This is not an unusual scene here in Michoacán, me crouching before an artisan and her wares. What is remarkable about this picture is the artisan who is sitting on the cold stones steps of a doorway with her children hovering nearby. This is Elena Felipe Felix, an award-winning artist who is featured in the prestigious book and collection, Masters of Mexican Folk Art. We met Elena six years ago when we filmed her in her family workshop in the remote pueblo of Huancito for our video documentary. Since then her work has been selling well in the U.S. and some of her pieces are part of the permanent collection of Mexico's Museum of Arte Popular. (See my previous post with more info. on Elena and her sister-in-law: http://mexicobyhand.blogspot.com/2009/11/huancito-clay-pots.)
On this Saturday Elena and her children traveled two hours by bus from her village, her clay pots wrapped in a rebozo on her back, in order to sell her work to passersby near the Plaza Grande in Patzcuaro. I was happy to see her of course, because I was anxious to buy her beautiful work again. And the feeling was mutual, because she needed the sale. A few people stopped to look as I was selecting my pieces for purchase (it seems to attract Mexican customers when there's a gringo who's interested) but they walked on after asking the price. Without divulging the amount I spent, let's just say the asking price was ridiculously low for the amount of talent and work involved in creating these pieces. Mexican tourists (and there were many in Patzcuaro that day) aren't buying traditional fine crafts, and Americans are too afraid to travel to Mexico. So Elena Felix, like so many other talented master Mexican artists are left to peddle their work on the street, along with the 7 year old child who sells gum, and the 70 year old woman who sells peanuts. Will her children who are watching her struggle choose to continue to work as artesanos like their mother? Or will they be leaving their homes and head for El Norte, as so many from Michoacán have done already? This is not only about the survival of these families, but the survival of an endangered art form.
What can we do? We can buy this beautiful traditional art and enhance our own lives as well.
Burnished pots like these from Elena Felix, plus the video showing her working, will be available for purchase at www.mexicobyhand.com