Monthly Archives: February 2008

Notes From An Artist’s Journal by Andrea Donnelly

I am writing this entry from Teotitlan del Valle in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’ve been here since July 4th, exploring the culture and landscape of this beautiful place. Surrounding mountains hug this little village like silent guardians, spirit-lifting backdrops to cobblestone roads and adobe brick walls. The rhythm is slower here, more thoughtful. Teotitlan is a village of master weavers. Wool tapestries hang outside homes, calling cards for the family business. I came here to learn about natural dyes from Eric Chavez, who I met at NC State when he came with his father to give a dye workshop and presentation about his work and his village. In the rug room of their beautiful open-air home hang faded photo portraits of grandparents and great-grandparents at their looms, a history of Zapotec weavers going back four generations. Eric and his father Frederico are still using natural dyes when many have moved to the faster and cheaper but highly toxic synthetics. Though I came with the specific intention of learning the natural processes for indigo and cochineal, I see that there are many more possibilities for natural dye. There are pomegranates, onion, flowers, moss, nuts; so many options for future experiments! Eric and I have been very busy. First he took me to the cochineal farm at Tlapanochestli, where I saw the growth and harvesting process of the delicate little bugs. They grow on cactus spears naturally, but must be tended to very carefully if they are to complete their life cycle. Outside in the sun they might live for a few days, but for the farmers to get a pigment they must live a complete three months. We also began a natural indigo bath at the beginning of this week. The bath consists of indigo and organic matter: banana and mango skins, flower petals, honey and a touch of alcohol. It is currently fermenting in the sun on Eric’s roof, and we expect that it will be ready for dyeing in about another week. A few days ago I helped Eric’s family harvest dye materials from the woods near Benito Juarez, a neighboring village hidden far up one of the mountains. They had run out of moss the night before, so Eric’s mother and father loaded up the back of the pickup truck with baskets, tools, and me, Eric, and his sister, and up the mountain we went. What a view I had from the back of that pickup truck! I am almost through my first big lesson- dyeing wool with cochineal. We’ve mordanted and dyed five 450g skeins of yarn so far, with one left to go: two neutrals, two acids, and one base to date. I’ve learned the very important mordant process and how to get different shades by manipulating the pH of the dye bath. There are five incredibly vibrant natural shades of red, pink, purple, and orange currently drying at Eric’s house, and next week we are going to warp a loom (one of the seven currently put together in his house) for me to weave on with my beautiful fiber. I’m going to practice a traditional Zapotec pattern. Tomorrow will be more cochineal dyeing, and then we are on to indigo with wool. Eric and his entire family have really taken me in. I’m having a wonderful time and learning more than I could have ever imagined.

Click on the blogroll link to see photos and more journal entries from Andrea’s 3-month artist’s residency in Teotitlan studying with Eric Chavez.   Andrea graduated from NC State University College of Art and Design, where Eric and Federico Chavez gave a master class to textile students.

Oaxacan artists return to North Carolina.

We’re expecting Eric Chavez to return to North Carolina this spring.  He’ll be coming on March 22 with his friend, Elsa Sanchez Diaz, to participate in an art fair and exhibition at East Carolina University, in Greenville.  The University has  invited him back for a second year because of the success of his presentation last spring.  During the time they will be here, Eric and Elsa will also meet with Molly Matlock and Chris Bouton of the Chatham Arts Council to plan a fall 2008 arts in education program for the public schools, artists and weavers, and the general public, including a major exhibition and sale at the community college.  The program looks like it will include workshops for teachers, with students in elementary, middle and high school, and master classes in collaboration with local artist cooperatives.   Because Eric is a fluent English speaker, he is able to speak eloquently about his Zapotec people and culture, the influences of the Spanish conquest, the impact of tourism on the economy of Oaxaca state, and the ancient weaving and natural dyeing traditions of his village, Teotitlan del Valle. 

 These programs are wonderful cultural bridges to understanding the artistic traditions of Mexican culture and the rich history of immigrants who live and work here.  We have found that wherever we make presentations, give workshops and exhibit in the U.S., people are welcoming and interested.  Often, cross-cultural appreciation, understanding and respect is facilitated through the arts.   

 Eric is planning his exhibition and presentation schedule for fall 2008 at museums, galleries and universities in the U.S.  Often, he is sponsored by through Latino Studies programs,  university art museums, departments of global studies, education, textiles,  art and design, weavers and textile guilds, or a collaboration of these and other community groups.  If you or your organization would be interested in hosting Eric Chavez, please reply by posting your comment to the blog.

A short note about renting a car in Oaxaca.

I went online before leaving for Oaxaca and did a price search for a one-week car rental for our trip to the Tehuantepec, Huatulco and Mazunte. I got a great price from Hertz through Hotwire. It was $139 for the week, so I booked it and paid for it in advance. We got to the rental agency at the airport and they asked if we needed their insurance package, and cautioning us about the liability issues. The cost for insurance would be an additional $400. I called my insurance agent in the states to find out if my car insurance would cover the rental car. Only if you are driving the rental car in Canada or the U.S. It’s not covered in Mexico, they said. So, we decided to play it safe and get the insurance, opting for the full package that covered all liability. I’m not sure we’ll ever rent another car again in Mexico because of the price, but having the insurance was a blessing. The car, a small Hyundai with the mark, Dodge Attitude, definitely had an attitude. As soon as we left Tehuantepec, just after Salina Cruz, the engine began to surge and there was little compression to give us the power to get around the curving beach route. I decided it was best to stop in Huatulco and find a Hertz agent, since there was an airport there. We found an agency in one of the major mega beach hotels, who was very gracious and exchanged cars for us. We ended up with a mid-size Mitsubishi, which was nicer but also bigger and more expensive to fill the gasoline tank. The fact that we had the full coverage made this transaction so much easier. Even though we had to fill out a complete report about what was wrong with the car and talk to a regional manager, the exchange was with little difficulty other than the inconvenience. The benefit of taking out full coverage!

Alebrijes: In Search of the Masters

The three great wood carving villages are San Martin Tilcajete, Arrazola and La Union.  I’ve written about finding La Union in another post.   And, of course, you can find wonderful alebrijes in excellent galleries along Alcala, such as La Mano Magica, or  tucked around the corner and across the street from Santo Domingo, at Tally (5 de Mayo 409).  There is no limit to what you can find at every price range, from $8-10 USD up to thousands of dollars.  Some people like shopping on the street at the Tlacalula or Ocotlan market.  It’s important to note that the vendors here are usually not the artists.  They may be from a village; they may be a relative representing the craftsman and earning a commission.  Their offerings are usually smaller, more primitive and are not finely finished or painted.  But, these fancifuls can be a bargain and great sources for gifts. 

For collectors, the most accessible sources and the best range of choice could be found in the finest Oaxaca shops or in the Jacobo Angeles gallery “La Azucena,” on the highway at the crossroads to San Martin, where excellent examples from throughout the region are displayed.  But the highlight and most fun for any thrill of the hunt is going out to the villages in search of the masters.

For me, the search for a master does not necessarily mean finding the most famous (or most expensive) carver.  My process is to go to a village with a short list of carvers whose work I really like and stay open to discovering others.   I gauge the quality of their work by size, difficulty of carving execution, finish work (how well is it sanded and are there rough spots), painting detail, use of and variety of color, general artistry and movement, and use of  natural pigments.  Do the pieces have many removeable parts or are there discernable glued joints?  Carvings from one piece of copal is more highly valued, for example.  

Here are a few of my favorite carvers.  but, understand that you can arrive at their home studio/workshop and there will not be much there that is for sale at the moment.  It varies.  The best carvers are constantly producing their work and shipping immediately upon completion to galleries in Oaxaca or the U.S.   Sometimes I have gone to find  the person is not there.  If you can get a phone number and make an appointment in advance, that is preferable.  Now, I have a list of many carvers and am able to do this to ensure a connection. 

A few of my favorite San Martin Tilcajete carvers:  Jacobo Angeles, Justo Xuana,  Maria Jimenez Ojeda, Pablo Mendez Sosa

A few of my favorite Arrazola carvers:  Hector Martinez, Bertha Cruz

A few of my favorite La Union carvers:  Gabino Reyes, Sergio Santos, Calixto Santiago

Arrazola has a central artisans market that is quite good.  We always make a stop there to see the work.  On the last visit there was a great big Skeleton Couple, he bedecked in top hat, she outfitted in a dazzling dancing dress.  Ask around town, go in and out of workshops and you will likely find something wonderful to take home.  (See my post “Packing Tips” for how to get these home without paying an arm and a leg for shipping.)  

I also have a few fine pieces from my collection  for sale in my Gallery Shop:

Safety: A Non-Issue Now

My son just sent me a story about Oaxaca travel posted on CNN that they picked up from the Associated Press news syndicate.  It’s a good read, published February 5, 2008. 

The piece emphasized how safe it is to travel to  Oaxaca now, and how few tourists there are.  Even a year after the “troubles” have subsided, the images portrayed in the media have stayed in peoples’ minds and, consequently, they have stayed away.  The writer says, and I concur, Oaxaca is a great travel opportunity.  There are  no waits in restaurants, no crush of crowds along the promenades, there is ample opportunity to grab a curb-side table, sit and sip a hot chocolate, drink a beer or eat pollo con mole at any one of the outdoor cafes ringing the zocalo.  No one will shoo you off.   Oaxaca is safe.   It is tranquil and beautiful.  It’s robust splendor is everywhere:  the freshly painted majestic 16th century Spanish colonial houses that are converted to  shops, offices, hotels, and restaurants.  The ancient cobbled streets  have a story of their own. 

I liked this piece of journalism.  It  was well thought out because it didn’t whitewash what happened in 2006.  It addressed the economic losses suffered by the artisans, by the entire region, resulting from the  loss of tourism.  It also presented an honest explanation of the political and social  issues facing Oaxaca that have not been resolved:  the conflicts between the politically powerful and the working poor, the social unrest that remains  beneath the surface.   But for now, all sides welcome tourists and want to do their best to make their return possible and hospitable.  The pleasant tourist police stroll the central historic area offering directions and answering questions. The zocalo flower gardens are always freshly planted.  The balloon vendors have eager customers in young locals.  There is new directional signage throughout the city pointing tourists to important artistic, civic and religious sites.  New street signs on the corners, posted on the sides of buildings, and freshly painted facades in all shades of melon, pomegranate, mango, earth and lime, send a message that this is a city rebuilding and hopeful. 

For the CNN story, see: