Sunday, January 25, 2009


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.

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