Monthly Archives: January 2013

Picking Up a Truck Driver at the Oaxaca Big Box

Out in front of the largest warehouse big box retailers in Oaxaca (you will tar and feather me if I mention the name), you can usually find a truck driver willing to carry the goods you just bought to anywhere in the city or surrounding villages — for a price.  This is an essential and valuable service for someone like me who is living here without personal transportation.  But, I’d never done this before and true confession is that I had a large butterfly in my stomach.

The only choice this day was a skinny, motley looking 30-something young man in need of a shave, his red baseball cap with Drink Coors emblazoned across the front tipped at a right angle.  He was wearing faux leather and metal.  I did not feel confident. As we began negotiating the cost to bring my new bed to Teotitlan del Valle, he raised his phone to his ear to check the price with his boss. That’s when I noticed a pinky fingernail longer than a guitar pick and wondered what he used that for.  His frame was thin and his belt was pulled tight around his waist, puckering the pants material.  It was a January hot like an early North Carolina autumn, dry and clear.  I needed to stand in the shade.  We agreed on a price.  Fair, I thought.  Did I say I was confident?

I pushed on, went in to make the bed purchase with the help of Abraham my trusty Teotiteco taxi driver, and waited the 40 minutes for it to come out of the warehouse and arrive at the front door, where the Truck Driver would take over.  There, standing next to him was a robust young woman with an about three-year-old boy in tow.  My wife, he introduced her.  My fear melted.  Then, an Ah, perhaps a ploy, I thought, headline: Woman accomplice with child decoy and long finger-nailed man kidnap naive gringa in front of the You Know What.

I’m driving, she said, and climbed in behind the wheel.  I joined her in the front seat of a beat-to-death Ford whose vintage I could not name.  The windshield was a series of spider webs that refracted light through the pattern.  Four crucifixes dangled from the rear-view mirror, one adorned with pearls, another with rose quartz beads.   A decal of the chauffeur’s prayer in Spanish was stuck to the only part of the windshield that wasn’t shattered. I pulled the door closed using the half-open window.  The inside panel was peeling off and by all evidence it had lost it’s handle some time ago.  The child straddled the floor shift between us. He was crying and I pulled a quinciniera lollypop out of my bag.  The bed went into the flatbed leaning against the modified rusting metal cage.

Whew.  She’s driving to me Teotitlan and I sighed deep.  We backed out of the space and exited the lot.  Just before we pulled out onto the highway, a boy of about 15  years old jumped onto the back of the truck holding on to the cage, leaning against the bed.  In a couple of blocks we stopped for a traffic light.  A motorcycle pulled up beside us and there was the husband with the long fingernail.  She made a right turn and drove through a residential neighborhood of narrow streets lined with simple block-constructed houses, landing up in front of one of them, turned the engine off and got out.  Adios, she said with a big smile. Gulp.

In climbs husband, who proceeds to drive me to Teotitlan.  I promise to go slow he said as we rocked over the series of topes (speed bumps) on the Ferrocarril road.  I pulled out my knitting.  Breathe, I said to myself.  He talked about his father who moved to Garden Grove, California, 20 years ago, television shows that impress with images of the U.S.A. as a pastoral landscape with perfect people in perfectly clean cities driving expensive cars and living well.  We talked about the reality of those images, immigration and lifestyle and poverty and jobs as we went from hustling Oaxaca city life into the calm of the countryside.

The bed was delivered without incident, of course.  He dropped me off at my favorite Teotitlan restaurant for lunch on the way back.  I paid what we negotiated plus a good tip.  All was well in my world.

Is Oaxaca safe?  Confirmation. Yes.



Discovery: Studio for Making Art Prints in Oaxaca

Would you like to see my etchings?  A 50’s pop-cultural cliché that insinuates the seductiveness of fine art? Perhaps. Here in Oaxaca, contemporary fine art flourishes alongside traditional indigenous folk art.  Galleries line the main avenues and offer extraordinary pieces for sale to collectors.  In the support of the people who make art, I share my adventure with you.

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On a shady, tree-lined stretch of Avenida Hidalgo between Calles Libres and Xicotencatl, about five blocks from the Zocalo, is the Taller de Grabado.  Here, working with traditional printing equipment, Jesus Antonio Sanchez and his colleagues are printing etchings onto paper.  The works are created by some of Oaxaca’s most famed artists, including studio owner artist Fernando Sandoval G.

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I discovered this studio quite by serendipity.  My destination was the Zocalo and I decided to take a different route.  Setting out from Calle Libres near Murguia, I walked one block further to Hidalgo rather than making my usual right turn onto Independencia.  What captured by attention through the open window was a man working at a traditional printing press, turning the wheel by hand.  The light was beautiful. This was a great photo, I thought, and stuck my lens through the metal bars.  Then, with the motion of his hand, he invited me in.  Here I was in a world of art being created before my eyes.  It was a delight and surprise.

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The techniques they are using here are well-known in the art world:  aquatint, dry point, serigraph, sugar lift, and wood cut.  (In Spanish: punta seca, aguatinta, serigraphia, agua fuerte.)  The artist creates his/her image on copper or zinc plates, on acrylic sheets or on wood.  The printer then transforms these etchings onto paper, with the help of an acid bath, varnish and rosin.  The strength of the etched image is based on the time in the acid bath.

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To make a four-color print, the image requires four plates, one each of yellow, green, red, and brown.  The overlay of color produces a wider color range, planned in advance by the artist.

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The series of works made in the studio are numbered and signed, usually in editions of no more than 50 prints.  Then, the plates are typically destroyed.   When I noticed a pile of crumbled prints under the press, I asked what they were. Color tests, Jesus, who speaks a little English, replied.

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Then, it occurred to me that they might also have a gallery here, too, where the work is offered for sale.  And, indeed, it is.  Jesus led me into a well-lit room away from the printing area where flat drawers were filled by beautiful pieces and the walls were covered in framed prints.  The artists represented are Sergio Hernandez, Fernando Olivera, Fernando Sandoval, Eddie Martinez, and Ohioan Charlie Barth who also works in Oaxaca.

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Prices range from about 1,500 pesos to 6,000 pesos.  I’ve got my eye on one or two of these!  Perhaps someday ….

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Taller de Grabado, Fernando Sandoval G., Av. Hidalgo No. 1212, Centro Historico, Oaxaca, Mexico, Tel. 951-516-5612, email

Indigo Blue, Color of Kings: Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshop

If you are looking for hands-on instruction, a cultural immersion into natural dyes of Oaxaca, and would love to have an experience learning from the Museo Textil de Oaxaca’s director of education Eric Chavez Santiago, please contact me.  We organize programs for museums, textile guilds, fiber artists, designers and anyone wanting to know more about hand-dyeing with natural materials.

Here are some of the topics Eric talked about during the second day of a workshop we organized for Sydney, Australia’s Walter G & Company that focused on indigo dye recipes and using indigo for over-dyeing:

DyeWorkshop-34 DyeWorkshop-15Royals around the world coveted indigo as a symbol of their wealth, power and prestige.  When we think of the color royal blue, what comes to mind is an intense, deep color that saturates the fabric and draws attention to the person wearing it.  Indigo was used 6,000 years ago in Egypt, sought after by the Pharaohs who procured it from traders who traveled the tropical belt of Africa.

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Indigo is mystical, says Eric.  In Africa, dancers pray for an abundant indigo harvest to give them an abundant life.  In Puebla, Mexico, there is a traditional story that warns pregnant women not to approach an indigo dye bath.  If they do, the power of the color will disappear.  But indigo is a chemical process, says Eric, straightforward and scientific.

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Today from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Africa, to India, to El Salvador, to South Carolina, USA, over 40 different indigo plant species, some of them wild and native to each region, are cultivated for dye material, explains Eric. In Oaxaca state, the wild bush grows along the Pacific coast, is cultivated, fermented, dried into blocks, and sold to weavers and dyers, who grind it into a fine powder for use on protein fibers such as wool and silk, or on plant fibers such as cotton.  Our workshop focuses only on dyeing wool, since cotton takes much longer.

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This year, in 2012, Oaxaca had the largest harvest of indigo ever.  Over 400 pounds of dried leaves were picked.  Oaxaca’s indigo produces one of the most powerful, intense colors in the world, along with the indigo of San Salvador.  The color from India and Africa pale in comparison. This is good for local weavers who are turning to the use of indigo for its color-fast results and organic properties that ensure environmental sustainability.

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During this second day, we used an indigo recipe developed by French chemist-dyer Michel Garcia.  Eric has studied with Michel Garcia and uses his fructose-based recipe along with hydrogenated lime.  The fructose reduces the oxygen in the water, stabilizes the water, and suspends the indigo to yield a more uniform, intense color.  One only needs to stir gently with a wooden stick or fingers!

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To pulverize the rock-hard indigo, ancient dyers used a metate and mano de metate.  Today, Eric uses a coffee grinder — one for blue indigo, another for red cochineal.  He dissolves a bit of the indigo in a small sealed jar of water filled with marbles, and shakes it well.


There are many indigo dye recipes available on the Internet along with recommendations for making dye baths, so we are not going into that here.

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During the two days, we dyed a range of primary reds and yellows using cochineal and pericone.  On day two, over dyeing these colors with indigo, we were able to make a broader range of greens, oranges, browns and blacks.  All in all, the two days resulted in over 20 stunning colors — all color-fast, durable and natural.


We are happy to organize customized workshops and plan a series of open-to-anyone-interested two-day workshops starting this summer, just like we did for Walter G & Company principals Lauren Bennett and Genevieve Fennel with friends Lara Zilibowitz and Tempe McMinn.

Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshop: A Gift of Color From Mother Nature

Several months ago Australian home furnishings designer Lauren Bennett contacted me about taking a natural dye workshop in Oaxaca with her business partner Genevieve Fennel.  Lifelong friends with a passion for textiles, they started the Sydney-based company Walter G & Co. almost two years ago, importing textiles from India to market a home decor line for resale to designers and shops.  In India they work primarily with Rajasthan artisans who use indigo, saffron and madder dye.  They wanted to learn more about natural dyeing in Oaxaca with indigo, cochineal, and wild marigold, including how to ensure color stability.  Their goal was to compare techniques and processes between the two regions, become more informed, and better direct their textile business.

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In Oaxaca, there are few more knowledgeable about natural dye chemistry and applications than Eric Chavez Santiago.  As director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, Eric works with indigenous artisans to preserve the textile traditions of the state.  He  comes from a family of Zapotec weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, and early in his career developed over 100 recipes for cochineal that his father Federico Chavez Santiago uses to dye the rugs he weaves and sells at Galeria Fe y Lola in Oaxaca city.

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L to R: Tempe, Lauren, Eric, Lara, Genevieve

Lauren and Genevieve arrived this week along with two friends, Lara Zilibowitz and Tempe McMinn.  With Eric as their dye master, they rolled up their sleeves and jumped into washing, dyeing and over-dyeing wool skeins over the two days we were together.

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Eric’s teaching style is both didactic and hands-on.  He carefully explained the history of dyeing in Oaxaca, the differences between dyeing with protein (animal) and plant fibers, types of mordant, issues of toxicity, and small batch vs. production work.  He showed examples of cochineal recipes he developed that are tagged with proportions.  The two-day workshop focused only on dyeing protein fibers like wool, alpaca and silk.

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During the first day of the two-day program, we made a 10%, 20% and 70% cochineal dye bath and then did the same for the wild marigold, which is called pericone here.  You’ll see more of day two of the workshop when we made a indigo dye bath and our blue hands in a later post!

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L to R: Lauren and Genevieve

Eric explained how the pH of the dye bath and the temperature of the water are essential for a successful result.  He also demonstrated how the color of the wool  influences results.  White, beige, gray and brown wool will determine the ultimate color of the fiber when it takes the dye.  Eric shared his recipes and we were on our way dyeing skeins that he had mordanted in preparation. DyeWorkshop-10 c Norma Hawthorne DyeWorkshop-18 c Norma Hawthorne

Lauren, Genevieve, Lara and Tempe all said that Eric’s explanations and demonstrations are easy to understand and they loved being able to fully participate — hands-on.  Plus, they said, he speaks great English, so the learning experience was wonderful.  Eric offers a step-by-step approach with intermittent review of concepts so no one is left behind if the chemistry becomes a bit complicated.  He loves sharing Oaxaca’s dyeing traditions and wants people to be as excited about natural dyeing as he is.

Stay tuned!  We are planning more dye workshops. If you want a customized workshop especially for a group of people, please let me know and we will try to make it happen!

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Cochineal is native to Oaxaca and the state of Puebla.  It was tribute paid by the Zapotecs to the Aztecs.  After the conquest, the Spanish took it to Peru, which is now the largest producer of cochineal.  Cochineal is colorfast if mordanted properly.  It is very precious and costs about 1,500 pesos for a kilogram of dried bugs — that’s about $60 USD a pound.

Yellow is the least stable color to achieve, says Eric.  Without proper mordanting, it can degrade the fibers and fade. Wild marigold, native to Oaxaca, yields a strong, stable color.  Today, we worked with cochineal and pericone to get about 20 different shades based on the wool color, strength of the dye bath, and the process called overdyeing.

Next post:  indigo, king of blue, color of royalty (along with purple, which we will talk more about, too.)





The Tin Maker, Oaxaca, Mexico

Hammering designs out of tin that become frames for photographs, mirrors and paintings, treasure boxes and decorative embellishment like Frida’s winged heart, is a traditional art form in Oaxaca, Mexico.  You can find hand-hammered tin in all the markets, made with varying levels of quality.  Known as hojalata, hand-hammered tin is beautiful and lightweight.


Tools of the tin maker trade fascinate me. From a sheet of thin metal, an expert tin maker can hammer many complex designs.  One of my favorite shops is Tirso Cuevas, located at the corner of Reforma and Abasolo.  It is on the same side of the street as La Olla Restaurant and Las Bugambilias B&B, but the entrance is on Abasolo.  You actually have to stand at the barred window to ask to enter and they will come to the locked door and open it for you.

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Why?  Because they are in the corner of an old adobe casa that is in dire need of restoration.  Everything inside is a potential hazard for accident.  Walls are crumbling and some are held in place by hefty pieces of wood.  The tin makers  work on a packed dirt floor with tools helter-skelter. When I enter, I step carefully and always keep my eyes on the floor.

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I have come here many times for small gifts.  This time, I made a custom order for a large mirror for our bathroom.  It was ready, as promised in two days!  Un milagro aqui!  If you have to wait, there’s even a place to rest if you are so inclined.


Don’t let the disrepair of the location deter you.  The beauty of this shop is that they also sell works of art by well-known Oaxaca artists that they can also frame for you.  The art is primarily lithographs, seriagraphs, and woodcuts.  They are available here for much less than at other galleries in the Centro Historico.



Artesanias de Hojalata & Enmarcado de Obras de Arte, Tirso Cuevas, Abasolo 201, at the corner of Reforma, Oaxaca, 68000, Cellular 951-114-8403, email