Monday, January 26, 2009


Dear readers:
Martin passed away suddenly on Jan. 27, 2009. I feel privileged to have known him and spent time with his family before he left us. Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers.


Travis M. Whitehead

Martin works on a large laca plate with the
image of a droopy-eyed sun for a client from Spain.


Martin Andrade paints designs in mordente into a
laca plate.

Palm trees, a deer, and colorful flowers embellish
this small plate.

Martin painted a scene of Los Viejitos into this
batea. Isla Janitzio rises over Lake Patzcuaro in
the background.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


By Travis M. Whitehead
PATZCUARO - The droopy-eyed sun, shrouded in a golden mane of tempestuous fire, stares from the wine-tinted wooden laca (lacquerware) plate as butterflies traced in Italian gold struggle through a tangle of sunflowers and water lilies. They wait desperately, suspended in mid-transformation, for the paint to rush from Martin Andrade Rodriguez's brush and saturate them with the metallic technicolor fury adorning his plates, jewelry boxes, and lockets. Golden rays shoot from the delicate lips of fuschia-petaled blooms, bulbous flowers shimmer with warmth, monarch butterflies flutter above cobalt blue flowers and violet buds.

"I do it with my imagination. I don't draw my designs on paper like some people do," said the 52-year-old artisan, thick folds of flesh around his jawline broadening into frequent smiles, a powerful nose reaching toward his cheeks.

Lacas perfiladas en oro (roughly translated as lacquerware trimmed in gold), first arrived in Mexico from the Orient in the 1600s on ships making port calls in Acapulco. While those pieces were covered with motifs from the East, local artisans adapted the skill to their surroundings, covering the pieces with monarch butterflies, calla lilies, sunflowers, images of Los Viejitos, traditional foliage, and other impressions.

Martin, who began studying the craft at age 17, immediately impressed me with the liquid professionalism of his explanations. He spoke with the articulate flourishes of one who had given numerous presentations of his art. Martin's explorations with laca have taken him to Guatemala, Venezuela, Chicago, Sacramento, and New York. "I just do the drawing using a very fine brush. If I had the drawings, it would be easier and faster. But I think handicrafts should be more spontaneous. I have changed my designs, but I just see what the people like and try to improve. Every artisan has a different style, different colors, different designs. In the work of the artisan, they shouldn't steal the way they do it."

His wife Maria brought cold glasses of tangerine juice for myself and my companions, who included Trinidad Martinez Garcia from the Casa de las Artesanias - House of Handcrafts, returning to her kitchen where she prepared a mid-afternoon meal of beef, beans, and minced squash with onions and cream cheese; her skillfull compositions sent a chorus of delicious smells frolicking down the hall, heightening my senses as I explored the riotous jungle of images that had escaped from Martin's imagination into his work. Outside the door, Yeri the family dog dozed beneath an arbor covered with yellow campanitas flowers, red arteries of color reaching around bell-shaped blooms. Yeri's sidekick Tomas (Tom and Jerry?) was nowhere to be seen, possibly exploring the pine woods surrounding the home on the outskirts of Patzcuaro.

The power of Martin's work, springing from the thermal hot spring in his soul where new forms of life continuously evolved, conjured visions incomprehensible to the physical eye. The vibrations of a tropical bird's wings radiated from dishes, gusts of air were tossed into the room by the pounding of colorful jewels in mid-flight. A hummingbird darted from a saucer, then dove back into the glistening darkness; butterflies caressed flowers with their graceful touch while the very music of this luxurious wilderness flew into the room.

Martin's apprenticeship began at age 17 when he went to work at a store in Casa de Once Patios, a collection of shops near Plaza Vasco de Quiroga in Patzcuaro. The business sold plates decorated in the laca technique, and Martin, through careful observation, meticulously pieced the process together on his own. "Everybody that does this kind of work is very jealous, so it's very difficult to get someone to teach you. When I wanted to learn, nobody wanted to teach me, because they were afraid of the competition, that someone will make better work than you."

After five years of patient study, he had finally acquired enough skill to produce his own pieces, embarking on a career that now spans decades and has earned him numerous awards that include the Galardon Nacional del Arte Popular Mexicana 1988, and first place in the laca division of the Day of the Dead crafts competition in Patzcuaro in 2008. He feels a great deal of gratitude toward the talented practitioners from whom he learned the craft. "It doesn't matter they didn't want to teach me. I think of them as my teachers."

When I first visited Martin, he had already completed much of the design work on the plate with the droopy-eyed sun, destined for a Spanish client who saw his work in a hotel and commissioned the piece. I had watched closely as he painted sharp-peaked onion domes around the perimeter with the mordente, a glue made of copper oxide, garlic, azarcon (an orange pigment), linseed oil, and other ingredients that he boils together so the gold laminate, which comes in delicate thin sheets, will adhere to the plate.

A laca piece begins surrendering the colorful wilderness huddling in its shadows when Martin boils the wood to prevent its breakage later in the process. This step draws out the resin from the wood and seals any cracks. Artisans can also achieve this by allowing the wood to simply soak in cool water for four or five days, but Martin prefers the quicker method through boiling. After this step, he allows the wood to dry outside, but not in direct sunlight. After sanding, he applies seven or eight layers of laca (lacquer), an industrial substance, which he described as "like a car wax. It's called laca automotiva."

He allows each layer of laca to dry and then sands the piece before applying the next coat. After Martin has applied all the laca, he paints the designs in mordente. Each ingredient of this glue serves a specific purpose: garlic as a natural insect repellent, copper oxide to give it body, and greta, a substance that gives the gold its shine. After laying the mordente, he places delicate sheets of gold on top, rubbing lightly to make the thin layer adhere to the glue.

"The importance of putting the mordente is, for some reason, if you don't put that base it's very dull. It won't have the same shine. We have tried it before with other substances and it doesn't work. It doesn't have the same shine."

We broke for lunch, moving to a kitchen wrapped in orange stucco and taking our places at a lengthy tile counter that separated a larger room from the kitchen area. Maria, dressed in jeans and a white shirt with beige flowers, moved with the frenzied energy of a hummingbird as she made final preparations; she quickly served up clay bowls filled with the delicious meal, a glorious medley of flavors that also included a long pale green chile stuffed with ham and cheese.

"Is it very spicy?" I asked as she tended tortillas on a plate heated by a whispering gas flame.

"Not very," she answered, plopping the tortillas into a napkin with needlepoint flowers on the counter. I indulged myself in the delicious beans and the beef, taking a second helping of the chopped squash, and somewhere in the midst of the exuberant conversation sallying through the kitchen, I learned that the chile was quite hot. I cautiously sampled the ham and cheese inside, and found that the chile had christened the filling with an invigorating zip that I thoroughly enjoyed. I tried a piece of the chile and found it much too overpowering, and Triny took over, wrapping it in a tortilla and devouring the fiery bullet with ease.

The meal was delicious, which did not surprise me. On my first visit, Maria had served another meal of soup swimming with generous chunks of fish. They had told me then that they had moved to this home eight years before from Martin's native Tzurumutaro, where they protested their neighbors illegally cutting trees."We were against it," said Martin. "The people that were chopping down the trees didn't like us because we were against it. So we moved."

After we'd finished the mid-day banquet of beans and carne (and frightening chiles) we returned to the work area where Martin explained that he spends a great deal of time passing on his knowledge to others, teaching schoolchildren, university students, even the handicapped so they can support themselves. He cherishes the opportunity to stimulate the interest of young people.

"Sometimes in the afternoon I teach children how to do the work. Some of them can't walk. I teach them because I want them to learn so they can have a way to live."

Many of his and Maria's nine children have shown interest in the craft. Martin Jr., age 27, does laca work and clothing design. His daughter, Itzel (A Mejica name meaning "eternal flower along the way"), 17, paints some of the images, and then Martin puts in the shadows; 16-year-old Yuritzquiri ("little girl" in Purepecha) also paints, and so does 15-year-old Victor.

Young Jesus, who'd just turned 11, began studying the designs about two months ago. "He's interested in learning," said Martin. "I give him little chores, not too difficult. How to draw. I have himpracticing on a piece of paper."

Jesus, a thick frock of hair crowning his jowly face, fidgeted in his chair as he talked about the trade in which he had just begun his own apprenticeship. He expressed a deep admiration for his father's work. "I'm very proud," he said, his grubby hands twisting the tail of his black T-shirt.
"I would like to travel like my father," he continued, adding that he draws maybe an hour a day after finishing his homework. "I practice how to make flowers."

He already has some ideas about what he'd like to put on his own laca plates when he's older."I would like to put birds instead of butterflies, when I have learned enough to do it right, maybe when I am 17."

Sometimes, young students become Martin's teachers. He recalled a children's class he taught in which a boy began to erase something he'd drawn. "I told him 'No, leave it alone.' He said it was a flower but it was not perfect. I said, 'Nature is not always perfect.'" He chuckled a moment as he recalled the lesson he'd learned from this encounter. "You learn from everyone, sometimes kids. Even some of the people you teach."

That's a crucial lesson in the life of an artisan, that craftsmanship is a voyage of discovery without end. "I am always learning. In this kind of work, we are always learning."

Older, more traditional designs, such as paisley tear drops splashing from simple flowers suspended from curvilinear vines, sometimes compete with his more original works: sparks of gold exploding from rum-colored blooms with curved petals, bands of white swirling through violet pools, amber-colored monarchs fluttering through leaves cloaked in prismatic emerald.

"Sometimes people will ask us to make Oriental designs, like dragons. But I don't want to go out of the normal designs of the region."

He turned now to the project at hand, the droopy-eyed sun on its way to Spain. "I like to experiment. Like this little sun, this is a new design. There are some other people that have done it, but I try to do my sun curvy. Each one has his own style, own color. Like this one, I put colors that look like sun colors, and that's what we do. It's what tradition is made of."

His own tradition has provided a wellspring from which the human imagination can express itself across his plates, where fresh young minds oblivious to limitations can colonize their lives with vivid images lurking in their dreams. Martin's creativity, festering, pulsating, heaving, rushes across the plates reclining restlessly in the shadows, providing a fountain of inventiveness. From that jungle-shrouded wellspring arises a river that flows into deserts of atrophied perceptions, beckoning their stalled visions to pursue again their own emerging dreams.


Maria de los Angeles works on a small hand-sized

Maria, left, and her husband, Francisco Barocio
Jacobo, work in their shop.

Francisco puts the final touches on a husband and
wife pair of clay figures.

And elegant Catrina with flowers
on her fancy dress.

Francisco Barocio Jacobo places
Catrinas in his oven for firing.


By Travis M. Whitehead
CAPULA – From a lump of clay, Maria de los Angeles created a being of morose elegance: a foot-tall skeleton called a Catrina enraptured in an elegant evening gown covered with flowers. As Maria cut out the Catrina’s chest cavity to make room for the ribs, her husband, Francisco Barocio Jacobo, busily molded the parrots that would crawl up the figure’s dress. The Catrina was part of an order of 15 “Frida” Catrinas dressed to resemble Mexican artist Frida Kahlo for a store here in town. She would soon join the others on a shelf, some with monkeys perched on hips or shoulders, where they waited for their appointment with the round brick oven outside the workshop. Just a few hours before, these exquisite figures had been lost in a bag of dry dust but they had been transformed in the workshop of these two artisans into tangible apparitions of death's Gothic comedy.

Outside the workshop, Manchas the pit bull, who had demanded a perfunctory sniff of my hand before allowing entrance to the yard, dozed next to the round brick oven, about 3 1/2 feet across, where Francisco would fire the Catrinas. A bicycle rested in front of pink geraniums growing next to the house, clothes dried in the sun, and a mound of lumber and pine logs lay like splinters gouging the air. A stack of neatly-placed firewood waited near a much larger oven – about 10 feet in diameter – in which Francisco’s father Antonio and his mother Sara placed large jarros upside down.

Francisco and Maria had first captured my attention at the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair in Uruapan where their pieces portrayed a broad spectrum of existence, showing the narrow impasse that lies between the grotesque humor of life and a boundless gulf on the other side. A group of thoroughly intoxicated male Catrines sat spread-eagled against a saguaro pouring beer down their skeletal mouths; richly-dressed Catrinas sat with legs folded beneath them on boats with baskets of fruit and flowers. Other Catrinas danced about joyfully, while a pot-bellied Catrine with an ammo belt and a rifle wore a wide smile and commanding moustache. Another, much more reserved Catrine wore a black and white tuxedo. Perhaps they all represented different aspects of the physical world’s tug-of-war with its own demise, seeking to replenish itself with the pristine humor that offers a retreat from the shores of eternity.

Making Catrinas requires many years of practice. “I learned from watching other artisans around town,” said Francisco, 34. “It’s a tradition. I get ideas from the Revolution. I try to make something comical, like a guy trying to hug a girl and she’s pushing him away.”

“Frida,” interjected Maria, 32, pointing to a black clay figure with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s distinctive hair piece around her head. She had been painting a dancing Catrina – a bailarina, still headless – endowing her with hands holding out voluminous skirts adorned with a sea of vines and dappled with red or yellow flowers. Maria chewed slowly on a piece of gum and leaned close to the Catrina she was painting.

“It takes me two hours to do the one like the man in the tux. Then I let it dry for a day or two. Then I put it in the oven for five hours at 450 degrees. It takes me one hour to paint.”

In their shop a few weeks later, Francisco and Maria gave a much more detailed explanation of their craft. The small workshop next to their orange stucco house in Capula, constructed of corrugated tin over a frame of wooden boards and crooked branches, was a hive of activity by two solitary workers who had an instinct for the clay, massaging it with a deliberate precision until it released the images locked within its grasp.

The calm demeanor with which Maria and Francisco labored concealed the speed with which they worked. Maria’s crescent lashes veiled the warm glow of her sparkling brown eyes as she pressed tiny florets into slivers of wet dough with a home-made clay pattern. Francisco, in baggy brown corduroys, used small make-shift tools to cut lines of feathers and eyes into the parrots he pinned on the Catrina’s dress. He and his wife had an intimate connection with the clay, as if they knew exactly what the material needed to release the energy within its formless mass.

From their meticulous, tedious activity emanated a sweet nectar spilling from the quiet river pouring through their souls; it was a primal luxury of invention, this opportunity to reach into the very marrow of the collective human consciousness and extract at least a shadow of its reality, softening the hot hunger of death with a moment of ridicule at its most sinister visage, the human frame stripped of its pulse and dressed for a dinner party. In the world of the Catrina, nothing can stop the festival of life, not even the specter of permanent decay.

They worked quietly at a table near a wall of porous cinder brick and chipped mortar; plaster molds for the dresses lay on a lower shelf. Porous rock protruded through the dirt floor littered with shards from discarded projects. Behind Francisco stood two stone slabs resting on cinder blocks; two gleaming spools of wire lay curled on a wooden shelf nailed to the cinder brick wall and supported with more wire.

Maria and Francisco seemed suddenly masters of anatomy, creators of new personalities, or perhaps benefactors of restless lives dormant in the clay. Maria, dressed in a pair of rolled-up jeans and red Skecher shoes, rolled out long ribbons of clay and cut them in sections, placing them in the chest to form ribs. The flowers she had pressed into the clay now blossomed across the Catrina’s dress. She draped a thin line of dough around the waist and then pressed small scallops to match the gentle ripples of the dress.

Francisco pushed a wad of clay into a mold and out popped a skull. He carefully cut away at the piece to define the eye sockets, mouth, and teeth, then fit jagged clay sticks together to form the hands and connected them to arms that he attached after moistening the shoulder. The hands rested on small pieces of wire placed in the waist and hip to keep them in place until they dried.

“The first thing I started making were little bulls and horses, small things,” said Francisco, a moustache spilling over the corners of his mouth. “I started making the Catrinas when I was 13, maybe a year after I started working.”

That’s exactly how their children, William Antonio, 9, and Viridian, 12, have begun. When they come home from school, they make small leaves and feathers and flowers, simple objects to give them the feel of the clay.

Suddenly, William Antonio poked his head through a window between the workshop and their well-furnished home. Maria stopped for a moment to speak with him, then went back to her work, a craft that she also began practicing at about age 12. Although she began working in clay at that young age, she didn’t start making Catrinas until about 12 years ago when she married Francisco.

“Before I got married, at my house we used to work at making flower pots. We didn’t make the Catrinas.” She enjoys making the figures, although they require substantially more work. “It’s more tiring. Before I got married, it was 6 o’clock when I stopped. Now it’s more like 10.”

“We start at 7 a.m.,” added Francisco.

If their children decide to approach the Catrina challenge they will have their work cut out for them. Making Catrinas is not something you learn to do overnight; Francisco learned the craft through many difficult attempts.

“It was all hard. When I made my first Catrina, they came out to be not so fine.” They come out fine now. The newest member of the Frida Catrinas, now crowned with her own exquisite wreath about her head, was set aside to dry, while several of the others were placed in the oven.

Manchas still dozed just outside the opening where Francisco now needed to put the wood.
“He doesn’t want to move,” Francisco said with a laugh. He splintered a piece of wood with a loud crack that finally roused Manchas, who moved about six feet away and plopped onto the ground.
Francisco placed sheets of tin over the oven, anchored them with a brick, then lit a single piece of wood on the bottom. He would keep a very low fire for the first two hours – anything hotter and the Catrinas would break – then increase the heat for another three hours. The process would turn them a much brighter orange, and they would be painted before delivery.

By now a good fire had started in his parents' bigger oven, sunk halfway into the ground except for an excavated area for the opening where the wood was placed. Thick smoke filled the yard with a sweet pine flavor while roosters crowed from distant yards and birds sang in the trees. Hot sunshine burrowed into the yard and Manchas moved into some shade under a truck to continue his nap.

There would be no sleep for Francisco and Maria. They still had to finish another order: 30 hand-sized pairs of Catrinas depicting a bride and groom, complete in wedding dress and a tuxedo, for a business in Uruapan.

“These are harder to make,” said Maria, undaunted as she began the new task.



Jesus Lucas Barajas pounds sheets of copper
at Cobre El Porton.

A young apprentice heats a pot in the furnace
at Cobre El Porton.

Monarch butterflies, flowers, and other images
erupt across copper plates.

A worker demonstrates coppersmithing.

A visitor gets to try his hand at the craft.


This pitcher is one of many sparkling beauties at Cobre El Porton.

A worker at Cobre El Porton gives a demonstration for visitors.


By Travis M. Whitehead
SANTA CLARA DEL COBRE - Monarch butterflies crowd a polished pitcher like glitter dancing in a ray of sunlight. Baby sea turtles swim freely through the copper frozen solid by the heat of the workshop's furnace, hogs with teeth bared charge across the sides of a bowl the color of charred ebony, and calla lilies rush like streams of water up the sides of a jar at Cobre El Porton, one of many copper shops in Santa Clara del Cobre.

The coppersmiths of this community about 45 minutes from Morelia have established the town's reputation as a mecca of copper pieces popular throughout the world. Indigenous tribes in pre-Colombian times discovered ample deposits of copper coarsing through Michoacan's fervent landscape and had developed a vibrant coppersmithing tradition when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.

Spanish Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, who found indigenous people engaged in a variety of crafts upon his arrival in the 1500s and introduced new trades, is often credited with introducing the copper industry to this area. However, Juan Jose Paz, owner of Cobre El Porton, said Quiroga simply introduced new techniques to an already flourishing tradition. One of Quiroga's most important contributions, Paz said, was the use of the bellows.

"They started to do this kind of process, it changed the whole thing," Paz said. "They not only developed arms and weapons, but also some other things."

The area's copper deposits dried up years ago, and now the coppersmiths transpose their exquisite creations with scrap copper purchased from sources throughout the world. Paz's store was filled with glistening pitchers shiny as glass, objects endowed with a liquid grace that soothed the troubled soul and delighted the senses. Flowered charolas, containers riddled with minute indentations or blooming with sunflowers, and exquisite designs etched into glistening surfaces crowded the shelves, beckoning the vulnerable eye to yield beneath their spell. Diamonds deeply cut into copper pieces ruptured their surfaces with a noble intensity that rendered mute the power of uncultivated metal.

The copper objects clustering the shelves of Paz's store were born in a lab in a sort of absurd foray into the struggling imaginations of the artisans. In the workshop behind Paz's store, the "ding-ding-ding" and vacuous booms of mallets puncture the air as workers extract shapes and images from their copper cloister. Glittery accordion music playfully teases plumes of growling red ash rising like a genie from a coal fire, now hovering in anticipation of an artisan's command.

A worker removes a plate from the fire and places it on a table; more artisans crowd together and hammer the piece to demonstrate how they work copper for a group visiting the workshop, arms lifting mallets high into the air, pounding the work into submission.
"After we shape it," says Jesus Barajas Lucas, 28, "we put it in water, then use a smaller hammer to give it the shine."

Barajas Lucas began working in copper at age 9; the trade has passed from generation to generation in his family. "We used to work in our own house. Now, we work here. All the people who work here already know the work. I like making all the pieces. There is the fair, we design a piece that should be the best one. That is the most difficult work." His 10-year-old son began studying the copper industry two years ago. "I feel proud that he will learn. I want him to learn faster."

A bottle of blackberry liquor sits next to the tip jar, along with more spirits brewed from peaches, guayaba, nance, and sugar cane. Helmets left over from an order for the movie "Troy" starring Brad Pitt sit on a shelf - artisans throughout the town shared an order for 1,000, Barajas Lucas says. Pots and sinks browned with age hang on the wall, fused with the discoloration of neglect. Discarded bowls, pitchers, and jars, bent and gouged and warped by the confusion of mistakes and armed with jagged mouths, await their next opportunity at transformation.

Many of the shiny copper pieces are adorned with eloquent white floral and leaf designs, which are inscribed by first covering the objects with tar, Barajas Lucas said. The workers then scrape out the designs, place them in nitric acid, and fill the areas cleaned by the acid with silver by dipping them in a solution for about 15 minutes, he said. Then it's removed and covered with bicarbonate of soda to turn the silver areas white. The entire process from hammering out the piece to the completion of the designs takes seven days. "The design takes one day," says Barajas Lucas. "This (the design and decoration) is all done by women and children."

The artisans' use of lemon and salt to give the pieces their shine intrigue Ashley Fish, 19, a chemical engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Col., who was visiting Mexico with friends and family. "It's neat how they use simple materials to do different little designs. Now we're so dependent on chemicals that are so harmful to the environment. I think I've never seen so much copper in my life. The only copper I see is in a lab."

Even to an artist's eye, the work is something to admire. Jorge Alberto Gonzalez, an oil painter from Baltimore, appreciated the work of the artisans. "I did enjoy it a lot, especially the demonstration, how they make the pieces," said Gonzalez, 59, originally from Cuba. "I had no idea it was so labor intensive. You see them and buy them and never realize how much work they have to put into it."


Anita Ziranda traces designs in the tar covering a plate, then removes sections of the substance
to reveal the shiny copper.

After Anita finishes a plate, the piece is put through
a chemical process to reveal the final product.


By Travis M. Whitehead
SANTA CLARA DEL COBRE - The tar yielded before the onslaught of the knife, setting free the intricate flowers and leaves hibernating within the black emptiness spread over the copper plate like dark winter embracing withered landscapes. As Anita Ziranda's hands cut the delicate lines of the petals, the copper broke through like sunshine clawing its way through dead clouds, illuminating the garden erupting to across the piece.

"I started doing this because I was a widow; I had a daughter," said the 46-year-old Anita, lines like starlight radiating from the corners of her eyes as she spoke, generous wisps of hair falling across her full cheeks.

Anita has worked for Cobre el Porton for about 20 years; after the workers at Cobre El Porton pound the pieces into shape, Anita instills them with their glowing personalities, etching their faces with refined and eloquent expressions that reveal the joy she derives from the experiences while creating them.

Dressed in a blue top and white skirt, she spoke exuberantly of her trade. She has a number of designs she likes to imprint into her pieces. "I especially like the woven flowers. When I do this I'm thinking, 'How is it going to come out?' The emotion. In the moment it's done, I say, 'Wow! This is going to work!'"

She's won several awards for her work; often, Rosie Paz, the wife of owner Juan Jose Paz, creates special designs for her to create. Ziranda has a thorough understanding of the copper trade, having taken classes at a local school. "I don't have the tools to do everything, but I know how to do it. I started learning how to make jewelry. I got bored because it was just tiny pieces I had to weld together."

She's created a tranquil artistic grotto where she can cultivate the peace necessary for the liberation of her talent. Cola de borrego - sheep's tail, plants with clusters of juicy pale green pods, hung from coffee cans attached to the eaves over her back porch. Her young grandson shoveled dirt into a toy truck; clothing hung from twisted twine wound around two large poles leaning away from the house; oleander and a small avocado tree lingered near clumps of lantana adorned with burnt orange blooms. Hibiscus with delicate pink blooms, and fuschia-colored arete flowers whose fragile filaments dangled from bulbous blossoms, crowded a brick wall.

She's passed the skill on to her daughter, Maria, who took a drawing course and now approaches the decoration of copper pieces from a different direction. Departing from the more popular floral designs, she prefers adorning herpieces with abstract medievel motifs, twisting and turning lines, gently flowing waves flipping back on themselves, sharp angles and downward spirals. These are details, Anita said, that insist on great skill and concentration.

"It takes more time. You have to be very careful not to go into small parts. She just does it with a needle. It has to be a special order."


Julio Zepeda tends a pot in the furnace.


By Travis M. Whitehead
SANTA CLARA DEL COBRE - Fire bellowed from the edges of the round copper sheet that Julio Zepeda had just shifted on the furnace. Agitated coals coughed thick gusts of smoke that fled toward openings in the corrugated tin ceiling. Now the sheet began to warp as the 19-year-old Zepeda, in tattered jeans and emerald green shirt, used a pair of tongs to shift the piece on the fire at Cobre El Porton.

A threatening glow spread from the center, the heat endowing the sheet with the freedom to express itself in some new shape. Zepeda, with jewelry piercing both ears, was making a table, one of many he'd crafted since he began working in copper four years ago. "I learned here in the workshop," he said, as his brother, Gustavo, worked on another table nearby, on the second level of the workshop.

Julio and Gustavo both preferred making table tops to some of the other more elaborate pieces; they can complete a top in one day. He pulled the plate from the fire and placed it on the floor where it turned a cool gray before a spackled gold color spread like a fungus across the surface.

Julio, with a cigarette tucked behind either ear, took a brush and swept some debris away from the table, revealing more of the fiery golden color underneath the bleak facade. Only a few minutes after leaving the fire, the plate was cool enough to touch; he used a rope to pull the piece to the second floor where he continued working at it. He flattened the top with a board, then a smaller piece of wood to straighten tighter indentations. "Jesus invited me to work here," added Gustavo, 21, who's been here a little longer. "I liked it, and that's how I started to learn."

While they both enjoy the work, they don't plan to stay here in the copper industry forever. They'd like to opentheir own bakery.
"I used to work for a bakery," Gustavo says. "This takes a lot of time and it's a lot of work, and making bread is easier and you can make more money."

Saturday, January 24, 2009



Emilio Alejos Madrigal applies pasta blanca on
a candelabra.
Emilio Alejos Madrigal and an assistant load
pottery covered with pasta blanca into an
oven for firing.

Emilio's wife, Juana, applies pasta blanca to clay


Juana, Emilio's wife, applies pasta blanca to
pottery with her daughter Diana, right, and
niece Juana Blas, center.

Diana, above, and her cousin Juana Blas apply pasta blanca to
clay pots.

Some large pinas and candelabras bake in the sun
before getting a coat of pasta blanca.



By Travis M. Whitehead

SAN JOSE DE GRACIA - Emilio Alejos Madrigal dipped the brush into a bowl of pasta blanca, then ran the squirrel-hair instrument along the arms of the candelabra standing majestically before him, the white paste forming a base for the paint that would soon follow.

A rooster's braggadocious "ERRR!-errRRRR!-errRRRR!" exploded into the yard, the blast immediately followed by a screechy imitation from Diana, Emilio's 10-year-old daughter who sat grinning from the back of a truck. The precocious girl had earlier demonstrated her adoration of animals, cradling Saro the kitten who hissed at her cinnamon-colored dog, Glovis.

Diana soon joined her mother, Juana, at the concrete water tank, called a pila, and the ribbed lavadero (wash board) to clean fresh chicken legs and chunks of pork; her mother painfully remembered washing clothes there by hand before purchasing a cylindrical washing machine eight years ago that now stood nearby awaiting the next load of laundry.
"I like it a lot better," Juana said, then added, "It was a lot of work."

Meanwhile, Emilio diligently caressed the ribs of leaves flowing over the candelabra with the pasta blanca that would form the foundation for a luminous frock of green paint. Pushing the mixture around tiny corners and sharp curves while leaving other areas dark, the piece gradually became more alive with panels of light and shadow; he planned to fire the piece later that day and then paint it tomorrow.

"Mine and my brother's techniques are very similar, but I have my own way," Emilio had said two days earlier in his laboratory of visual experimentation a block away from his brother Jose Maria's house. "I work with pico fino," he said, referring to the pointed tick marks cutting their way across many of his pieces. "My mother taught us how to do pico fino. I like everything, especially my pico fino because it's the best quality, the real traditional."

On my first visit, I didn't arrive in San Jose until early afternoon, having left Morelia at 10:30 a.m. for the three-hour journey. I dropped by his brother's place first, and by the time I made it to Emilio's he'd left to get his car repaired in Tangancicuaro. His wife Juana, 47, selling snacks on the small street outside their home, said he would return a little later.

I drove into Ocumicho a few miles away where crowds of teenagers in formal attire thronged a home for a big quinceanera, then into Patamban where I asked how to get to Cocucho. A woman in a store explained I would need to go to Ocumicho and from there drive to Cocucho. I remembered then the ride I had taken from a street corner the previous year to Cocucho. I drove back to Ocumicho and found the turn easily. After passing through Cocucho, I drove leisurely through the towns, familiarizing myself with the area and the roads, passing by Emilio's place a couple of times before catching him as rain began to fall.

He eagerly welcomed me to his home as the clouds fussed and quarreled overhead and flung bits of rain; the simple and elaborate complex of rooms and workshops and outdoor cooking areas impressed me with their comfortable personalities and their austere directness. Passing through the front door, I walked across a broad tiled floor past bedrooms on either side, then past yellow walls decorated with pink birds, drowsy quarter moons, pictures of Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and other Disney princesses, and paintings of jungles and oceans and pine-covered mountains.

The long seat from a van served as a couch placed between the living area and the hallway next to a wooden waist-high swinging door that led to the yard. Yellow and red tissue flowers surrounded a wooden image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had been in Emilio's family for 260 years. A rocking chair faced plastic plants rising from a couple of yellow ceramic pinas; the living room was separated from the garden only by a three-foot-high wall that invited the fresh air of the yard - filled with pink roses, geraniums, avocado, and citrus trees - to perfume the cool air of the house.

Emilio readily showed me his workshop. Two clay munecas with paunchy cheeks and pencil noses burst from the vases on the dirt floor; sunflowers erupted across aprons draped over the clay cloisters from which they sprang, ropy braids falling across their backs as they held large plates over their heads.

"I made them this past week," he said on this stormy Saturday afternoon. The rain did a tap-dance across the pitched tin roof as it escaped from the grumbling clouds. "A place in San Miguel de Allende ordered them. I'll put the white on in the morning. It dries in a few minutes. I'll put the green esmalte on Tuesday."

The munecas stared wondrously around the workshop filled with cactuses trimmed in diagonal ribs laced with flowers, vases blooming with scallops, pineapples riddled with starbursts, conical jars with an armada of diamonds sailing up the sides. I would sum it up as a sort of visual jazz, this spontaneous dance of the imagination, in which Emilio Alejos Madrigal, like the other artisans around town, could take an idea and run with it in any direction.

A pine wood bench sat against a brick wall. White pasta covered pineapple leaves rising from tapas bristling with espigas - short stalks bubbling with luscious berries. Ruffled molds sat on a wooden shelf clothed in shredded bark, a huancipo hung on the brick wall, stacks of pine wood sat at one end of the workshop. Wads of newspaper, a styrofoam cappuccino cup, and clay calla lilies cluttered the work area.

Catty corner to his workshop sat his ovens and the small fogon where his family makes tortillas over a comal. Lamps with dark beads swimming up ridges of cactus; stately pineapple pitchers; and tall vases sat on the rim of the largest oven. Patches of cream-hued paint scratched through the coffee-colored veneer of some pots dappled with shells on a board over a smaller oven.

"They need more greta and more heat," he said, referring to the substance used in the paint to give his pieces their lustrous shine. He picked up a small vase with dark frustrated green struggling against lighter shades. "This green is very pretty, but the greta is not thick enough." The pieces would all get another trip to the oven and a fresh dose of greta.

While artisans in Tzintzuntzan are trying to find a lead-free paint that shines with the same luminescence as the leaded variety, San Jose de Gracia's artisans don't have that problem; their pieces aren't used for cooking or serving food. However, they're still exploring the possibilities of leadless paint.

Emilio picked up a small pitcher covered with a dry white paste. "This is esmalte sin plomo. It will come out very dark. Customers prefer leaded paint because they are decorative pieces."
Withdrawing a brush from a bowl of pasta blanca, he explained the preferred material comes from a squirrel's tail. "It's smooth and strong, very flexible. It's good for us."Picking up a thick stubby brush, he continued, "We use this for the peiscos, but very carefully. This is not very good, it's very tough." The peiscos are similar to pico fino but they have a separate ridge with flattened sides.

With the dark sky intruding ever more rudely on our conversation, I decided it was time to leave. Not so fast.

"Have you eaten?" he asked. Not since very early that day, I answered.
He invited me to have dinner with him and his family, a generous and priceless opportunity I couldn't bear to refuse. We sat in the warmth of their kitchen and dining room at a plain table while his wife prepared a delicious meal with hearty servings of chicken in a tasty broth, with sides of bread and fresh, finger-sized avocados.

"The Purepechas had an advanced civilization before Columbus came," he explained proudly while we ate. "They were never defeated, even by the Aztecs." He didn't know when San Jose de Gracia was founded, but he did say that the Purepechas used to pass through the area in pre-Hispanic times while traveling between the state of Mexico and Colima.

"I had this guy from Germany, he was studying some ruins near here, Purepecha ruins. He lived with me for three months."

We talked about the Purepecha language. I told him about the few words I knew, such as Kumanchekua, which means house. I was surprised the word is actually spoken much more softly than its written form indicates. The consonants "ch" and "k" are actually spoken very delicately, as are the consonants in the word "jucheti", the word for "my" that I had picked up from the title of a favorite Purepecha song, Jucheti Consuelito. John Williams had taken part in a performance of this song at the Paracho Guitar Festival in 2006, and it had stuck with. Purepecha songsare also called "Pirekuas".

This was perhaps the highlight of my trip, sitting in Emilio's kitchen, visiting his family, listening to the storm outside while the cool wet air slipped in through the open doorway, and forging a new friendship and a new direction in my exploration of Michoacan.

I looked forward to my next visit, which came a couple of weeks later when I was back in the area to follow up an interview with Cecilia Bautista Caballero (whom Emilio identified as his cousin - she makes rebozos) in Ahuiran and to speak with an artisan in Ocumicho.
On this particular afternoon, he was spreading pasta blanca on yet another candelabra with swollen bands of pico fino and flowered serpentine braces.

His cousin's wife, in a blue velour top and a soiled rebozo of cream and maroon, poured water into a wheelbarrow full of saw dust that she and Emilio's niece then mixed together; the concoction became clods and then masses of clay that were stored in plastic bags. Juana, Diana, and Juana's niece, also named Juana Blas, applied pasta blanca onto small jars rippling with waves, florets, diamonds, and cactus ribs.

I told them I was excited about having met an artisan friend of mine (Juana Alonso Hernandez) from Cocucho selling her clay pots in Paracho a couple of days before the annual guitar festival. I had spotted her there late one evening doing needlepoint with a couple of friends. I hadn't realized Cocucho is also famous for this craft, called punto de cruz in Spanish; we made arrangements for me to visit them after they returned home so I could do some stories about their needlepoint.

"My grandmother's in Cocucho," said Juana. "She does punto de cruz, without glasses, and she's 90." Juana, it turns out, is from Cocucho, but she never learned how to make the famous Cocuchas. However, her niece, Juana Blas, 11, was getting experience in both the Cocucha trade and the pineapple pottery of San Jose de Gracia. "She kneads the clay with her feet in Cocucho. Here she just paints. She's my brother's daughter. She lives in thesame house as my grandmother. She comes here a lot."

The younger Juana Blas, grinning as she painted the conchitas (little shells) on a small jar, said she liked both types of barro the same. But, she added, "I like working here better."
Meanwhile, as Emilio and a couple of friends placed some pieces in the oven, one of the candelabras broke. Emilio sat down to perform surgery on the piece.

"I am going to try to fix it," he said, placing wet clay on the gaping nub where a candle holder was supposed to be and then re-attaching the serpentine limb.

His wife shook her head seriously and said, "It's too much work to just throw out."


Angel Cuin Juarez works on a cuadrado at his shop in Cuanajo.

Angel Cuin's daughter, Guadalupe, 16, paints pieces carved by her father or her brother, Juan Esteban.

Guadalupe, 16, and her 12-year-old sister, Blanca, painted this elaborately-carved trunk.

Angel Cuin's son, 15-year-old Juan Esteban, works on a cuadrado.


By Travis M. Whitehead
CUANAJO – Angel Cuin Juarez leaned into the cuadrado as his knife peeled slivers of wood from the swirling lilies that bubbled from the fresh pine wood. Cutting, slicing, pulling, he slowly removed anything that repressed the hidden images from taking flight through the wood frame that would soon wrap itself around a picture or mirror. Nearby, his nephew Francisco worked on a long bench that could seat three people, the back elaborately carved with a woman and calla lilies; Angel’s daughter Guadalupe painted the delicate flourishes on a wooden basket of fruit.

The family had enjoyed a good run at the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair, having sold most of its items including a table and chairs, although the workers broke one of the chairs as it was being loaded for transport and Angel had to cut the price from 12,000 pesos to 11,000. Overall, however, the two-week stint paid off well, and Angel and his family had returned to their workshop to begin crafting a whole new set of creations.
“I have to be creative to make this work because people don’t want the same thing all the time. I am not going to build the same thing all the time. That’s why I sell the work. People tell me how they want it. Some people want flowers, some people want fruits, and that’s how I make more and more.”

The incubator in which their imaginations gestated included a bandsaw on which Angel and Francisco kept shaving off the end of an arm to fit the long bench. Corn cobs hung from a beam; several unpainted servilleteros waited for a paint job from either Guadalupe, 16, her sister Blanca, 12, or their niece, Cinthia. Chair backs were cut with ridges of quarter moons and images of suns, pineapples, melons, and papayas. A plastic Starbucks cup sat on a bench, tracing paper with Juan’s designs lay on the ground amid layers of sawdust. Overcast skies fell through holes in the pitched roof of corrugated tin. Occasionally a frustrated storm released a few waves of drizzle, but the family labored patiently, each artisan at his or her own tasks, instilling wood with vibrant personalities while accordion music traded places with resonant vocals flowing from a CD player and radio on a shelf; CDs hung on nails protruding from a timber.

Stained brushes dangled from bowls of water where Guadalupe "Lupe", with a brown cover over her pink shirt, used jars of paint to bring life to pale representations of fruit cascading from a basket freshened with white calla lilies. She dipped a stern brush matter-of-factly into a cup of water and then a bottle of red paint before running the delicate fibers over the inner part of a calla lily bursting from a delightful cacophony of apples, bananas, oranges, papaya, strawberries, and grapes. She invigorated the area by daubing over it with pieces of foam rubber for a spotted effect, then awakened a white grape leaf with yellow and then green around the edges.She then gave it a more powerful breath of life by touching the edges with shadow.

Lupe and Blanca had both collaborated on the paint job of a trunk that came with a separate piece of furniture with drawers and doors. A shower of color cascaded like a jungle waterfall across the surface; hummingbirds thrust their enormous beaks into thick aqua blue flowers while parrots with candy apple red heads and streams of gold and blue feathers perched with crossed wings amid emerald green leaves braced with steep ribs. Blooms with deeply-grooved violet petals and centers of greenish umber grooved danced across the surface with mauve blossoms burning with orange centers.

Many of the colgantes and cuadrados, decorated with fruit, flowers and suns, came from the imagination of Juan Esteban, the 15-year-old son of Angel Cuin. Juan Esteban was busy cutting away at a cuadrado, from which suns with swollen rays of light began to ripple from the pine wood. He had already drawn the design on a strip of tracing paper and then transferred it onto the wood. A finished cuadrado decorated with fruit in relief sat nearby. “I feel very very good,” said Juan. “When I am doing my job, I enjoy doing it. I like the carving.”

I had first met Angel Cuin and his family two years before when Juan Esteban was only 13. I had understood then that Juan wasn’t sure he wanted to continue this line of work as a career. Perhaps something became lost in translation and I misunderstood, or he may have just been having a bad day and a moment of indecision, but on this particular visit he declared without reservation that he did in fact want to pursue this as a profession and had always wished to do so.

He had now grown at least a foot taller and exuded the confidence and focus of a dedicated artisan. His dedication showed in the elaborate designs of his colgantes, cuadrados, and other works that had been born from his talented hands. A colgante depicting calla lilies spilling from a yellow basket took one day to carve and another day to paint – the piece would fetch about $25. His brother, one of three who has moved to the United States to seek better work, taught him how to carve.

The first thing he learned to do was sanding, when he was about 10 years old, then he learned how to draw. “I only imagine designs. I first imagine and then put it on.” Juan has had plenty of time to become the skilled artisan he is today. When he’s not in school, he’s working in the family shop like his sisters and his niece. They can't afford to live any other way.

The following day after beginning the cuadrado with the bulging suns, the project – an impressive congregation of suns, long-beaked birds, and graceful leaves - leaned against the foot of the bandsaw, anticipating its appoint-ment with Lupe or Blanca. But first Juan needed to put his finishing touches on the piece. Dressed in frayed bib overalls over a loose T-shirt, he clamped the cuadrado on the bandsaw table and began sanding away, his slim fingers gripping a shred of sandpaper, filing at the full rays of sun, spitting tiny grains of sand like someone flossing their teeth after a full meal. He stopped and chipped away some more, sanded, carved, cut some more to reveal the divine contours in the wood until the piece took on a graceful shine. Soon the elaborate frame would fall under the spell of a paintbrush.

Juan Esteban had imprinted a part of himself into the wood, a recording of a moment of his life. That story would soon join the lifelines of admiring connoisseurs who would share the story of Juan, his family, and the rest of Cuanajo, ensuring its permanent place in the physical world.


Winnie the Pooh gets into a tussel with Tigger on a headboard behind some wooden Don Quixotes posing as Augustin Rodin's "The Thinker".

Families enjoy browsing the colorful shops of Cuanajo.

Dalmation puppies, trogons, and numerous other carved images tumble into the streets of Cuanajo.

Mickey Mouse offers a rose to a demure Minnie Mouse carved into the headboard of a bed frame outside a shop selling carved furniture. Small wooden planters face the street.

One of the many renditions of the maiden with flowers motif in Cuanajo. Diego Rivera used this image in many of his paintings.


A woman and infant wait for customers outside a shop in Cuanajo.
A young girl walks through Cuanajo's plaza with the church in the background.

A child lingers in the courtyard of Cuanajo's church.

Another rendition of the maiden with flowers motif.

Headboards, colgantes (wall-hangings) and cuadrados (picture or mirror frames) show their bounteous colors in Cuanajo.