larger, round horno powered by a wood fire – the family spends its Sundays preparing bread for sale to visitors. Across the yard next to the house, vegetables and carne were being cooked over a gas fire. Lucina, who revealed her age only as “50-something,” said she prefers cooking the family meals outside to avoid the heat and save on the light bill.
Lucina and her two sisters, Rosa Maria and Margarita (who come to Lucina and Bruno’s home to work during the day), learned how to make maque from their aunt, Dona Francisca Tulais, who had no children and therefore viewed her nieces as her own children. Dona Francisca’s picture appeared with a New York Times article in the 1990s and was featured in several books for her talent; she died in 2007, but her presence was clearly felt at Lucina’s stall at the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair, where Lucina’s visual language had obviously carried on the spirit of her aunt.
Wood, paint, and aje had come together to create works of art transmitted from a river of wild abandon through Lucina’s talented hands onto her pieces. There were large pizza-sized bateas decorated with vines twisting and turning around flowers like red and yellow flames, bulbous purple blooms, lavender spades, aqua blue birds poised in mid-landing on chartreuse petals. There were gourds with scalloped lids and decorated with delicate flower spikes in canary yellow and mauve that zoomed across the black sky. ''I feel very good because we protect the artisans,'' said Lucina as her husband Bruno, 62, translated during a break between visitors to her post. ''We don't want to lose the tradition. I just want the art to go around everywhere, to know what we do in this city. Artesania, you can see maque in the U.S., but you don't know who does it. This is like the fifth generation that's been doing this, for many, many years. My aunt passed away last year. She learned from her father and grandfather, and I learned from my aunt.''
Back at the shop behind their house a few days after the crafts fair, Rosa Maria, who won an award in the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Contest, said she was grateful to have learned so much from her Dona Francisca. “It’s something you feel really good to remember all the things she taught us. We’re not going to forget either.”
She had to leave at this point to pick up her six-year-old grandson from school, who along with his two brothers ages 3 and 5 is also picking up the technique. The two younger boys, with short cropped hair framing toothy grins and eager black eyes, had been gallivanting around the yard with sticks that had become horses and shrill voices that had were shouts of challenge and victory. Their play collapsed beneath a towering avocado tree into the speckled shade on the grassless ground stiffened by years of activity.
They would become the next generation of artisans. Lucina was about their age when she began learning the maque trade. She didn’t know for sure at what age she began learning the craft – she saw Dona Francisca working at it everyday and picked it up naturally. First she learned to apply the black foundation, which is created by mixing black ashes (in her case from the ashes they retrieve from the horno after baking the Sunday bread) with earth and then ground together on a metate. Then a mixture of aje and linseed oil is applied, followed by the spreading of the ash and earth mixture. After she learned that basic step, she learned to apply colors, then draw the image and etch in the profiles.
The steps of the actual process are different; the artisan still applies the black maque first, but then she draws the image, etches in the areas to be painted and puts in the colors.
“For many people, the most difficult is drawing,” said Bruno, who began learning the technique from Lucina about 15 years ago when they married. “But the designs, for us nothing is difficult. Many people know how to do maque but don’t know how to draw. Some people know how to put the maque, but they really don’t know how to draw the picture. They have to go somewhere else and have somebody do it.”
Bruno sat on a wooden chair with crumbling white paint working intently on a basket released from the confines of a gourd from his brother’s ranch, scraping away the area surrounded by the outline of a flower. A serrated leaf had gentle variations of green. “The other color has to be stronger than the green, to give more feeling to the leaf,” he said. The two boys watched Bruno pull the images kicking and screaming from the gloom of the blackness into the percolating luminosity of the workshop. Lucina took the gourd – it was a joint project – and used a needle to show how she brought the subtle flourishes into her pieces. She handed the gourd back to Bruno, then retrieved a wooden plaque with red roses on a blue background.
“These have shadows,” she said. She picked up the crown, which already had the same graceful lines, and said, “this will have the profiles.” She pulled out a small black jewelry box with flowers and said, “This is in profile but with traditional designs.”
She spoke now with the exuberant virtuosity of someone still in the unrestrained throes of youth, light flooding her face, transforming her complexion from a burnished mahogany to a golden caramel. Dona Francisca still powerful presence in Lucina – there was a generous glow in her words, an eagerness that struggled for release from the fetters of mid-afternoon fatigue. But this was a fatigue born entirely of the trivialities of time, not of memory or action, for Dona Francisca’s blessing had opened a portal through which spilled an imperturbable breath of life, removing any chance for premature atrophy. The playful colors, the laughter of the two boys, Bruno’s excited concentration, Lucina’s refreshing delight about her work, and Rosa’s stoic demeanor seemed to cast oblique reflections of the sun even into the shadows around the avocado tree and the gas stove where the heat slowly convinced the mid-day lunch to releasing the flavors it zealously concealed. The energy of their maque, however, couldn’t possibly be restrained, instead pouring out its mesmerizing warmth into the surrounding streets as it as done for generations.
Hey, everybody: Well, I had a fabulous day. I drove out to Uruapan, and what an incredible drive. The rode between Patzcuaro and Uruapan was a twisting, winding road through pine-covered mountains and the view was breathtaking. In Uruapan, I interviewed Lucina Tulais Lopez, her sister Rosa, and her husband Bruno in their workshop where they make macque, a form of lacquerware. Lucina and Rosa learned the trade from their aunt, Dona Francisca, who has been featured in the New York Times and several books for her skill. Dona Francisca never had children, so she shared all her knowledge with her nieces. Dona Francisca died last year, but Lucina and Rosa proudly continue her tradition. I'll be posting more about the family later.
Hey, everybody: I took a drive over to Patzcuaro yesterday, and I was surprised at how easy it was to find my way there. On they way, I took a detour through Cuanajo and Tupataro, two quaint attractigve little towns where artisans make handcarved furniture. Then I went on to Patzcuaro; I thought I had been there twice for the Dia de los Muertos two and three years ago, but I realized as I drove through town how little I had seen of it. This is a fascinating colonial town with a number of beautiful plazas and filled with intriguing architecture along narrow winding streets, kind of like Guanajuato. I can't wait to explore the town again. It's amazing what time can do for your perspective. I wrote a story a couple of years ago about Cupatitzio Gorge National Park in Uruapan, but when I took a stroll through the park again earlier this week I had a whole new range of thoughts. The moment you enter the park you encounter water rushing from the earth through a fountain where it descends, bounces, crawls its way back down before coming to rest in a quiet pool. An African tulip tree, dotted with flaming orange blossoms and glitters of sun, heaves over the terracotta roof of an office building; light magenta blooms hanging on a thick vine rush up a palms as if to contemplate strangulation, but the tree reaches up to the sky, showing no signs of resignation. Broad stone pathways, lined by a green wall of ferns, palms, and spindly coffee bushes heavy with dark red fruit, wind their way through the forest, frequently perforated by gazebos selling coffee, cups of fruit, quesadillas with pumpkin flowers, chicken enchiladas, tortas, and cold drinks. The paths are riddled with streams of water that exhale their sweet musty breath as they descend toward the river. The people who constructed the elaborate stone walls and pathways were true artists, harnessing the water into a series of exhibitions: water shoots in tiny loops through a wide series of steps, crashes over rocks, pours gently down walls, rises into elegant fans, rushes, screams, gallivants down narrow corridors. At a place called Arcoiris, three plumes of water shoot into the air, capturing a wandering rainbow that arches through the thin mist toward the blackberry vines falling over a stone wall. A young girl stops and gazes at the spectacle a moment; she sees the rainbown, the leans forward, hands open in frantic, unrestrained joy, her jet black ponytail whipping about as she rushes to the other side, her wondering nervous black eyes wide and quivering. Spent with the fatigue of thunderous discovery, she recedes to the security of her mother while her excitement seems to have seeped into the consciousness of another family that crowds around for pictures of the moment.
My email: WhiteheadTravis@hotmail.com
Updated March 22, 2011.
I moved to Morelia in 2008 and spent eight months working on a book about the artisans of Michoacan. The book, ''Slices of Life - The Artisans of Michoacan" will contain profiles of the artisans in this state west of Mexico City. I've now moved to Brownsville, Texas and have recently found a publisher, Otras Voces Publishing. My purpose is to capture the pulse of some of the artisan communities and introduce them to American readers by profiling the common thread that binds the artisans to the rest of the world through the universal themes of hardship and triumph and by describing the daily lives of the families who live and work here.
Travis M. Whitehead