Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mexican Crafts 101

There really is no good translation for the Spanish word artesania. I buy and sell artesania and I still don't know what to call it in English. Some people use the term handicrafts, which I don't like because it sounds like housewives making doilies. I often use the word folk art, but that only describes some of what I am talking about (see my post about Milagros). Is a perfectly exquisite hammered copper vase that takes years of experience, a lot of talent and two months to make really "folk art"? In Mexico they sometimes use the term "arte popular", as in the Banamex collection and book, Maestros Grandes del Arte Popular or Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, a great book if you can find it. If you want a nice overview of Mexican folk art and enjoy looking at beautiful photographs, this is a good place to start. The other thing is that when you travel in Mexico you might see signs advertising "artesania" but you need to be aware that sometimes the word is referring to what we would call souvenirs. Souvenirs are NOT what we are talking about here. And you can usually tell that's what is meant as soon as you take a look. Anything that is mass-produced with the name of the place written on it is a souvenir. What I'm talking about are handmade items that reflect the culture and traditions of a village. Usually one person makes the piece from start to finish, and he or she learned the process from a parent or other family member. The colors or form might evolve over the years, but the basic technique or style comes from the village or tribe's tradition, like the clay plates from the village of Capula in Michoacán in the photos below. The plate on the left features a traditional border pattern and a technique where the artist paints hundreds of tiny dots called punteado or "pointillism". On the right you can see the traditional border design, but this contemporary "folk art" piece features the artist, Fidel Avalos' interpretation of a Jose Guadalupe Posada drawing of Don Quixote.

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.


  1. Lovely site! I fell upon it trying to find where I can buy straw donkeys, horses, butterflies, so on. You have a photo of a fish and that is the style I'm looking for. I live near San Francisco, CA and was wondering where I might find what I'm looking for. I'm so afraid, and saddened at the thought that it has become a lost art. Please let me know if you have any ideas. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for your comments, please see mine below...

  2. Hi,
    We often carry animals woven out of straw and a tule reed called chuspata that are made near Lake Patzcuaro. They are not a lost art, not to worry! However because there is not always a market for them here in the U.S. we don't always have them. At this moment I only have a very large fish and reindeer in my home. If you would like to request certain animals,I can get them for you, but it might take a while. I can easily get them in the summer when I am in Michoacan on a buying trip, not a problem. Write to me at info@mexicobyhand.com.