Category Archives: Oaxaca Mexico art and culture

Indigo Blue: Old Japanese Cloth–Shuko’s Gift

Shuko Clouse went to Japan to visit family in early summer. She travels with me in Mexico. We have a cross-cultural appreciation for cloth. When I saw her at her Los Angeles home in July, she presented me with a treasure — a piece of old indigo cloth she had picked up along the way. It was brittle. It was minimally repaired in two areas with sashiko stitches and boro patches.

My first pass at the repair work to save the missing threads

There were holes and tears. One corner had totally degraded and looked as if it had been chewed by mice. The cloth had turned transparent and white where it must have been kept folded and stored away for years. There were stains, perhaps the sweat of toil or perhaps used to wipe an oil spill. It was the discoloration of life.

Original repair on Shuko’s gift of old indigo cloth

This is the Japanese meditation of Wabi-Sabi, that nothing is perfect and in this imperfection is the most sublime beauty. The minimalist aesthetic of this philosophy resonates. In Abiquiu, Georgia O’Keeffe practiced less is more with the absence of collections, focusing on emptiness, light, space and landscape.

I thanked Shuko for this amazing gift of ancient culture, history and textile reverence. I fingered the threads and then wrapped the cloth gently to tuck away into my luggage to carry with me to North Carolina.

What I have to work with — indigo scraps and yarn

At the end of my first week of being here, being quiet and introspective, I pull out the cloth and begin to let it speak to me. What shall I do to resuscitate it? What will it take to bring it back to life? In thinking about the repairing of what is fragile, I pull out my small stash of Japanese indigo scraps I bought in Kyoto in May. Now, I think, I should have gotten more. I have indigo-dyed 4-ply hand-spun Oaxaca cotton yarn to work with, too.

I think about the boro cloth I saw in Tokyo and examine the few sashiko stitches of repair on what lays before me. I’ve watched YouTube videos and did a minor knee patch on a pair of jeans last year. Maybe I can make this up as I go along, following the primitive, beautiful inspiration of the Aomori Prefecture in the northernmost region of Japan.

Amuse Museum boro exhibition, layers of repaired cloth added to over generations

Is it ethical to use anything else except Japanese indigo-dyed cotton or hemp scraps? I have leftovers from an African tie-dye dressmaking project. I’m still debating as I use up the few Japanese pieces I have. I’m not a certified textile restoration expert, so perhaps, in the end it doesn’t matter. But I want to respect the origins of this cloth.

The underside of the patch — or boroboro — considered a Japanese art form now

My friend, Sheri Brautigam who operates Living Textiles of Mexico and sells indigo-dyed Oaxaca textiles on her Etsy shop, tells me that all things indigo are flying out the door. Remigio Mestas, our well-respected curator of Oaxaca and Mexican-made indigenous clothing, recently opened Los Baules Remigio in San Miguel de Allende where indigo plays front and center. Many of you know his Oaxaca shop, Los Baules de Juana Cata.

Holes and frayed warp/weft. My first stitches to hold the repair together.

My 4-ply yarn is too thick for the delicate fabric and I separate it into 2-ply lengths. I carefully iron the textile to smooth out the folds and bunched up frayed edges. It is a reverent act of appreciation. I choose my patching pieces and set needle and thread to the rhythm of a running stitch. Even though I mark the cloth with tailor chalk, my spacing isn’t perfect. That is okay. We are making art, here. We are saving something worthwhile.

The underbelly of the original repair. Who did this work, when and why?

The work is painstakingly slow. I converted the loft bedroom into the project space and moved sleeping area to the main level. Upstairs, I hunch over an old, 1930’s era large oak kitchen table I bought in western Pennsylvania almost fifty years ago. An overhead fan moves the still air. I take a break in the cane rocker I bought when my 46-year old son was born. Memory is important.

Is this brittle old cloth worth salvaging in our disposable, replaceable lifestyle?

This is a project to savor, to approach with intention, to consider which direction the stitches will lay. They form a quilt and a patchwork. I think about the clothing of necessity, the repeated repairs to keep people clothed and warm in climates of serve deprivation.

Oaxaca hand-spun indigo dyed cotton, with cochineal + coyuchi, size S-M, $350 USD, + mailing

In this process, I think about the women I know in remote Oaxaca villages who card and spin, then dye cotton with indigo. I appreciate the labor it takes to make beauty and what we share across cultures. When my Oaxaca indigo wears thin, I intend to repair it, too.

A few pieces of old Japanese indigo cloth I have to work with

In my own closet I am noticing a preponderance of blue as I turn to the natural dye that guides me through Oaxaca and around the world. To follow the indigo trail is to discover how humans adapted and applied color to brighten their lives.

New indigo and red oak dyed shawl, Oaxaca’s, Mixteca region, from Remigio Mestas

What will I do with this piece of cloth when it is finished? Perhaps it will be worthy of hanging, worthy of occupying scarce space.

Making a patchwork of stitches

Oaxaca Journal: Traveling with Oliver Sacks

This is a book review, of sorts. Perhaps it’s my own journal of movement and re-discovery both internal and external. The Time Machine of air travel took me from Oaxaca to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Huntington Beach, California, now to land in Durham, North Carolina. I also call North Carolina home though I spend most of the year in Oaxaca. After three weeks on the road to visit friends and family, I am now taking time to chill and to read.

Sierra Juarez detail of bark and moss

I return to Mexico on October 16 for the start of an immersion weekend Art History Tour of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City. There is ONE space open. Then, on October 21, I return to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, to prepare for our Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat: How Memory Inspires Us. There are TWO SPACES (shared room) open for this program.

To and fro at the Tlacolula Market

True Confession: I never read Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, who fell in love with Oaxaca in 2001 when he went with the New York City fern society to venture into the desert and cloud forests in search of rare species. The book was published in 2002.

Ferns per se aren’t my thing. But Oaxaca is. So, my friend Jenny, who read it three times, brought her copy to me in Santa Fe and here I am, telling you about it.

Sierra Juarez landscape. There are ferns in there.

This is a quick read. Entertaining and informative. After living in Oaxaca for almost 14 years, I am taken with a sense of new discovery of place and a reminder about how important it is to pay attention to the familiar — it’s so easy to take in the sweeping view instead of noticing the fine details. When we move too fast, we miss so much.

It’s like taking a close-up photo — you have to crouch down, bend your knees, get your eye focused on the particular, the micro, to appreciate its beauty. Oliver Sacks reminds me to slow down. Throughout the book, he talks about how he and his fellow travelers use a microscope to examine the underside of fern fronds to understand the biology of life. I take this as an instructive metaphor. In the process of looking for one particular thing it is possible to see others heretofore unknown.

Hone in, get close, examine the detail and contrast

Critics delight in this book, which they call the work of travel writing. Sacks died in 2015 at age 82, but he lives with us through his insights. He is a role model for inquisitiveness and curiosity, experimenting with the joys of life.

As I follow Oliver Sacks around Oaxaca to familiar places, I am struck by how it was in 2001 and how it is now in 2019, years later, and how things change and don’t. Read 1970’s accounts of rutted, dirt roads in Teotitlan del Valle, and you don’t recognize the place today.

Cochineal over-dyes wild marigold churro wool yarn

Then and Now. Do’s and Don’ts.

  • Take the road to the Sierra Juarez where biodiversity yields cloud forest, mushrooms, ferns, bromeliads and steep hiking trails at 10,000+ feet
  • Compare the simplicity then and sophistication now of mezcal making and big business, bringing great wealth to the Oaxaca valley
  • Assume a naive perspective of culture, people and place with one or two visits, and the propensity to romanticize lifestyle so different from our own
  • See the grandeur and importance of Zapotec civilization in Mesoamerica by visiting Monte Alban, Yagul and Mitla to gain respect for indigenous people
  • Project your own desires, wishes and beliefs as you yearn for a simpler life
Cochineal rug on the loom, Teotitlan del Valle, Galeria Fe y Lola

Sacks visits Teotitlan del Valle with his group to see the rug weaving and natural dyeing process. See page 115 in the book. In 2001, there were few families working in natural dyes and it is understandable that a guide would take them to visit the most famous weaver of the time, Isaac Vasquez Garcia, The Bug in the Rug. The New York Times mentions him in a 1988 print story, Wall Hangings From Oaxaca, now digitized. You will see how demand and time has changed the pricing.

When I arrived in Teotitlan in 2005, I was determined to find a weaver working in natural dyes who had not yet been discovered. Fame, I think, has a way of changing people, pricing, production and products. I didn’t go with a guide, so I set out to explore the village on my own by foot, to compare weaving quality and ascertain the visual difference between natural and commercial dyes. That is how I met the Chavez Santiago Family to start my Teotitlan del Valle adventure. They now run Galeria Fe y Lola.

Cochineal bug, dried. Grinding cochineal and indigo for dye bath.

It is easy, when one doesn’t speak Spanish, to misunderstand, misinterpret, what is said. Sacks reports that Isaac Vasquez and his family produced all the cochineal from their nopal cactus to dye the rugs. This is impossible. It takes thousands of bugs to make a dye vat. Dried cochineal is purchased, then and now. Peru and the Canary Islands are the largest producers. There is a Oaxaca cochineal farm now to supply local demand but there is not enough produced for export.

Indigo dye pot, complex oxidization process requires expertise

Sacks reports that weavers in the village had a deep knowledge of dyeing. At the time only a handful of weavers used natural dyes. Everyone knew how to use the one-step, easy process of making a chemical dye.

Cochineal parasite on prickly pear cactus host yields carminic acid

Now, perhaps a dozen families use natural dyes. I like to promote all of them. It’s a worthy endeavor. It is an expensive and chemically complex process. Yet, everyone knows how to give a cochineal dye demonstration that includes squeezing the bug on the palm of a hand, changing the color with lime juice or baking soda. Ask to see the dye pots before jumping to conclusions!

Monte Alban, the detail
Monte Alban, the long view

Sacks is expansive in his Oaxaca Journal. He talks about astronomy of the ancients, the cuisine of bugs and mole, cultural competency, the traditional and modern, hanging out on the Zocalo, Hierve el Agua and calcified waterfalls, the magic of tianguis street markets and more.

Hierve el Agua. In 8,000 years, perhaps only the bathing suits have changed.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this. It’s been on my reading list for a decade. If you are returning to Oaxaca or making a first trip, I highly recommend this read. The page-turner took me two days! The impact reinforced the messages of living.

Jeweler’s Studio: Kewa-Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico

Under the Palace of the Governors portal sit Native American artisans, displaying their craft. They may sit on small camp stools or cross-legged on a blanket waiting for us. Their hang tags tell their name, their pueblo, and authenticate what they sell. This is a juried system.

The portal at the Palace of the Governors calls to me because it is a place of discovery. I have spoken with gallery owners in Taos and Santa Fe who tell me they found artisans they represent here along this arcade. A keen eye can differentiate quality

This Warren Nieto pendant is for sale. $185.

Who is able to sell each day is based on a lottery. Just as I visit artisan studios throughout Mexico to understand the craftsmanship and to create connection, when I find someone who makes something extraordinary, I want to know more. To see how something is made is to understand the calculus of time and materials, passion, art and history. This is how we put value on something handmade.

Warren and his son in the studio

It’s more than that. To see how people live and work, to meet their families, to understand their culture and origins, hear who they learned from and appreciate the traditions of creativity, gives added meaning to the experience. It becomes more than shopping. It is the next level to an ancient practice of sharing, bartering, collaboration and respect.

The swirls are inlaid slices of shell
A pile turquoise, mother-of-pearl, apple coral, spiny oyster, river shell, jet (fossilized coal)

We got to the Plaza early that day, before 9:30 a.m. Leslie spotted Warren Nieto first, noticed his fine heishi beadwork and mosaic inlay. His thunderbird design earrings were perfectly executed. There were three pair, one for her, one for Kaola and one for me. We struck a bargain for the three and paid cash. I asked if we could visit his studio to see how he constructed his pieces and get a demonstration. We set a day and time.

Warren Nieto’s Thunderbird Earrings, NFS
Fossilized stone with shell impression

Eugene Sanchez was also at the Palace portal that day. I didn’t recognize him but I recognized the fine, tiny pieces of gemstone inlay work I bought from his wife Georgia two years ago. I asked him if we could visit, too.

Eugene and Georgia Sanchez earrings and Thunderbird necklace, NFS
Eugene Sanchez and granddaughter

Eugene’s story is not unique. He’s a military veteran. He worked construction in northern California, had a back injury and returned to his family roots to revive their Native American jewelry making. He learned from his grandmother and father. The work is extraordinary.

Warren’s unfinished work — in the rough

I had traveled the Rio Grande River Valley pueblos in the 1970’s, but had never visited the Kewa (Santo Domingo) village. I was more interested in pottery then. This would be an adventure. We drove south on I-25 for about 40 minutes and then turned off to head west. In the distance, beyond the vast sand-colored desert was a ribbon of green cottonwood where the river flowed fast. Summer rains and winter snow melts ensure an abundance of water.

Raw materials: spiny oyster and caracol shells

Warren Nieto lives with his family in a new modular home behind a vacant trading post, a vestige of the old west and tourism dream that didn’t materialize. He worked carpentry and framing before he returned to the craft he earned from his family. He’s 32 years old.

We were told to respect what your grandparents taught you, he says. Growing up, I learned to make heishi beads and tend the corn fields. We were taught that jewelry making was something to come back to. I do it to create something that others appreciate and value.

Warren speaks Keres to his son, who hovers nearby. This is an ancient language, he explains, and he’s not worried about losing it. The Kewa people adhere to tradition. He says its linguistic roots are Aztec (Nahuatl). I tell him common belief is that the Aztecs came from the north into what is now Mexico in search of a fertile land where the eagle would perch on a cactus, overcome the serpent and lead them to water. Is it likely they originated from this part of New Mexico?

I am organizing a 2020 folk art study tour into the tribal areas of New Mexico with Sheri Brautigam, who lives in Santa Fe. We will visit a curated group of jewelers, weavers and potters, and attend a Native American festival. If you are interested in joining us, please send me an email so I can add you to the announcement list: email norma.schafer@icloud.com

Native American Jewelry Making — Ancient Art of Identity

The tombs of Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec civilization perched atop a mountain in Oaxaca, Mexico, revealed, when excavated, unparalleled Mesoamerican gold metal smithing, stone and beadwork. For many of us who live in Oaxaca or visit there, we become attached to filigree work in traditional designs brought to Mexico via the Moors who taught the Spanish this intricate technique.

I’m offering Oaxaca and New Mexico jewelry for sale from my collection. If you are interested, please indicate by number and send me an email norma.schafer@icloud.com with your mailing address. I will add $10 USD to mail within US and $28 USD to mail to Canada to invoice.

SOLD. #1. Large mosaic pin/pendant, 3″ x 1-3/8″, Mary Tafoya, Santo Domingo Pueblo, $295

Throughout the Americas adornment was and continues to be a symbol of tribal identity and pride. Distinct styles developed which continue today, made by makers who live along the Rio Grande River Valley of New Mexico, and Navajo and Hopi groups who inhabit the mesas and desert of western New Mexico and northern Arizona.

Silversmithing techniques migrated from Mexico to the Southwest, where these techniques were taught to Native Americans. Horsemen need spurs, bridles, belt buckles and bolo ties. Women need earrings, necklaces and rings.

Necklaces and pendants were fashioned from hand-drilled, cut and polished stones, shells, animal teeth, fossilized plant materials, and wood.

#2 Heshi rope and feathers by Ray Coriz, 16″, $295

To visit Santa Fe is to go back into this history for me. It is a personal history, too. One of migration along the Santa Fe Trail, traveling Old Route 66, and our own family’s trek from the Midwest to California in the early 1950’s.

Every day, Native American jewelry makers and artisans sit under the Palace of the Governors portal on the Santa Fe Plaza. Every day, based on lottery, a lucky few can spread their blankets and display their work. This is like attending a juried show. Each vendor is licensed and must adhere to strict quality guidelines to sell here. I’m drawn to this place for many reasons.

#3 Yalalag Cross, Oaxaca, 22″ handmade with milagros, sterling silver, $895 USD

I’m going back to the memory of our stop in Albuquerque after two days of travel on the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Super Chief in September 1953, on our way to resettle in Los Angeles. I was young, my sister a toddler, our mom cautious. There were Indians sitting cross-legged on blankets as we stepped onto the platform. Laid out before them was silver and turquoise jewelry, blankets, ceramics, trinkets. Were they wearing buckskin and feathered headdresses? I can only imagine. It was the time of Wild West romanticism, Cowboys and Indians, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Hopalong Cassidy.

#4 Oaxaca filigree by Grand Master Jose Jorge Garcia, $185 USD

I was curious. Our mom shooed us into the dining room and then back to the train. It’s likely we passed by Fred Harvey bracelets, real Navajo blankets, tooled leather belts, Hopi pottery, Zuni petit point, squash blossom necklaces: Native American jewelry we dream about today.

SOLD. #5 Zuni vintage petit point necklace, 15″. $145

As mom and daughters traveled west by train, our dad drove the Plymouth station wagon along Route 66, pulling a small tarp-covered trailer through the desert, a water bottle hanging from the front grill. The manual shifter was on the steering column. Only he could drive it. He later became a huge admirer of Maria Martinez, the famed black pottery maker from San Ildefonso Pueblo, attempting her iconic style.

#6 Oaxaca coral and sterling silver milagro necklace, 20″ — $495

I’m taking you back to Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors. Here is an opportunity to meet artisans, talk with and buy directly from them. Many come from miles away. Navajo silversmiths will travel from Gallup, NM. They might do other things, like teach school or repair cars or serve as tribal administrators. Sometimes, a family member like a mother, father or brother, might sell in their stead.

#7 Inlaid Mosaic Pendant by Warren Nieto, shell, turquoise, mother of pearl, silver. $155 USD

If you are adventuresome, like me, you might strike up a conversation and ask to visit a home and workshop. Many live within a two-hour radius. That’s how I got to the Santo Domingo Pueblo to see where Warren Nieto lives and creates.

#8 Flora Maria Mexican Designer, amethyst + moonstone, sterling earrings, $165 USD

I’m considering organizing a September 2020 folk art study tour of northern New Mexico, based in Santa Fe or environs. This could include visits to Native American jewelry makers, weavers and potteries. We will also include a Native American Feast Day. This feels like a good fit with my love of indigenous arts and my desire to directly support native artisans, as we learn about life, culture, craft and continuity. If you are interest in knowing more as I develop this program with Sheri Brautigam, please send me a note to add you to the list of interested people. norma.schafer@icloud.com

Vast Austerity of Landscape: Speaking of (New) Mexico and Georgia O’Keeffe

I’m in New Mexico and hour north of Santa Fe in the village of Abiquiu, where painter Georgia O’Keeffe reconstructed a dilapidated adobe, converting it into a winter home of extraordinary minimalism. She would have been at home in the living simply movement of modernity. One could also say she shaped it.

View from O’Keeffe’s bedroom window

Here in Nuevo Mexico, thinking of Mexico is unavoidable. The vast, expansive, unending landscape of desert, scrub oak, sage and cactus always brings me back to the root of native Americans, of indigenous First Nation peoples, to New Spain and the conquest, to the land that was once an integral part of Mexico. Place names call out original Hispanic settlers, land grants. Tribal communities draw parallels to Mexican pueblos where creativity thrives and hardship is an undercurrent.

Hollyhock seed dispersal, random regeneration against adobe wall

The land stretches out in folds, crevices, upheavals, arroyos, twelve thousand foot mountain ranges. It is dry and hot in July. It is getting drier and hotter. Afternoon thunder clouds build up and in the distant purple hills, I see rods of lightening and the softening horizon of rain. Along the green ribbon Rio Grande River Valley ancient peoples who migrated south from Mesa Verde continue their traditions.

An iconic O’Keeffe image

We are not permitted to photograph the interior of the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio in Abiquiu. We are not permitted to take photos of the interior through the glass picture windows while standing outside. The home is as it was when she left it, each particular and well-chosen item in its particular place. Each item a sculptural statement, most created by icons of modern furniture design.

Weathered and dry, reminding me of parched skin

The walls are pale mushroom or cream or beige or faded salmon. They are thick adobe. Deep and cool. Through the window is a living painting. The walls are barren. Bare. Empty only to the imagination of what might lay beyond. The vast changing of the sky, the season, the chill or warmth of air. One can imagine the isolation and solitude of living there amidst the expansiveness of the hills, mountains, a ribbon of road, eagles soaring on the thermals, a garden to feed and nurture belly and soul.

Hollyhocks, fruit trees, vegetable gardens at Abiquiu
Beware of Dog

The palette at the O’Keeffe house in Abiquiu is neutral. White cotton covers the kitchen sofa. The kitchen faces north, the light preferred by painters, the guide tells us. The windows are huge. Standard Sears metal cabinets disappear recessed into deep adobe walls. The table is simple whitewashed plywood that sits atop sawhorses, worn smooth with use and age. Nature and living space merge.

She painted this doorway and wall … multiple times
Passages connecting patios, studio and home

Throughout the house the naked walls speak — nothing is necessary. A painter’s easel served as coat rack when she turned from painting to making ceramic vessels.

Unmarked in the La Fonda lobby, I recognize this as O’Keeffe
Weathered to a patina

Details complicate things, she said. To become acquainted with an idea, one must revisit the same subject over and over. Her paintings took on the austere minimalist life she lived. Seeing this, hearing this, reminded me of the traveling exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, I saw in Winston-Salem, NC, at Reynolda House, that included a dress that she designed and sewed into multiple versions using different fabrics and colors.

St. Thomas the Apostle Church, built atop pre-Puebloan Tewa Indian village

Being there also challenges one to revisit lifestyle and think about how we are acculturated to consume, compete and communicate. I am always grateful for these moments of self-reflection to ask the essential question: Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? Being with O’Keeffe in Abiquiu helps in the continuing process of self-reflection.

Adobe ruins, Abiquiu, around the corner from O’Keeffe home
Inside the Spanish colonial church, Abiquiu