Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Art of Embroidered Stories

Near Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán, indigenous women embroider colorful pictures that can be framed or made into decorative pillows and clothing. The themes of these embroidered “stories” originally came from ancient mythology of the Tarascan or Purepecha Indians, drawn from seals found in Tzintzuntzan. Gradually many women  there began depicting traditional village dances such as the Dance of the Viejitos and festivals such as Dia de los Muertos. The artisans also embroider scenes of women cooking, men fishing, and other scenes of daily life in a Purepecha village.



Teofila Servin Barriga is one of the most well-known of the Santa Cruz embroiderers.
She lives and works with her husband, Julio, in Sanabria-- on the road between Patzcuaro and Quiroga-- with stunning views from her home and garden of green pastures, corn fields and Lake Patzcuaro that inspire her art. The first time I saw her embroidery was almost 20 years ago, when Doug and I were on vacation, our first time in Michoacán. Julio and one of their sons were working at a table they'd set up on a Patzcuaro sidewalk. Julio was drawing as well as teaching the boy how to create the scenes that Teo would later embroider. We chatted with them for quite a while, and I must have asked at least five times for the price of a small embroidered piece on the table that had caught my eye. Julio was so engrossed in giving us the history and stories of the area and culture represented by the pieces, that he seemed to be completely disinterested in selling them to us. Finally I was able to buy it, and as we said goodbye, he told us that we could find Teo on the road to Tzintzuntzan. But it was many years later when were living in Michoacan, we found ourselves on that road, that I put two and two together and realized that the handmade sign that read "Artesanias de Teo" might very well be the same family. We stopped the car and found Teo working in her little shop. Julio later walked up from the nearby fields he was tending, and we knew that this was indeed the place. Their young son had grown up and was attending university, and Teo had begun to make a name for herself.

Teo in Mexico By Hand's booth, Santa Fe, NM
Teofila has sold her pieces to collectors in Mexico, Europe, the United States, and Japan. Before being selected to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market with Mexico By Hand, she was invited to represent the embroiderers of Michoacan at a special exhibition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and to participate in the Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art exhibit in 2004.
 In 2011 Teofila was featured in the video, En las Manos de las Mujeres, a video produced by Mexico By Hand about four master craftswomen of Michoacán.

   
Roselia Barriga
Two other talented embroiderers of the same style we've come to know are Roselia and Cristina Barriga-- of Artesanias Textiles deSanta Cruz. If you get to visit Patzcuaro, their work can be found at the Casa de los Once Patios.



Mexico By Hand sells a small selection of embroidered pictures, pillow covers, and beautiful cotton blouses by these talented artisans to U.S. customers on our website: www.mexicobyhand.com.
Contact us if you would like to make a special order at info@mexicobyhand.com

Friday, January 29, 2016

Copper Art and Cazos- A Handmade Tradition



Gorgeous copper vases like this one are produced every day in small workshops scattered around one small town in Mexico -- Santa Clara del Cobre in the state of Michoacán--one of the places the U.S. State Dept. says we shouldn't visit. Every year I'm asked if I still go there, or someone tells me that they'd love to go back, but they sadly can't do that anymore, because, "well, you know--it isn't safe anymore". While I can't deny the reality of violence experienced by Mexican citizens due to the drug cartels, I can tell you that the only sounds interrupting the quiet on my visits to this charming town are the chirping of birds and the rhythmic ping-pinging of copper artisans hammering as one wanders down the cobblestone streets.  









Roberto Castro Hernandez and I have been doing business for years. Some things have changed in his small family workshop, located several blocks off the main drag. The "showroom" next to the workshop now has a tile floor. And he now regularly communicates with me via email and Facebook on a computer there-- which make placing orders incredibly more efficient. But the pieces he produces and the deep passion and love he has for this traditional craft-- has not.
From simple, elegantly-shaped 14 inch tall vases to finely etched pieces (called cincelado) with animals, one never knows what you'll find coming out of his tiny smoke-filled workshop. 


Roberto Castro Hernandez of Santa Clara del Cobre


Roberto and his brother in their family workshop


Hammered copper cazo-14 inches diameter
While we've been selling copper vases from Santa Clara for over a decade now, just this past year Mexico By Hand has been asked to import copper cazos like this one for folks who are, to be honest, not our usual customer. In case you aren't familiar, cazos are essentially cooking pots, very traditional in Mexico for cooking a variety of foods over an open fire. Huge cazos are used for making carnitas and heavy ones like this are especially good for making candy and jam because copper conducts heat so well. [Search copper cooking pan on the internet and you'll find some from France that are marketed for just that purpose.] While we've been exploring the idea of competing with those expensive European pots, it turns out that some organic goat farmers have discovered that Mexican cazos are just the tool they need for making artisanal cajeta! Cajeta, for the uninitiated (and you really must try some) is a delicious caramel-like creamy delicacy made from milk, sometimes called dulce de leche. First a farmer in Australia reached out to us, and then two different farmers in Maine (females, I might add) ordered cazos. These are caucasian folks who seem to have no Mexican ancestry, so I find the whole thing fascinating.
And I really want some of that cajeta they're making too.


For more information about any of our hammered copper products, contact us at:
info@mexicobyhand.com
(510) 526-6395
www.mexicobyhand.com
Vessel with fish




Sunday, November 22, 2015

"You're not Santa Claus."

Small bowl by Manuel Morales of Tzintzuntzan


Why does that little bowl cost so much more than your larger bowls? 
This is kind of like comparing paintings in an art gallery. Sometimes small paintings, because of the artist's talent and renown, might command a high price. And we all know that just because a painting is large, it doesn't mean it's of greater value. The same can be said for folk art and crafts. I know artisans whose small pieces cost four times what other artisans in the same village charge for pieces that are twice as big. And they will get that price because their work either shows great skill and talent, or because the artist has won numerous awards. Or sometimes the artist has been recognized by an American collector or gallery that has a good publicist. But there are also big differences in the amount of time and skill involved in making a simple clay pot that is mass produced, and a finely decorated pot with intricate original designs from a skilled artist. The artisans in Capula make both. You might think that the large cazuela below on the left is "beautiful", but if you've ever seen pieces like the blue cazuelita below made by the talented Raquel and Demetrio Gonzales, you'll realize that one is clearly worth more, no matter the size.
Large cazuela from Capula, Michoacan
Cazuelita from Capula, Michoacán


A machine made rebozo you find in Mexican market stalls can't compare with a rebozo woven on a backstrap loom that took the artisan an entire month to make. The first might cost you $30 or less, and the second one could set you back $300 or more. Most Americans don't understand what's involved in making a rebozo, which is why they are reluctant to pay that much-- even if they might consider actually wearing one. 
Master of Mexican Folk Art weaver, Cecilia Bautista with one of her rebozos.

When we were living in Morelia ten years ago, some friends took us to a small town in the countryside for a Sunday comida (dinner) at their friend’s home. One of the family members had some rebozos from La Piedad; they're the shiny, silk-like rebozos that come in bright colors. She assured us they were a good price, but at $20 I wasn't sure and thought they were expensive. I bought one anyway (it was a beautiful bright red) however I realized at that moment I actually had no idea how to distinguish a quality rebozo from a corriente (cheap commercial) one, and what in fact would be a fair price. But now after several years of seeing lots of rebozos and how a good one is actually made--trust me, it’s a lot of work-- I know a little more. It doesn't hurt to ask why something costs so much-- that's how you learn.So I am not offended by the question, as long as there is a sincere desire to understand. However, if someone asks about the price as if to challenge my right to charge so much, in a judgmental or disapproving way, then I might get annoyed. No, I will definitely get annoyed.The artisan sets the price, and then I have to charge for the expense of bringing it to you the customer. (There’s a lot involved in that story, but if you really want to know more-- you’ll just have to buy my book.) If you find that something I'm selling is too expensive for you, then you shouldn't buy it. It feels bad when you really like an object or work of art but just can't afford it-- it happens to me all the time. Most of us who are not part of the 1% often experience that longing for material things we can’t afford. But for some reason a lot of folks expect things from Mexico to be cheap. That of course includes not only art, but food. The concept of a high-end Mexican restaurant is confusing for many who are accustomed only to eating burritos at a taqueria. The same can be said for Mexican crafts which in the minds of many folks are supposed to be "a deal". This is especially true for Americans who have traveled in Mexico and fail to understand not only the time it took the artisan to make the item, but the cost involved in getting artesania here to the U.S. But on the other hand, I sometimes hear customers surprised that a large clay pot or serving dish is so inexpensive. "Really? That's all?". And then I contemplate telling them how little the piece cost in Mexico and how I would be a thief if I charged more. I’m happy when customers feel like they're getting a great deal, as I try to keep the prices down in order to make our merchandise affordable. On the other side, I do feel bad sometimes having to charge so much for a cup or a bowl, but the reality is if I charged any less I would practically be giving it away. Which would mean that I’d be a super nice person, but a terrible business woman. And this little business would not be sustainable. I want to do good and help the artisans, but if I want to continue buying their art, it's got to work financially for me too, meaning I can't be losing money. I am a socially responsible family-run business, not a charity. Or as my husband sometimes reminds me, “ You aren’t Santa Claus, you know.” You're right, Santa doesn't have to deal with FedEx.

For more information about Mexico By Hand, our products, or artisans of Michoacán, check out our website at www.mexicobyhand.com or contact us at: info@mexicobyhand.com

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Boxes

Never thought about boxes very much before I got into this business. But boxes seem to come up a lot for me. Just yesterday I was at a restaurant eating dinner with Doug and began to receive multiple messages on my phone from Rene, the guy in Michoacan who does my packing, wanting to know what size boxes should he buy for the next shipment. He gave me many choices, supplying the measurements for me (in centimeters which I needed to quickly convert) to make the decision. The boxes were important enough to him that he felt it was necessary to disturb my Saturday night. Hmm, I'm not sure about that.

Just a few days before this I was searching for just the right box to ship a large platter to a customer. For some reason I didn't have one in the size I needed it, though I have a pretty large collection of boxes because I'm always looking for free ones and rarely throw anything away. You probably don't think about boxes very much but when UPS charges eight bucks for a medium size box, that cost cuts into one's profits, so it becomes extremely important to a small business owner like me. In case you're interested, the US Post Office charges half that.

I was also thinking about boxes yesterday while filling out an online application for Amazon's new Handmade marketplace. My answers (and really my business model and practice) do not fit into one of their boxes-- so it was really, really hard. Never thought much about the origin of the popular expression "to think outside the box", but I guess that's where it comes from. Makes sense. I like to believe that I do that kind of thinking a lot.

Today as I anticipate the next delivery of the beautiful crafts and folk art that I purchased in Mexico this past summer --I expect I'll do a happy dance when I see those boxes on my driveway. At that moment, I will definitely be thinking INSIDE the box.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Muertos and Memories

Michoacán burnished pottery at Reuben Godinez's Lolita in Napa, CA

I am not a business woman. I have been a social worker, a journalist, and a teacher. I never took a business course, or an economics class for that matter. Despite the pressure from Michoacán's La Casa de las Artesanias to open a gallery in the Bay Area, we never did. To be honest, I am risk-averse, not a big fan of extreme sports and I've always been afraid of heights. In the beginning, back in 2004 when I officially started DBA Mexico By Hand, I sold to some galleries and small shops, and often became friends with the owners. Unfortunately most of them are no longer in business. It was sad to see good folks forced to close their doors, and though we lost them as wholesale customers, Mexico By Hand never went under, even during the economic crisis of the last few years. Not paying rent, utilities, and employees saves a lot of money. I made the choice to operate from home, and after hearing all the sad stories of so many-- I am very, very glad I made that decision. One store owner was Patricia, who is an artist and the former girlfriend of a friend of a former boyfriend from my college days (got that?) who sunk her inheritance into a cute gallery/store in a terrible location and carried some of our folk art on consignment. Another friend that comes to mind often, because of the tremendous impact he had and still has on me, is Reuben.

Burnished pottery by Hernandez Cano workshop
It was October 2004, our first Day of the Dead after returning from our year in Mexico and we were collaborating on a show at a San Francisco gallery. Reuben also knew the gallery owners-- three gay men from three different Latin American countries--and at their request he created a beautiful altar/art installation for the event. We provided our folk art from Michoacán. We also showed some video we had taken of indigenous Dia de los Muertos celebrations at cemeteries on islands in Lake Patzcuaro. When I saw Reuben out of the corner of my eye moving to the music in the unique way they do in Michoacán, I gradually approached him and commented, “You look like you’ve been to Michoacán”. He smiled, “I am from Michoacán.” Excited to be able to put quality artesania from Michoacán in his Napa gallery, our relationship with Reuben began with consignment sales and moved on to us collaborating on several special events. It also resulted in connecting us with a few terrific wholesale customers and Carlos, his friend from high school, who still helps us sometimes with our shipping from Mexico.



Sadly, Reuben lost his gallery, but our networking relationship continued and culminated with the very important connection he made for us in 2009 with the Petaluma Arts Center and their annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. Sadly, our friend Reuben never enjoyed the fruits of his labor on that extraordinary show, and will never know about the relationship that continued for several years after he tragically died-- a few days after that first exhibit opened. I owe our generous Michoacano friend so much, feel his strong presence every Day of the Dead, and miss his creative genius whenever I am setting up our folk art for a show, asking myself-- what would Reuben do? That time is coming soon, and I hope he'll be there by my side. Something tells me he will be. 



Petaluma Dia de los Muertos 2013

In 2015 Mexico By Hand will again be exhibiting at the Dia de los Muertos show in Petaluma, CA.
For more info.https://www.facebook.com/El-D%C3%ADa-de-los-Muertos-Petaluma-154451587898565/timeline/
or contact info@mexicobyhand.com.
 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fernando Arroyo-- Capula, Michoacán



We learned the hard way that Fernando Arroyo is actually called Buddha by those who really know him. Capula is a Michoacán town about a half hour away from the state capital Morelia and is known for its pottery -- dishes and bean pots that are used for cooking and serving food-- and also for clay catrinas. 
Doug and I spend a lot of time shopping in Capula every summer, and we've left a lot of our dollars there over the years, many with the talented Fernando and his wife Belen who produce magnificent handpainted, lead free pottery. Many years ago we were attempting to find him, couldn’t remember which street he lived on and figured we would just ask around, like we often do in Michoacán towns and villages. But this time it wasn’t that easy, because it turns out, believe or not, there are two Fernando Arroyos in this small town. And one of them, the guy we were looking for, is called Buddha. Now we know that, in addition to knowing exactly where his house is, as well as the names of his three children. They know us as well. And after attending his goddaughter’s wedding a couple of years ago, we also know that half of the artisans in Capula are related to Buddha in some way or other. That invitation from Fernando meant that we had finally crossed over the line from being just customers to being friends. It was a big deal.


Fernando was the first artisan we ever videotaped, even before we had moved to Morelia. We found
Our first Arroyo plate
a
gorgeous plate we wanted to buy at the Casa de Artesanias cooperative, and asked the two folks at the front desk if they knew the artist and could they possibly help us find his  workshop -- the plate had a signature on the back. “Claro que si. Soy yo, Fernando Arroyo.” “Of course,” he said, “that’s me.” He hopped on his bicycle and we followed him in our car to his workshop, which was a tiny room in the back of his house, just a couple of blocks away. We watched and filmed how he skillfully molded the clay into a large platter (Michoacan potters actually do use a mold, as opposed to a wheel) using a piece of wire held in his teeth to cut it to size. That step I'll always remember, and that first plate we purchased is one of the best pieces I have ever seen-- by Buddha or by anyone. It hangs on the wall of our kitchen and continues to bring me joy.

A couple of years later we were living in Michoacán and placed an order for platters by Fernando. They were very detailed-- with the traditional punteado (pointillist designs) and what I assume were  hallucinogenic- inspired flower and fish motifs. An amazing amount of work went into them and they were absolutely stunning. We arranged for the platters to be packed by folks at the Casa de las Artesanias and they arrived in our first big shipment from Mexico. It was a thrilling moment to finally see the boxes sitting on our driveway...until we opened the box. We found eight 16 inch round platters packed tightly into one cardboard box with zero bubblewrap or foam protection. And no surprise here-- we found eight broken platters. As we pulled out the pottery shards from the boxes, with our emotions ranging from fury, to disappointment to utter despair as we witnessed this huge loss (of course there was lots of bilingual swearing too) our thoughts inevitably went to the hours and weeks Fernando spends creating just one of these pieces. Now what do we do? We can’t possibly sell them, but we can’t just throw them away! How do you throw away art?

You have to get pretty close to see the cracks on the pieces Doug managed to repair. The broken platters hang on our living room wall above the piano, and as is often the case with home decor, weeks can pass without us even noticing them. We don’t play the piano anymore and we don’t usually hang out in that room-- unless we have visitors. If folks are interested in Mexican crafts they’re invited to take a close look, and in addition to hearing a bit about Fernando and seeing some remarkable examples of Capula art (which is rarely being done anymore, by the way) they also hear the story of how the pieces came to be a permanent part of our personal collection. Doug receives compliments on his repair job: “Wow, I didn’t even notice that they were broken until you mentioned it”, and we again are reminded of our great luck in finding this artist-- and all the other artists we’ve come to discover in Michoacan. Those platters also serve as a stark reminder of the many trials and tribulations of this crazy business. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and the platter disaster of 2005 taught us that it’s not enough to find amazing artists, you’ve also got to find superior packers to get the art home safely. And that, I repeat, is why importing crafts from Mexico is not for wimps.

Fernando Arroyo's food safe plates and platters are imported to the U.S. by Mexico By Hand and are often sold at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, The Gardener in Healdsburg and Berkeley, CA, Leslie Flynt in Santa Fe, NM and online at www.mexicobyhand.com
Contact us at:
info@mexicobyhand.com
 or (510) 526-6395

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Selling Happiness

“I'm so happy Mexico By Hand exists. Always a joy to visit your site and your product quality and the love that goes into them touches my Mexican heart. I've loved everything I have from you. Thank you!” This feedback arrived from Maria who bought some embroidered blouses from me again this year. After ten years of selling artesania, I cannot tell you what kind of person will be a Mexican art consumer. Sometimes it's a Mexican-American like Maria, or someone of another ethnic background who travels to and loves Mexico. But sometimes my best customers speak no Spanish, have very little understanding of the culture, and have only ventured to Mexico to vacation at a beach resort or maybe a town like San Miguel de Allende-- which is charming, but not "real Mexico" in my book-- and that was many years ago. They don't necessarily talk about wanting to go to Mexico, but they definitely want these charming expressions of Mexican culture in their homes. Or on their backs. A lot of my merchandise is housewares and decorative items, but we also carry woven rebozos and embroidered blouses, which some women are absolutely crazy for. Not everyone feels comfortable wearing an "ethnic" piece of wearable folk art, but there are some women, and again I can't predict who they will be, who embrace the style enthusiastically. Customers like Beth in London, who orders blouses from me while I'm still in Mexico-- minutes after I post photos to my Facebook page.  Then there's Carlina, a lovely woman in San Francisco who bought several blouses and rebozos recently, including this gorgeous embroidered dress I found for her.

After receiving the photo I emailed her Carlina wrote: "I have fallen madly in love with the dress! I had such a terrible day with a series of bad medical news and to open this coming home-- wow and thank you!"

I believe that making people happy is what art is all about-- isn’t it?
And it's the art that makes me happy too. I could never sell widgets, whatever they are. Plumbing or office supplies do not turn me on, although I know they're necessary and I appreciate the men and women who do sell them. I buy artesania that I like-- sometimes love-- and therefore it's a pleasure for me to sell it to others. I want to share the beauty, and am excited when a piece I purchased in Michoacán goes home with a happy customer in the United States. 
Sometimes I feel like I'm in the happiness business. 

Embroidered blouses and other items that bring happiness are available on our website:
www.mexicobyhand.com