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.
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