Monday, December 28, 2009

HAPPY 2010! Folk Art-- a Design Trend?

Top 10 Interior Design Trends for 2010
According to a group of interior designers who were asked to make predictions, consumers will be looking for handmade crafts from here and around the world to decorate their homes. If you look at trend # 7 and #8 below, our indigenous crafts from Mexico are just the thing to bring more "personality" into your living spaces! We have known for a while that pieces of traditional art or crafts made by human beings can help to create a beautiful home, but I also believe they can give a house more character-- personality if you will. A unique, handmade piece that you fall in love with becomes a part of the family, almost like a pet. You don't have to feed it or take it for a walk, but you do have to care for it and treat it well. If you do, you will be rewarded with years of pleasure. Here is an excerpt from the article in the San Francisco Chronicle 12/27/09:
7. Artisanal goods
Just as artisanal foods have taken off, expect the same for home
furnishings and accessories. "Artisanal work will continue to be strong,"
said interior designer Benjamin Dhong. "Even modernists want to see
natural materials or the hand of the craftsman brought into their homes."

8. The well-traveled look
The Sundance Channel series "Man Shops Globe" follows Anthropologie
buyer-at-large Keith Johnson as he visits country after country, looking
for special pieces and inspiration for the company's 135 stores worldwide.
Whether you're scouring the stalls in Paris or browsing shops during a
quick weekend getaway, incorporating souvenirs in a space can give it a
bit of personality.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Happy Holidays

I love Flor de Noche Buena in Spanish. They don't really have Christmas trees in Mexico, at least not in Michoacán, though there are plenty of pine trees around. Just not the custom, which is fine by me. One of my strongest memories of the holiday season is the Mercado de la Independencia, Morelia's largest market, and its huge section of poinsettias for sale outside. Since it was only a few blocks from our house in the Centro, and the place where we did most of our food shopping, I visited that section of the market a lot. We brought a big one home and put a few presents around it, and that and the blinking plastic Virgen of Guadalupe on the wall, plus Doug's homemade menorah were our holiday decorations that year.

Since then, we have been able to acquire a few quality pieces of artesania that are available to folks who wish to deviate from the usual. Need a menorah? How about a stunning one with black
glaze from the Purepecha village of Santa Fe de la Laguna? Or a clay Nacimiento (nativity) from Ocumicho?

The embroidered scene above has it all: the baby Jesus, a piñata, and even a Christmas tree. Looks like a wonderful time.
I have recently discovered a great new website. Lots of food info plus Mexican culture in general. Please check it out, and then of course come back here. There is great information about piñatas and some folks who actually make them on: Mexico Cooks!
El Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe is December 12th...the official start of the holidays in Mexico. It's also the beginning of Chanukah this year.
I wish you all Feliz Navidad y Chanukah and a very happy, healthy, prosperous, and peaceful New Year!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

It's the day before Thanksgiving and with all the madness of food prep and housecleaning, I realized that I need to take a minute to reflect upon all that I am grateful for at this moment in time. It has been five years since we began this venture...which is something that we sort of fell into, really. I didn't go to Mexico in June of 2003 with the idea of starting an import business, it just evolved and came about organically because of mainly two things: the Art and the Relationships. The art speaks for itself. It is beautiful and inspiring and gets better every year. I never, and I mean never get tired of looking at it.
Though the public events we do are always a lot of work, I enjoy watching people admire the amazing art I am able to bring back from Michoacan... it feels so good when I get to share this gift I have been given with others.
The photo above represents the relationship part of this business. I am using it this year again in promotion of my upcoming annual event for loyal Mexico By Hand customers who live in the Bay Area. (please email me if you'd like to be on the list) I can't remember who in my family actually took the photo, but the creator of that beautiful display of our copper pieces was a brilliant and talented artist, designer, and friend named Reuben Godinez. He was originally from Michoacán it turns out, and immigrated to Napa when he was 14. He received his MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, and went on to do too many things to mention here. We met at our first Dia de los Muertos show in 2005, and collaborated several times since then, including our most recent exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center. Reuben loved this year's catrinas (see below).

After working his heart out on yet another masterpiece for the Day of the Dead celebration, Reuben died on Nov. 14 at the age of 34. I am so sad about this terrible loss, but extremely grateful for the opportunity to have known him through my work. His own art was contemporary and edgy, but together we appreciated the artisans of his homeland, respected and loved each other, and had fun bringing the art to those who were fortunate to experience it. I will miss Reuben, but his passion for life and his influence on me will live on.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Day of the can't be serious!

Day of the Dead. Like the notion of an after life, one needs to suspend disbelief. We don't actually KNOW what happens after we die, even if one believes in a heaven and hell, no one has been there and returned to report what it actually looks like. So when a woman at a recent Dia de los Muertos event pointed out how weird it is to see a skeleton such as the one below with breasts, I am amused. Yes, it is unrealistic, but is it less "real" than all the other religious rituals and spiritual practices surrounding death and dying? The whole idea of playing with death, dressing up skeleton figures in clothing and arranging them in life-like poses, is to say "whatever" is all possible. And impossible too. Without getting too deep into these questions, the idea that one day we are alive and then one day we die and no longer exist...that can't be possible. And if it is true, I don't think we should put up with it.
Please enjoy these examples of some talented Mexican artist's imaginations-- inviting us to let go of what we think is real and unreal.

These and other skeleton figures, also known as catrinas and calacas, are available for purchase.
Check out or contact us at

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Spirit Sashes

We first got to know Nati when we were shooting our video documentary for La Casa de las Artesanias (the Michoacán Folk Art Center) and right away we knew that she was special. How many people can endure so much illness and hardship, and manage to smile like that? Polio as a child, and barely surviving cancer shortly before we met, Nati has always inspired Doug and me. When I look at this photo-- her crippled feet tucked under and her wooden crutches nearby-- with that big warm smile... I feel this gentle woman's strong spirit and determination.

Natividad Romero Casimiro makes each of her weavings with love, generosity, and gratitude, and the hope that tomorrow will be better. For that reason, I call them "spirit sashes".
Recently a woman asked me at an exhibit for Dia de los Muertos, what these woven pieces sashes called fajas are for. I answered that the women who make them use them as belts, but one could make a camera or guitar strap out of them, or simply hang them for decoration. All were correct answers to her question. But I needed to tell her so much more. I needed to say that all of Nati's woven belts, bags, and table runners carry the same designs used by her ancestors, the Purepecha women who came before her and who taught the next generation, as she is now doing. When I look at her weavings I am reminded of all the poor Mexican campesinos who struggle to hold on to their indigenous traditions. Weavings from Cuanajo-- even from this master artisan-- have never been commercially successful. Mexicans and Americans alike usually fail to understand that $70 (my reduced price) is not a lot of money for this work. So I end up selling what I buy from Nati at my cost...which gives her a few more pesos for food or bus tickets or yarn, so that she might keep doing what she knows until she can't any do it any longer.
We hadn't seen Nati for a couple of years, though we saw her mother last summer, and we were anxiously hoping to find her at home this time when we brought our tour group this past August. There she was, as soon as we turned into Cuanajo, walking down the dirt road towards her house. We stopped to pick her up, and after kisses and happy exclamations of "que milagro", we quickly noticed how the diabetes has taken its toll on this woman who has already suffered so much. We all treasured that visit...our tourists also found Nati and her family special, and they enthusiastically bought numerous weavings to take back home. Below Nati proudly posed this summer with one of her cotton fajas. Her mother, Maria Guadalupe (right) is holding a certificate Nati received in recognition of a weaving course she gave. Maria, also an excellent weaver, recently stopped weaving due to the arthritis in her hands.
To see or purchase cotton fajas or wool purses (morral) please go to our website:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Burnished Pottery of the Hernandez Cano Family

It was love at first sight. I remember well the first time I saw the gorgeous burnished pottery made by the Hernandez Cano family. We were on the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, aka the Plaza Grande, in Patzcuaro about a week before Dia de los Muertos 2003. It was the year we lived in Michoacán and were just getting to know all that it had to offer. The plaza was covered with vendors selling artesania, but I happened to spot this unusual pottery set out on a few boards on the plaza's edge. It actually stopped us in our tracks. I found out from the young man sitting there that it was made at a workshop in a town called Zinapécuaro. Being out of the way and not close to any other crafts villages on our list to explore discouraged us for a while from making the trip. Until we discovered that this town is also where they make the fabulous burnished clay squash we had been drooling over as well. We have been buying from the artisans in Zinapecuaro for five years now, and have always felt a special affection for this unusual family workshop, led by brothers Salvador, Jose Guadalupe, and Gabriel. We usually have to stop and ask for directions (did I say it's out of the way?) and it's tradition that when we visit, Doug burns the guys a bunch of CDs of sixties and seventies music. They especially like the Doors.
We hadn't been there for a couple of years, but this year we had a special request by someone on our Art and Culture Tour to visit the "squash town"... so we made the journey.
The Hernandez Cano workshop has about twenty family members working there now, with three different "showrooms" full of gorgeous pottery, some of which is below. Though I was not really in the market, I couldn't resist and ended up buying a few more of their pieces.
(photo on right: Salvador Hernandez Cano is painting a new piece)

Pieces first dry in the sun on the patio, and the horno in the back on the left (right photo) is where the artisans fire the pottery.
The Hernandez Cano family workshop began in 1815. When the demand for lead-free ceramics caused many artisans of the town to give up their craft, the Hernandez Cano family took the opportunity to create something new. They were fortunate to be granted a contract with Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology to rescue an ancient technique of painting in negative, which had all but disappeared. And as a result of their research into Aztec, Maya, and Tarascan designs, the family came up with their own recognizable and unique style, a style that has won them numerous state and national awards within Mexico. Today the grandsons of those artisans are well known for their beautiful burnished pottery featuring Pre-Hispanic designs. The brothers, who are constantly creating new designs and innovations, are also teaching their children who work along side them, even down to the 5 year old, who according to his uncle, Gabriel, is learning what it means to “feel the emotion of the clay”. Each handmade piece reflects the family workshop’s joy and pride in Mexico’s rich cultural traditions. The beautiful piece below is a traditional shape, called a luneta and features one of my favorite designs. This and more is for sale at

If you read Spanish, you can check out the following article from a Michoacan newspaper, plus the Hernandez Cano brother's blog.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

La Catrina

Who is this lady, where did she come from, and why is she getting so much attention? I am asked this question a lot.
Her name is Catrina, and she has become a recognized symbol or icon for Day of the Dead in both Latin America and here in the United States. Yes, she is part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration, but that's not her true origin. La Catrina (below) was one of many skeleton images created by Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada.
Posada's calaveras, accompanied by witty social commentary in rhyming verse, were printed in newspapers and reached the farthest corners of the Mexican Republic. They aren't evoking death, but are mocking the living-- their defects, weaknesses and vices. Posada's skeleton caricatures have been called "calaverismo politico" -- his attempt to uncover the "rot of political and social life" in Mexico at the time. The Catrina, an upperclass lady of the turn-of-the-century, is depicted in her broad-brimmed hat and is Posada's comment on the "wannabes" in Mexico at the time who aspired to be everything French. The idea is that the rich may put on airs and wear their fancy clothes, but underneath they are just like you and me. In other words, death is the great equalizer, as we are all mortal.

Above and to the left are more beautiful clay Catrinas from Capula. The paper mache Catrina in the red dress below was made by an artisan in Patzcuaro, as was
the wood batea (plate) below.

The clay plates of Pancho Villa and Don Quixote were made by Fidel Avalos of Capula. The Hernandez Cano family of Zinapecuaro also makes fantastic burnished clay vases and platters with hand painted drawings inspired Jose Guadalupe Posada.

For more information about Dia de los Muertos and Jose Guadalupe Posada, or to purchase some of our folk art, go to:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Una Canción para Capula...A Song for Capula

Capula isn't the prettiest town I visit in Michoacán. Although it is surrounded by lush green hills during the rainy season, it isn't next to the Lake i.e. Patzcuaro, the plaza is not at all charming, and there's no place to eat while you're there. But we always spend a lot of time in Capula, because what it does have is a helluva lot of amazing art. Like these skeletons, calacas, or calaveras-- whatever you want to call them, by the master artisan, Alvaro de la Cruz. They are also known as Catrinas, but a Catrina is really a female skeleton in a fancy dress with a big hat with flowers and feathers.(I'll write more in my next post about her.) Capula, in case you didn't know, is not only a historic pottery village, but the capital of Mexico's clay catrinas. This year there were a lot of skeleton musicians for sale in Capula's artisan cooperative, and they were very, very cool. Like this mariachi woman on the right, and the cute little trio below on the left.

We also found some fantastic new calavera artisans this year, most notably Marcos Perez, a young guy who makes beautiful, extremely detailed black We also found some fantastic new calavera artisans this year, most notably Marcos Perez, a young guy who makes beautiful, extremely detailed black skeleton women. The indigenous woman below (often called a guarecita) is an example of just one we brought back to sell. Click on the photo and check out the hair and details on the clothing. Amazing!
And we also bought some fabulous pottery by my new favorite artisan couple, Demetrio and Raquel Gonzales. I discovered them in April, and was only able to bring back two pieces at that time. They have created some beautiful dishes and serving pieces with their lead-free glazes, and I am excited to share their work with you. (Demetrio is pictured below).

Please email or visit us at: for more information about our recent arrivals and upcoming sales events.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Magnificant Murals of Mexico

It was quite amusing to hear Glenn Beck trying to dredge up the old controversy about Diego Rivera's mural at Rockefeller Center. I don't know if you even paid attention to the idiot, but his rant made me think of the wonderful times I personally have spent in front of Rivera's murals, and wish that everyone could have the pleasure. Last year, I saw that very mural, "Man at the Crossroads", in its reconstructed location at Bellas Artes in Mexico City. I also got to see the amazing, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda) at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, a museum in the center of Mexico City which is entirely devoted to that mural and where one can sit on comfy couches and take it all in at one's leisure. That's the mural that features Frida Kahlo among numerous notable characters, along with the imaginary image created by Jose Guadalulpe Posada of La Catrina.

But one doesn't have to go to Mexico City to see amazing murals. One of my favorite places to take tourists in Morelia is the Palacio del Gobierno where Alfredo Zalce's murals cover the stairway (right) and practically the entire second floor...all a beautifully done history of Mexico, with special emphasis on Morelia, his birthplace. Above is part of the scene showing the Purepecha or Tarascan people in Michoacán.

If you go to Patzcuaro, you definitely have to check out the amazing Juan O'Gorman mural inside the public library off of the Plaza Chica.

For photos and more details of that:

I also enjoy seeing the stunning mosaic mural in the indigenous village of Santa Fe de la Laguna pictured above. It cries, "This community has said, enough!"
As we experience the racist, anti-immigrant, and all around hateful fear-mongering from the wing nuts on the right, I believe we all need to be shouting, ENOUGH!

For more images of murals and paintings by Rivera and Zalce:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not My Michoacán

I opened up my ever-thinner San Francisco Chronicle yesterday morning and there was yet another warning for Americans to "avoid unnecessary travel" to Michoacán, Mexico. It has been a week since we said goodbye to Michoacan, and I have been so busy unpacking our treasures and doing mundane chores like laundry and paying bills, that I had forgotten how scary it must have been for us to be there---NOT! Even the Chicano customs agent at the New Mexico border crossing (who works every day at the border about 40 miles west of Ciudad Juarez) raised an eyebrow and commented that we were "very brave". Oh really? Has he ever been to Michoacán? No, he hasn't, nor have most of the people who report on or freely offer their opinions on the danger. Yes, it is different now. The first day we woke up in Mexico on our drive down this year, we turned on our hotel's TV for a bit of news and were shocked to hear about about a nation-wide attack that took place the night before in several cities, including Morelia where we were headed. We knew the targets of the narcos' very organized attack were federal police-- not us-- but still we were a bit freaked. After discussing our options for a few moments, we decided to continue on with caution.
What we found when we arrived was a different scene from the very familiar Avenida Madero we were used to walking: dozens of military personnel carriers with young guys holding M16s driving down the street. Did it make us pause? Absolutely. But other than that, there was no time when we felt concerned about our safety, or for the safety of our tourists for whom we were responsible.
We all had a wonderful time exploring Morelia, Patzcuaro and surrounding villages, such as Cuanajo where we all had a great time with our favorite weaver, Natividad and her family. (see right)
This post is not intended to be a comprehensive report on the Mexican drug wars, its causes and the solutions, but merely a perspective to counteract the exaggerations we are seeing in the U.S. media around the dangers of traveling in Mexico. If someone were to ask me if it is safe to travel in California, I would have to say that depends...where and when? Same goes for traveling in Mexico. One must always be aware, exercise caution, and use common sense. Does it look like the folks below are in danger? Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tour group #1 had a great time this July cooking up a meal of chiles en nogada in the beautiful kitchen at the Meson de San Antonio in Patzcuaro. Sharry Hickey (seated below on the right--check out her cooking blog) was head chef and Doug and Holly Barrett (current elem. art teacher and former culinary student) were her sous chefs.

The artisans are hurting as a result of the reports, because tourism is definitely down. We felt good about being there, doing what we can to let people know that we are with them, and feel solidarity with the overwhelmingly good people of Mexico who are living with uncertainty about what the recent events (including the swine flu outbreak) will do to their future ability to make a living. We bought beautiful art from talented indigenous artisans who are greatful for the opportunity to sell it to anyone who comes by. Unfortunately, they are not coming by. Except for a few "brave" souls like the intrepid, Daulton Bush who came on our second tour this summer. Here's what she had to say:

"At age 67, I have traveled extensively on numerous trips throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico. I feel more safe strolling the streets of Mexico, day or night, than I do in the US and Europe. NOT ONCE on my recent Mexico By Hand tour to Michoacan did I experience even the slightest tinge of fear. Several days were spent in Morelia, a fairly large city, and I found, without exception, the people I met to be warm, friendly and accommodating. I was equally "at home" in Patzcuaro, a charismatic village with a charming populace. I think fear can be our worst enemy, and if one allows it to overtake the desire to experience other cultures, then there is a great loss of adventure and sharing with humanity. Life is what we make it!!!"

If you'd like to read more of Daulton's comments on the Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tour, go to our website: and see her testimonial. And if you would like to help Michoacán's artisans and their families and enrich your own life at the same time, you can purchase their art by going to our e-store at: