Sheri picked us up in her white van at the pre-determined 9 a.m. hour, early by Oaxaca standards, though the streets were already abuzz with honking vehicles. Our first stop was the ATM (exchange rate 13.12 pesos to the dollar) to stock up again for the day long adventure down the Ocotlan highway. We passed the airport and headed south along the valley highway that leads to some incredible crafts villages, stopping for gas at Pemex the state-owned oil company. The earlier the better along this road because the Ocotlan market attracts people from throughout the region whose motivations are to shop for the sheer pleasure of it or for survival needs of buying and selling everything from oilcloth table coverings, hammocks, woven baskets, pipes and gaskets, kitchen utensils, leather belts, children’s plastic shoes and everything else under the sun, including live turkeys raised for market, feet bound in twine so as not to escape. The van boasted New Mexico license plates, a good fit for around these parts, although vehicles are brought down from every state in north America to be bought, sold and traded.
We circumvented the hubbub, stopping first at the three Aguilar sisters whose shops you might miss if you didn’t pay attention. They are on the right side of the road heading into Ocotlan, about three blocks before arriving at the zocalo, market central. This is true folk art at its best. Josefina sits with legs tucked under her on a padded blanket in the courtyard of her home and sales area forming figures out of soft clay that will later be fired in a kiln that may not reach more than eight hundred degrees. Grandchildren dart around playing with kittens. Sons and daughters participate in the clay forming and painting. Tourists from all corners of the earth stream in and out. This is a famous stopping place for collecting Oaxaca art, yet the prices of the pieces match the humble working and living space: smaller figures range in price from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pesos. That translates from about twelve to twenty dollars each. Collectors and dealers buy, pack and resell these figures in the U.S. for triple or quadruple the cost.
Next door, sister Irene sculpts hot women of the night and paints their hair yellow, applying blue glitter to create a dress, bosom prominent, one arm on hip, the other akimbo sporting a cigarette, a snake boa wrapped to cover cleavage (just barely). Imagination flies. A muerta, not yet painted, bares her skeletal teeth and she flaunts a haughty lilt of the head topped with a wide-brimmed hat to shade her from the strong sun. How will I get these home? I ask myself as I consider a purchase. Oh, don’t think about it, I answer silently. Go for it anyway, and I do, and because of my magic packing suitcase, everything arrives undamaged. My prize possession from Guillermina is a skeletal crone whose flowing dress is painted black. The hem is adorned with cream colored skulls, a red spider crawls along the folds of her skirt, a black shawl frames the sinister face. Dia de los Muertos is characterized by underworld forms.
Forgive me if I repeat myself. The impressions of Oaxaca are continuous revelations in memory. As we head back out of town, we make a left turn almost immediately onto the side road leading to San Antonino, where I want to relocate Don Jose Garcia, the blind potter. We go down a ways, turn right, make an immediate left at the next street and look for the clay animals that hang over the door to the courtyard that signals we have arrived. A dog barks. The door is ajar. We ring the bell and step inside to be welcomed by the family. Life-size clay figures cluster around the patio, are tucked haphazardly into corners, are laying on their sides — humans, animals, children. We are greeted by Don Jose and his wife who guide us into the workshop packed with more sculpture, wall to wall, like the clay soldiers of Xian, men, women, and children stand or kneel side by side, almost alive, waiting to be adopted and taken home.
These pieces are glorious, primitive, raw clay, unglazed. Some are rough. Some are polished. Each with a unique expression that conveys individuality and personality, a special quality that Don Jose has breathed life into as he forms the clay, braids the hair, fashions the nose, tilts the neck, arches the brow or mustache. These are heavy pieces, primitive. To ship them would require a crate and an investment of hundreds of dollars. We admire and take our leave.
Hungry, our next stop is at Azucena where Jacobo Angeles operates a fine restaurant that caters to tourists and tour buses, Elderhostel, and other forms of non-adventure travel. This is good for San Martin Tilcajete business, since Jacobo represents many of the finest carvers in the village. On this day, there is a special exhibition of regional folk art on the grounds of the restaurant and gallery, a perfect opportunity to pick up another carving, to eat and drink well, and to make a necessary bathroom stop.
We backtrack to Santo Tomas Jalieza to visit Abigail Mendoza and her family at Nicolas Bravo #1. On backstrap looms, they weave fine cloth with intricate figures that are fashioned into handbags, belts, wrist bands, table runners, and placemats. Abigail does the finish work for the rugs woven by Arnulfo Mendoza and Tito Mendoza. This is among the finest quality backstrap loom weaving you will find anywhere in the Oaxaca valley.
By now, it is five o’clock in the afternoon and the light is beginning to wane. We travel along the highway back to Oaxaca with a trunk full of goodies, ready for a fresh mango margarita and guacamole at La Olla. Descanse.
Oaxaca Mardi Gras with Jacobo and Maria Angeles
It’s Fat Tuesday, otherwise known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent. Here in Oaxaca, Mexico, we have our own version of Mardi Gras or Carnaval in the Zapotec village of San Martin Tilcajete. The people know how to put on a good party.
A group of artists, collectors and supporters of Penland School of Crafts from North Carolina are with me and certified tour guide Rene Cabrera for a week. Our time is almost over but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to write a blog post.
Our days have been packed visiting artist and textile studios, attending workshops, rising early to get to markets, and staying out much too late dining in Oaxaca’s exquisite restaurants.
Today we arrived in San Martin Tilcajete early to get a jump start on the comparsa that we were told would start at eleven in the morning. But, life in Oaxaca is on Zapotec time. The Zapotecs know that whoever controls time controls the world. In reality, the formal festivities didn’t begin until four in the afternoon.
So we shifted plans, went to the workshop home and studio of famed alebrijes carvers and painters Jacobo and Maria Angeles. What was planned to be an hour demonstration of alebrije-making techniques became a full day of watching the carvers and painters become transformed into revelers and merrymakers.
Jacobo and Maria welcomed us and invited us to stay. They are warm and hospitable people, the largest employer of talented painters and carvers in their village and do so much to promote the artisans of the village and Oaxaca.
After lunch — anyone for a tlayuda? — several of our more courageous Penland participants were invited to join in the face and body painting to become part of Jacobo and Maria’s comparsa entourage.
We then followed them down village streets, costumes with cow bells clanging, voices ringing in shouts, cheers and grunts, breaths panting, dust kicking up under our feet.
It was ninety degrees fahrenheit in Oaxaca today and this was no easy task, keeping up with young men painted to the nines and ready to party. We sucked a lot of water to stay hydrated and pulled sun hats down over our faces in protection.
The smarter villagers huddled in the shade of their doorways to watch the revelers shout and clang up and down the streets.
I’ve got a lot of catching up to do to keep you up to date. This week we did an indigo dye workshop and made shibori scarves, took a cooking class and made mole amarillo, visited San Pablo Villa de Mitla archeological site and entered the inner sanctum of Oaxaca artist Rudolfo Morales’ bedroom and studio. We met painters and lithographers, learned about Oaxaca’s contemporary art scene, and tried our hand at making a woodcut. With a mezcal tasting, we learned about this Oaxaca art form and how this artisanal beverage is crafted.
On Thursday, seven of us will be continuing on to San Cristobal de Las Casas to explore the art and archeology of that wonderful region. More to come!
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Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Photography, Travel & Tourism, Workshops and Retreats
Tagged art, Carnival, course, Jacobo and Maria Angeles, Mardi Gras, Penland School of Crafts, photography, San Martin Tilcajete, study tour, tourism, travel, workshop