Sunday, January 25, 2009


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."

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