Makers Of The Lost Arts

Jonathan Kandell is a New York-based writer and former newspaper correspondent in Latin America. He last wrote about tango in Argentina for the magazine

As I follow Apolinar Hernandez Balcazar up the hill from his house, an idyllic view of the rural Mexico of my childhood unfurls behind me.

Orchards and corn plots slope down the valley, and pine trees blanket the mountains. On the translucent blue horizon are the tile-roofed houses of the artisan town of Tenancingo. The only sounds are the crowing of roosters and the braying of a burro.

Measured by the meager income his few acres of corn yield, the 41-year-old Hernandez, a short, powerful man with an impish smile, is just another subsistence farmer. But with the harvest over, his "real life," as he puts it, begins. Hernandez is a basket weaver, one of such remarkable artistry that he has won national awards in Mexico and gained a small, but avid, following of collectors who pay $8 to $150 for his creations. I am accompanying him as he collects the reeds he uses to weave his deceptively simple baskets.

With a scythe-shaped knife, he cuts off a few tender branches from willow saplings growing along a stream and then expertly scrapes away their outer layer. Back at his three-room brick-and-adobe house, he dries the reeds in the sun and then soaks them until they are flexible enough to weave.

He finishes a basket in a single 10-hour workday, although the larger ones, as much as two feet in diameter, can take a week or more. He weaves in all sorts of patterns: crosses, diagonals, triangles, squares, zigzags, braids. "I use three types of willow and several other tree species to give my baskets different colors and texture," Hernandez says. "I don't use dyes because I don't like the look."

This natural look, devoid of all artifice, is Hernandez's signature style. The outside of each basket, meant for viewing, "must be perfect," he says. The inside deliberately displays his knots and the occasional discoloration and other flaws in his materials. At first sight, the baskets look like the same ones used by tortilla or fruit vendors all over Mexico. But on closer inspection, these baskets are too precious for everyday tasks.

I grew up in Mexico during the 1950s, when the country seemed infused with art--not only the easel paintings and murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, but also the baskets, shawls, ceramics and fine metalwork of anonymous artisans. In recent decades, the art scene hasn't been as vibrant. Mexican painters and sculptors rarely are mentioned in the same breath with the leading artists of Europe and the United States. And Mexican folk craft, like expensive nylon rebozos and factory-produced ceramics aimed at a mass market, appeared to have suffered an irreparable decline in quality.

Or so I thought, until my recent travels in the interior of Mexico convinced me otherwise. Drawing on the advice of friends and contacts at several cultural foundations and institutes, I discovered a hidden world of superb Mexican folk art kept alive by scores of master artisans. Some of them are old and fearful that their crafts will die with them. But the younger artisans I encountered are optimistic that a new generation of wealthy, discerning Mexican art collectors is ensuring a revival of fine craftsmanship.

I decided to track down seven or eight of the best artisans within a two-hour radius of Mexico City, each working in a different medium. None of them sells their wares in stores or galleries. They are virtually unknown abroad; in fact, I came across only one, a ceramist, who exports to the United States. So they must be visited in their workshops and homes, where they spend a dozen hours a day, sometimes weeks on end, fashioning a single object. Their prices can top $1,000. And because these are unique items, the customer must usually place an order and either arrange to have the piece shipped back home or pick it up on another trip.

Whether or not one makes a purchase, searching out these master craftsmen is a wonderful excuse to experience a more tranquil, village-like existence away from the frenetic, overcrowded and crime-ridden Mexican capital, and an opportunity to escape an increasingly homogenized chain-store shopping world.

There are two ways to undertake this adventure. The first is to lodge at a hotel in Mexico City and hire a car and driver-guide for day trips. The alternative is to combine a stay in the capital with sojourns at an inn or hotel near a cluster of artisans and use a local driver-guide. Guides are indispensible both as translators (none of these artisans speak English) and as drivers (because studios are often difficult to locate).

I divided my own visits into three trips: the first, traveling southwest and southeast of Mexico City, using Cuernavaca as my base; the second, hiring a car-and-driver from my Mexico City hotel and heading west of the metropolis; and the third, overnighting in the city of Puebla, east of the capital. The more upscale hotels will sometimes arrange to handle and ship purchases to the United States.

*

TENANCINGO, THE TOWN WITHIN SIGHT OF HERNANDEZ'S HOME, IS in the state of Mexico, a two-hour drive southwest of Mexico City. But I've decided to set out from Cuernavaca, where I have chosen to camp out at Las Mananitas, still arguably Mexico's best luxury inn.

I drive for two hours up a winding mountain road that passes the resort of Ixtapan de la Sal, famous since Aztec times for its mineral baths. Tenancingo is renowned as a weaving center, mostly of shawls, and the undisputed master of the genre is Evaristo Borboa, 73. I encounter Borboa, a slim man with a brush mustache and a Panama hat, in his workshop, a block from the main church. On one wall is a crucifix, and on another an old-style calendar displaying scantily clad women under a beer logo. Mariachi music blares from a radio.

Borboa is standing and leaning backward, propped up diagonally by a loom that circles his waist and is tethered to a wooden post. An ancient weaving method, the waist loom was prevalent throughout the Americas before the arrival of the Spaniards, but was largely replaced during the colonial era by hand- and foot-powered looms from Europe, and more recently by electric looms. In Tenancingo, Borboa is the sole artisan still using the waist loom, which he works for as long as 10 hours a day, breaking only for lunch and a siesta.

His right hand plies a stick that raises and lowers the cotton threads he is fashioning into a shawl, and the fingers of his left hand deftly guide new strands through the fabric in a motion that mimics the plucking of a harp. "This is my delirium," he says. "I've done this for 60 years, like my parents before me. I'll go to my grave with threads in my fingers." He lets me try out the loom, and within a minute I feel sharp pains in my lower back, and my footing starts to slip. "You should have gotten started like I did as a boy," he says with a laugh.

Barboa's specialty is the rebozo de otate, a cotton shawl almost as fine and light as silk. He uses traditional Mexican dyes from burnt resin, pumpkin seeds, cochineal insects (found on cactus), indigo plants and minerals. He ties his threads into equidistant knots and dunks them into the hot dyes, stretching them out like clotheslines to dry. Then he weaves the threads into cloth with geometric or semi-abstract animal designs, usually not using more than two or three colors.

"I do the designs in my head as I go along," says Borboa. It takes him a month to complete a single rebozo, which he sells for $300 to $450.

Before returning to Cuernavaca, I head north 15 miles to Tenango, whose marketplace is famous for food stands selling lamb and calf barbacoa--barbecued underground and served with onions, tomatoes and chile. The fresh produce here is a visual feast: avocados, chayotes, mangos, cantaloupes, squash, cactus leaves--every one of them in several varieties and assorted hues. I devour several calf-cheek barbacoa tacos, wrapped in hot hand-made tortillas. A blind accordionist plays ranchero music, and when he stops, a pre-adolescent male soprano sings a hauntingly beautiful ballad a cappella.

*

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, AFTER A SWIM AT Las Mananitas, I enjoy a leisurely breakfast within sight of the strutting cranes and peacocks in the hotel's expansive garden.

Then I drive an hour east to the village of Tlayacapan (pronounced Tlah-yah-kah-PAHN), just north of Cuautla (coo-ow-tlah). On a Tlayacapan street anchored at one end by a small chapel and at the other by a cornfield, I find the rambling house of 90-year-old Felipa Hernandez Barragan, a maker of folk-healing ceramics.

Her earliest memories, she says, are of the Mexican Revolution. "The Zapatistas swept through our pueblo and then the Federales--back and forth so many times it's a wonder any of us survived," she says.

Hernandez leads me to the tree-shaded back courtyard where she works and explains how she became a practitioner of this mysterious, age-old craft. In 1930, Hernandez's first-born son was suffering from a skin ailment that physicians couldn't cure, so she took him to a nearby folk healer, or curandera. The healer placed a set of 12 small clay figurines--centipede, tarantula, scorpion, frog, rattlesnake, among other creatures--around the child, and prayed that they suck up the "evil airs" causing his illness.

When her son recovered, Hernandez decided to teach herself to become a maker of the miraculous ceramic figurines, though she would leave the folk healing to the curanderas. "I have no talent for that," she says. "Curanderas are born to their calling."

There is a steady demand for her ceramics among the healers because the figurines, having absorbed the poisons of sickness, must be destroyed after every healing session. And in recent years, nonbelievers have also desired her work. Hers is a disappearing folk art, and collectors come from all over Mexico, Texas and California to place orders for her 12-piece sets. Though slowed by arthritis and cataracts, the diminutive woman with long gray braids still works a few hours every day, sculpting her wet clay figurines and baking them on a comal, a pre-Hispanic grill used to make tortillas, under inverted clay pots used as mini-ovens. She then paints the hardened figurines in black and red. It takes her two or three days to complete a set, which sells for about $30.

"Young people don't believe in the power of these objects and think it's too much work to make them," says Hernandez. She fears her art won't survive her.

*

FOR MY SECOND TRIP, I START OUT FROM MY MEXICO CITY HOTEL, THE Presidente Inter-Continental, with a driver recommended by the concierge. We head north on Reforma Avenue, past the wall-enclosed mansions of the Lomas neighborhood, until we see the signs indicating the superhighway to Toluca, about 40 miles west. Our car climbs past 9,000 feet, and after 40 minutes, about halfway to Toluca, we turn off at the Ocoyoacac exit and head south of the highway. After asking for directions at a gas station, we finally arrive at Gualupita, in the state of Mexico.

Famed for its wool weaving, Gualupita is also a town of remarkable colonial architecture. Beginning in the 16th century, this was an important missionary center, where the Spanish Franciscans built several huge churches and workshops to encourage their Indian wards to perfect weaving techniques.

In recent years, the cobblestone main streets and stone bridges over the town's river have been restored, and the central plaza, with its hulking baroque church, has been swept and repaired. A couple of blocks away, I find the large whitewashed house and workshop of Efren Nava Vega, perhaps Mexico's foremost weaver of woolen gabanes, the ponchos traditionally worn by rural Mexican men during the winter.

He is spinning wool on an old-fashioned wheel on a back terrace that faces distant purple mountains that seemingly float on the horizon. He prefers to work only with black, brown and white natural wool fibers. "I'm still learning about dyes from minerals, plants and cochineal," says the 50-year-old Nava, who has the build of a middleweight wrestler. It seems a remarkable admission from such a renowned, veteran artisan, but he attributes his success to a willingness to experiment.

"I always like to challenge myself," he says. "I try to come up with new designs within the boundaries of the traditional."

In fact, the contemporary geometric patterns and animal symbols on his gabanes display elements that are timelessly Mexican. Nava controls every aspect of his craft, which he learned from his father and uncles. He personally purchases his wool fiber from shepherds whose flocks he has visited. He cards the wool, spins the fiber and concocts the dyes. He works with colonial-style looms, built under his supervision by local carpenters on a 19th century model given to him by his father, also a renowned weaver. He draws a detailed design for a gaban on graph paper, which he tacks on a wooden post at eye level, and then carefully copies the design on a hand- and foot-powered loom.

Once he receives an order, he works as long as 15 hours daily, often seven days a week. Each gaban takes him two months to complete, and is sold for $1,000 to $1,200. These are elegant gabanes for wealthy city people, who might use them for costume dinners or at their haciendas during the cold season.

"I try not to repeat patterns," Nava says. "I don't want a client to show up at a party and find someone with the same gaban." He allows me to try on what he considers his most unique weave, a white poncho with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe woven on its front.

"How much?" I inquire.

"Priceless," he replies. "It's for a bishop."

*

WITH MY DRIVER, I GET BACK ON THE HIGHWAY TO TOLUCA, ONCE A charming market town but now an industrial city, and circle south four miles to the town of Metepec.

A ceramics center, Metepec is especially known for a genre called arbol de la vida: tree of life. Made of brightly painted clay and standing between 2 and 4 feet high, a tree may depict a biblical episode, scenes of everyday life, even a miscellaneous subject such as an exaltation of tequila. While there are scores of artisans in this specialty, Oscar Soteno El'as is one of the recognized masters, despite being only 29.

Soteno's home and workshop are on the highway on the outskirts of Metepec. Grandchild, son and nephew of other tree-of-life artisans, he learned his craft as a boy. "This is all I ever wanted to do, so I quit school early to devote myself to the arboles," he says. Soteno, a heavyset man with a warm smile, tells me this as he puts the finishing touches on a tree decorated with sunflowers and monarch butterflies.

Because of his range of subjects, his imaginative figures and his vivid and varied colors, Soteno has a client list that includes private collectors as well as corporations. They pay $1,000 to $3,000 for a tree that will take him two months to complete.

His busiest periods are the weeks leading up to the Day of the Dead (Nov. 1) and Christmas, the two most popular subjects for arboles de la vida. Like other artisans, he uses red and yellow clay from nearby Ocotitlan, which has served as a source at least since Aztec times.

Slabs of the clay are spread on the streets of Metepec so that passing cars will crush the material. The clay is then stored in a dry, well-ventilated shed and pulverized with a heavy stone in quantities as needed. When he is about to work, Soteno wets the clay and bleaches it with powdered flowers from the tule tree, a species confined mainly to central Mexico.

After he sculpts a tree, he places the piece in his sun-filled courtyard, turning it during the course of the day so that it dries uniformly. He sandpapers it smooth, then bakes the tree for several hours in a circular brick oven. Soteno finishes his ceramic sculptures with a combination of natural dyes, commercial paints and lacquers.

I notice his 6-year-old daughter avidly watching him paint, and ask him if it would be unusual to pass on his mantle of master artisan to a woman.

"Not at all," replies Soteno. "It was my grandmother who created the first arboles de la vida." (When I later check with the Fomento Cultural Banamex, a leading Mexican cultural foundation, I am told that Soteno's late grandmother, Modesta Fernandez, is indeed widely credited with having invented the genre in the late 1930s.)

*

FOR MY FINAL JOURNEY, I TAKE THE SUPERHIGHWAY FROM MEXICO City east toward Puebla, a city known for its many colonial churches and superb cuisine. Popocatepetl and Iztacc'huatl, the snow-capped volcanoes rising majestically above green pastures and agave fields, are my constant companions. I get off at Tlaxcala and drive through Avenida Revolucion until it turns into the Antiguo Camino Real. After seeking directions for Tlatempan, a village on the outskirts of Tlaxcala, I finally arrive at the blue gate that marks the entrance of the studio and home of Jose Reyes Juarez, a master artisan who has been making wood masks for carnivals, religious processions, ceremonial Indian and mestizo dances, parties and magic shows for more than 40 years.

Reyes is painting a mask in his workshop in the back and unable to receive me. But he lets me look over the masks on exhibit in the entrance hall and suggests that if I find one to my liking, he can create a similar one for me in a month or so for $50 to $100. Reyes carves his masks from ayacahuite, a local hardwood tree, and finishes them with gesso, linseed oil, powder paint and an assortment of dyes.

The eyes of his masks are made of glass, and the lashes are from real calves. The result is often a face of porcelain-like texture with a human smile but a slightly sinister, otherworldly glint in the eyes.

I arrive in Puebla in the early afternoon and check in at the Hotel Camino Real, a 17th century former convent with spectacular views of the mountains and of the many church towers in the historic downtown district. For lunch, I walk three blocks to my all-time favorite Mexican restaurant, La Fonda de Santa Clara, and order mole de espinazo y cadera de Tehuacan, a rich, spicy stew made from the hip and backbone of a kid goat.

Puebla is famous for its talavera, an enameled, glazed majolica type of ceramics, mainly in blue and white. But this time I've decided to purchase Tlaxcala-style talavera, known for more vivid colors and varied designs. It's my next stop.

*

THE NEXT MORNING, I DRIVE NORTH A FEW minutes out of Puebla on the road leading to Santa Ana Chiautempan. After less than two miles, a gas station on my right indicates the entrance to the village of San Pablo del Monte, and I ask an attendant for directions to La Corona, the workshop of Cayetano Corona Gaspariano, the foremost artisan of Tlaxcala-style talavera.

In Corona's workshop, more like a small factory, a dozen employees create an assortment of vases, jars, formal dinner services and tea sets designed by Corona, a cherub-faced, soft-spoken man in his 50s. He uses black and pink clays from Puebla. After baking a piece for 10 hours, he plunges it into a tin-and-lead solution that gives it a whitish surface.

Once the piece dries (a large one can take several days), he decorates it in abstract designs or flower-and-fruit patterns, first with color pencils and then with paintbrushes, mainly in blue, yellow, green, red, black and white hues. After a second drying, the object is fired at 1,000 degrees.

I buy a washbasin and water jar, decorated with semi-abstract flowers in yellow, blue and black, for $45. I also like a 3-foot-tall green ceramic jar with flowers and geometric designs priced at $800, but control my acquisitive urges.

The cashier asks if I'll be using a credit card and if I want my pieces shipped back to the United States by UPS. Perhaps noticing my eyebrows raised in surprise, he says: "We're very much up-to-date around here. Have you checked out our Web site?"

GUIDEBOOK: The Art of Mexico

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Mexico is 52. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 9.75 pesos to the dollar. Room rates are for a double for one night. Meal prices are for dinner for two, food only.

Getting there: Delta, United, Aeromexico and Mexicana airlines have nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Mexico City. Direct or connecting service (involving stops or plane changes) is offered by American, America West and Continental.

Where to stay: In Mexico City, the Presidente Inter-Continental, telephone (800) 327-0200 or 5327-7700 (direct), fax 5327-7730, http://www.

interconti.com. An upscale hotel near the Museo Nacional de Antropolog'a, a great place to learn about Mexico's pre-Hispanic artisan traditions. Rates: $180 to $235, plus 17% tax. In Cuernavaca: Las Mananitas, tel. (73) 14-14-66, fax (73) 18-36-72, http://www.lasmananitas.com.mx. After four decades, still the standard for luxury inns and hotels in Latin America. Rates: $120 to $280, plus 20% tax and service charge. In Puebla: the Camino Real, tel. (800) 722-6466 or (22) 29-09-09, fax (22) 32-92-51, http://www.caminoreal.com/puebla/. A colonial architectural gem in the historic downtown district. Rates: $151 to $223, plus 17% tax.

Where to eat: In Cuernavaca: Las Mananitas, Ricardo Linares 107, tel. (73) 14-14-66, fax (73) 18-36-72. A wide assortment of European dishes and gourmet Mexican specialties; $60 to $70. In Puebla: La Fonda de Santa Clara, 3 Poniente #307, tel. (22) 46-19-19. A cornucopia of superb regional dishes, with the specialties of the season; $30.

The master artisans: (If they have a phone, it's a good idea to call and let them know you're coming.) In Tenancingo: basket weaver Apolinar Hernandez Balcazar (no address, village of San Mart'n Coapaxtongo) and rebozo weaver Evaristo Borboa (Cuauhtemoc 300 Oriente) are best reached by appointment through Tenancingo's Casa de la Cultura, tel. (7) 142-1305.

In Tlayacapan: Felipa Hernandez Barragan, the maker of folk-healing ceramics, is at Morelos y Pavon 20, tel. (73) 57-62-67. In Gualupita: gaban weaver Efren Nava Vega is at 16 de Septiembre #15 (no phone). In Metepec, Oscar Soteno El'as, tree-of-life artisan, is at Arte Popular, Carretera Toluca-Ixtapan de la Sal km. 5, tel. (7) 232-2336. In Tlatempan: Jose Reyes Juarez, the mask maker, is at Calle de Jesus #7, tel. (24) 64-07-90. In San Pablo del Monte: Cayetano Corona Gaspariano, maker of talavera ceramics, is at Maximo Rojas #3, tel. (2) 282-0080, http://www.la-corona.com.mx.

For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, Calif., 90057; (213) 351-2069, fax, (213) 351-2074, http://www.mexico-travel.com.

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