Okay, so you want to be sure that the piece you're thinking about buying is quality handmade folk art. You should start by asking who made it. If they tell you they did and they give you their name, and there aren't dozens of the same thing at every other stall in the market, then it's probably true. Better yet, go watch the artisans working in their workshops. It is so special to be able to see the creation of a piece of art that you bring home and can later look at years after your trip. It's like bringing a piece of the artist and his culture home with you. Don't be picky and expect a piece of handmade art to be perfect either. That's the charm of buying something that was made by a human being rather than by a machine. If you love it, if it brings you joy and makes you smile, then you should bring it home to live with you so it can continue to give you pleasure.
Now, it is perfectly legitimate to buy Mexican crafts or folk art in a gallery or store, or even from a website (like mine) but how do you determine what is a quality piece and what isn't? Well to start, if the vendor can tell you what pueblo or state it came from and how it was made, that's important information. It's even better if you can see some photos. Sometimes, but not always, you'll find an artist's signature, but in Michoacán, most artists don't sign their work because it goes against the Purepecha Indian view that their traditional art is a community effort. If you are buying a piece of pottery you will use to serve food, make sure that it is sin plomo or lead-free. If the vendor doesn't say so, then assume it has lead. Usually the cheap stuff at the markets in Mexico and often things sold on eBay contain lead. Buying textiles, which I love, is a whole other subject and we'll have to talk about that another time.
I bought the oval clay plate on the right many years ago-- and it still makes me happy when I see it hanging on my kitchen wall! It was the first piece we bought from Fernando Arroyo, award- winning artist from Capula. You can see more of Fernando's recent work on our website: www.mexicobyhand.com...where you can also find out more about how to visit his and other artisan workshops in Michoacán on our Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tour.
Fernando Arroyo (right) is now working with lead-free glazes, thanks to the work of Barro Sin Plomo, a wonderful group that is helping Mexican artisans produce and market lead-free pottery. You can find out more about them and check out their catalog at: www.echerypottery.com.
Purepecha artists Elena Felix and Bernardina Rivera make burnished clay pots at their home workshop in the village of Huancito. They learned their art from their mother (top photo) and are featured in the book, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art.