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.

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