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.
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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
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
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