Tag Archives: sustainable development

Oaxaca Art Glass Studio Tour: Recycled Beauty Makeover

It’s definitely ugly out there at the industrial park in Magdalena Apasco Etla, Oaxaca, where the experimental glass studio Xaquixe is located. A mound of empty bottles — clear, brown and green — sits at the far end of the property, waiting to be broken up, melted and shaped.

Xaquixe art glass goblets in various sizes, colors

Xaquixe art glass drinking vessels in various sizes, colors, imperfect beauty

There’s a two-story metal silo where organic waste cooks in an experimental process to produce gases that can be used to fuel the furnaces. Rusted metal parts sit to the side waiting for repurposing.

Experiments in glass and creating fuel from organic waste

Experiments in glass and creating fuel from organic waste

This is also a place of beauty, literally and metaphorically. There is always a new project under construction to develop better fuel-efficient ways to produce gorgeous art glass in a socially and environmentally conscious way. Many call this sustainable development.


Making recycled glass with discarded cooking oil that is converted to heat is how experiment takes on new meaning.  Xaquixe founders Christopher Thornton and Salime Harp Cruces are dedicated to continuing process improvement and finding a more efficient, cheaper fuel source.

Solar might be the answer, but they don’t want to use photovoltaic panels since these can’t easily be recycled at the end of their useful life, says our tour guide Salvador Pulido Arroyo as he points to a shiny metal rotating array planted close-by.

Salvador, who is from Michoacan and has a degree in industrial design from IBERO, explains (in perfect English) that Xaquixe is experimenting with concave panels of aluminum that can absorb the sun’s energy and convert it differently. Sometimes experiments like this succeed. Often they fail. They always take an investment of money, time and creativity.


What keeps Xaquixe going strong is its commitment to innovation and design. It is the only glass studio in southern Mexico and serves as a role model for start-ups world-wide who want to adopt similar production strategies.

Christian Thornton explains Francisco Toledo art glass project to visitors

I signed up, along with nine other people, for this tour with Mariana Rivera, the delightful manager of the Xaquixe-Christian Thornton Gallery on 5 de Mayo (in the first block next to Santo Domingo Church), between Constitucion and Abasolo.  Mariana organizes these visits to the factory periodically as a way to educate people.


Animal skull with glass eye sits atop furnace

Xaquixe is devoted to education. As part of their factory remodeling they are creating an educational center where business and conservation practices can be learned as part of a visiting artists residency program.

In addition to making beautiful mouth blown and molded glass vessels for drinking and containing our favorite local liquid (mezcal), Christian works with Mexican painter, sculptor and graphic artist Francisco Toledo to build major one-of-a-kind installations.


Today, Christian was making wax molds to form a Toledo commission for a private client. He explained that he will spoon the molten glass into the mold and use the lost wax casting technique. See the wax chicken feet, below?


One benefit of going on the tour this week was to enjoy a big discount on seconds. There were lots to choose from. If you go out to the factory independently, from time to time you might also find seconds to buy. (Stop by and ask Mariana when the next tour is scheduled. It’s 300 pesos per person.)


Of course, it’s much easier to get to the gallery in the city where you will find drinking and mezcal glasses, big beautiful blown glass jars, pitchers, vases, dishes and sculpture in an array of magical colors — all made from broken glass shards melted and reformed.

Mariana Rivera leads the tour from gallery to factory

Mariana Rivera leads the tour from gallery to factory








Sleek, Functional Contemporary Oaxaca Pottery with Classical Influences: Innovating Tradition

Oaxaca’s cultural identity is defined, in part, by her ceramic arts. For thousands of years before the Spanish conquest, indigenous artisans were giving shape to local clay to form functional cooking and eating vessels, images of dieties for worship and jewelry for personal adornment.

1050 Pottery Final-4 1050 Pottery Final-5

Now, after six years of operating from various temporary locations, La Tiendita del Barro/1050 grados and Innovando la Tradicion recently opened a gallery to promote its ceramic arts cooperative and new eco-tourism program. It is located at the corner of  plaza de la cruz de piedra, Rufino Tamayo 800-C and Xolotl, near the 16th century aqueducts and Calle Garcia Virgil.

1050 Pottery Final-8 1050 Pottery Final

I want to say that this is social entrepreneurism, activist art. The program, developed by talented young Oaxaqueños, is committed to sustainable development.  Here you will find stunning pottery that satisfies both a classical and contemporary aesthetic. The work is sculptural and refined, smooth and simple. Emphasis is on form followed by function. The result is timeless beauty. The cookware and serving pieces are lead-free and can be used over a gas burner or in the oven.

1050 Pottery Final-3 1050 Pottery Final-7

If you’ve never seen a Oaxaca potter at work, here’s a video of a traditional technique:

Rufina Ruiz haciendo una chilmolera from Innovando la Tradición on Vimeo.

Innovando la Tradicion is organizing half-day public tours to various villages, where visitors will meet potters, participate in hands-on demonstrations, and have an opportunity to buy directly from the artisans. Artisans receive 50% of the participant fees that go toward improving their workshop/studio space. The rest goes toward program administration.

                 Join Norma’s Pottery Tour with Innovando la Tradicion                                 Monday, January 5, 2015, Cost: 629 MXN pesos

I can’t participate in any of the January public programs already scheduled and I really want to go on this tour.  So, I’m inviting YOU to join me for a private tour on January 5.  Are you interested?  Send me an email. All the funds go directly to Innovando la Tradicion and I will send you registration information as soon as I hear from you!  Space for 5 people. Reserve before December 15.

1050 Mezcal Cups


Oaxaca Portrait Photography Workshop starts January 30. Join us!

Puech Ikots (Words of Our People) Collective Brings Economic Hope to Oaxaca’s Remote Highlands

Jenny Smith and I bumped into each other online.  Virtual worlds connecting, so to speak.  There was a strange name linked to hers:  “Puech Ikots.”  It peaked my curiosity and I discovered this artisans collective making alebrijes (fanciful carved and painted wood figures) in the remote mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur.  That presented a whole world to discover and started our dialog.

Anteater by Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, $250

Here is the story about Puech Ikots in the form of Q & A.

Note:  To inquire about sizes and to purchase contact Jenny Smith.  If you have trouble with the link copy and paste this:  jmsmith325@gmail.com

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator: How did Puech Ikots get started and why?

Jenny: Puech Ikots means “words of our people” in the Huave language of Oaxaca. Carlos Orozco, my co-facilitator in the project, is an indigenous Oaxacan of Huave descent.  The project was created by Carlos with my help in 2009.  Our goal is to contribute to the self-determination and economic independence of indigenous artists in Oaxaca, while also giving them the opportunity to develop their craft.  We also want to promote Oaxacan art and culture to the American public in general.  As the translation of Puech Ikots’ name suggests, we feel that the art of Oaxaca is one of the purest forms of expressing the spirit of the place and its people.

White Puma by Patricio Melchor, $175

OCN:  Who is involved with it in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Carlos Orozco directs the project in Oaxaca.  He is an artist, musician, and cultural activist.  The membership of the collective has been fluid.  Right now we have a core membership of six artists who are very committed to the collective.  Over the past couple of years we’ve worked with about a dozen people total.  Historically, we haven’t been limited to one place — we have worked with artists from various locations in Oaxaca state.  Carlos is based in Oaxaca City but regularly travels to remote areas of the Oaxacan Sierra to meet new artists and tell them about the collective. Members are welcome to join or leave at any time; the collective is always open to new members.  The only requirement (as such) for participating is that the artist should live in an area where he/she does not have easy access to traditional tourist markets.

OCN:  Who is involved with it in the States?

Jenny: I am the facilitator and contact person in the USA (Chicago).  Our fiscal sponsor here is the Cuentos Foundation, which is a 501c3 dedicated to fostering cultural understanding and expression through art.  I am part of the board of directors of Cuentos.  The foundation itself is not part of the Puech Ikots project, but we work together on events and we’re grateful for their support.

Seahorse, $200

OCN: Why are you involved?  What motivated you?

Jenny: I loved Oaxaca from the first time I visited in 2008.  I met Carlos during that trip and we became good friends.  He had the original idea for a fair trade/cultural exchange artistic project, and over the course of a year we developed this idea.  I was, and still am, very excited to be a part of it.  I have a strong personal commitment to the concept of fair trade.  It’s also important to me to support initiatives that are local and indigenous-directed.  So for me, supporting these talented people in this organization is an act of solidarity. Puech Ikots is non-hierarchical and based on a “usos y costumbres” model, so decisions in the collective are made by consensus and all collective members have a voice.

OCN: Where is this particular village located in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Sierra de San Pedro Mixtepec is about four to five hours from Ocotlan via pick-up truck.  You can experience a bit of the drive in the YouTube video.  However as I said before, we work with artists in other places as well.

Purple Frog by Patricio Melchor, $200

Porcupine by Jose Hernandez, $300

OCN: How is it different from San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola, the two most famous wood carving villages?

Jenny: Puech Ikots specifically focuses on artists who do not have access to traditional tourist markets such as San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola. We developed the project for this purpose.  We want to support these artists by facilitating their ability to preserve and develop their cultural heritage while also making a living. Puech Ikots alebrijes are sold at prices the artists determine to be fair.  The proceeds are then returned to the members of the collective.  We feel that this is fair trade in its most direct, grassroots form.

OCN:  How does the relationship with the artists work?

Jenny: We do not pay for the art up front.  The artists give their work to Carlos who give it to me to sell in Chicago and I return the money to the community.  There is an enormous relationship of trust in this relationship that is very humbling.  This is thanks to Carlos’ reputation and effort in working in indigenous communities. Carlos and I do not keep any of the profits.  We barely make enough to cover administrative costs (postage, publicity, fees for entering art events, etc).

We are working on addressing issues of sustainability with this model, however.  This is our major challenge right now.  Carlos and I manage the project ourselves, and unfortunately don’t have the resources to pay for the art up front. This means the artists have to wait — sometimes quite a while — to get paid.  The artists know this when they enter the collective, but it can be very frustrating for them when sales are slow.  Some have chosen to leave the collective because they were uncomfortable with the uncertainty.  Carlos and I are working on trying to get cash reserves to be able to pay the artists right away, but it’s difficult.

OCN:  What do you dream about accomplishing?

Jenny: In addition, we also want to pursue cultural programming in Chicago.  We had an event last month at an art gallery in Chicago where I presented video footage of the collective and talked about Puech Ikots, and it was very well received.  We’d like to have artistic events/workshops here too.  Our 2011 goal  is to compile all the video footage we have into a short documentary.  One long-term dream we have is to open a Puech Ikots taller (workshop) somewhere in Oaxaca, where our artists can have a space to work.   We feel that we’ve accomplished a lot in a short time, but there are still so many things we’d like to do!  Really, when we started this project we had no idea where it would take us.  So it’s been very exciting for us to see that there is a lot of interest.

Blue Ram, $175


See the Web site:  www.puechikots.com

Here is a video about the project.  Featured are Patricio Melchor, his wife Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, and his grandmother, along with Puech Ikots co-facilitator Carlos Orozco.


To learn more about Puech Ikots and how you might help, contact Jenny Smith.

You can also find out more about the Cuentos Foundation at www.cuentosfoundation.org


Teotitlan Women’s Project: A Letter From Annie Burns

I have asked Annie if she would give me permission to publish her letter, which she did, happily. I am sharing it with you.


Dear Friends and Family,

Well, this was a blessed Christmas in Teotitlan del Valle. Your donations rang up to nearly a thousand dollars, which comes to about 11,000 pesos. That goes a long way in a rural village. Plus, 12 brand new dresses arrived for young girls.

First, the dresses. I picked them up on Christmas Eve, just in time to get the gift bags under the Christmas tree. My strategy was to place the shiny new bags with tissue paper in them and a Christmas card, but no dress. . . . .just a note instructing the young girls to come to my house to choose a dress. Sure enough, early Christmas morning, Jazmine, Rocio and Esthercita appeared with their empty bags, ready for “shopping”. I left them alone with the dresses and a mirror. After a great long while and much giggling, they appeared in their new outfits.

Then Jazmine and I went to Edith’s home and had a nice cup of hot chocolate. Jazmine took Edith and the bag of dresses into another room for Edith’s selection. Edith joined us to go to Cecilia’s home, then Lola’s, Laura’s, Gabriella’s, Mariana’s and El Pidia’s. We were giddy with Christmas spirit.

Next, the bano seco, which means “dry bathroom”. I’ll be sending pictures soon, so you can see what it looks like. My neighbors, Esther and Rusio, and their 3 girls are delighted to receive the gift of a bano seco for their family. Rusio is especially proud of the new design that he came up with. It is more efficient and less expensive! The girls will help with the last step in the construction, which involves cleaning the bamboo for the walls.

Finally, we have groceries. Lola, who is 10 years old, does not speak more than a few words. She is a happy child, and loves to play with her cousins. You will see her photo in the mailing that I am sending to you. She is a beautiful, smiling child. Her mother, Isabelle also does not speak. We don’t know why. Isabelle’s sister, Lydia, cares for the two of them. Our project will buy groceries for this family once a month. They were filled with gratitude to learn of this, and eagerly made out their list of basic supplies.

We will also buy groceries for two elderly couples who are visually disabled. We helped them last year, and want to continue our support.

Other good news: Esther, who received a loom last year from our project is now a successful business woman. She is selling her weavings, which she makes into gorgeous pillows. I’m travelling around the USA and Canada this year, and will be selling Esther’s pillows, as well as another weaver’s, Chela. They are both beaming with pride at their new and unexpected income earning potential.

Other news from last year’s recipients: Josefina is now the successful proprietor of a Bed and Breakfast, Las Granadas. (Granadas are pomegranites, which are prolific in her patio). Antonia was the hostess for the village posada for Christmas. How do I describe what this means??? She hosted the images of Mary and Joseph on the first of 9 nights in search of an inn for the birthplace of Jesus. It was a beautiful fiesta. Finally, Teresa got married! She and Alex are now living her new husband, who is a musician in a Mariachi group.

So, my dear friends, thank you for your gift. It is much more than the gift of money, as you can probably tell by the warmth and joy in the photos I’ll be sending along. They are sending back some amazing smiles.

Besos y abrazos, Annie

Questions About Future Zapotec Life

Augustin Ruiz Gutierrez is writing his thesis in preparation for graduation from the University of Oaxaca.   He is 24 years old, just like Eric Chavez Santiago, and they were school mates during their growing up years in Teotitlan and is one of a few who went on to high school and then college.  We met Augustin last year during the Teotitlan posadas and he invited us to meet the leaders of Bii Dauu, a weavers cooperative of extended family members whose mission it is to preserve the traditions of Zapotec culture, including designs, natural dyeing techniques, education, sustainable development, and permaculture.  Augustin is a documentarian, taking videos of village life, commenting on the culture.  His thesis question is one that all cultures, societies could benefit from asking continually as it helps to define the vision of a people.  He called to ask if he could interview me and Stephen about our impressions, beliefs, ideas to include in his thesis research.   These are his questions.

  • In 20 or 30 years, what do we think will happen with Zapotec weaving and natural dyes? 
  • What type of organization would best communicate the principals of educating people about appreciation their traditions and values, to work cooperatively and not competitively?
  • Is it possible to develop a system where cooperation and sustainability were equally important to making money?
  • Can we create a national and international market for our weavings that supports both income generation and cultural continuation?  How do we protect the heritage of our people and compete in the world market? 
  • Is weaving a rug with natural dyes the best way?  I(n the future, is it worth it to have this as a standard of quality?  Does the marketplace care?
  • Can you be an artist and be successful without compromising the principles of cooperation and sustainability, economic equality?
Currently, there are no easy channels of distribution for highest quality, naturally dyed rugs from Teotitlan del Valle.  Indeed, most families work independently, even brother to brother, to weave and sell their work.  Every summer, in July, a large tractor trailer trucks pulls into the edge of town and parks for several days.  Weavers bring their work, mostly tepetes (rugs) woven with chemical dyes that the importer pays a low price for and can resell in New Mexico or Arizona for a big profit.  Here there are middlemen who contract with households to weave for this shipment.  Weavers will get paid about $25-100 per rug, depending on size, and the mark-up in the States will be 4 to 6 times grater than what they are paid.
There is no gallery in Teotitlan del Valle that showcases the highest quality work.  There is no “stamp of approval” that guarantees that a guild of weavers has agreed that a rug meets certain standards of quality.  If one walks through the shops and rug market one can appreciate the variety and differences between the rugs:  heaviness and strength of the wool used, even edges signifying that there are two large chords of cotton on each side that add strength to the piece, the purity and subtlety of color that connotes the use of natural dyes.  
Augustin says that there is little support from the state or federal government to continue the traditions of weaving in the village and he is fearful that in the next 20-30 years the use of natural dyes and traditional colors will die out.  He comments that people are most concerned about feeding their families and will do whatever they can to get paid, and compromise the quality standards to sell their work.
We talk about how important it is to identify all the people in the village who are committed to working with natural dyes and to document who they are and their work.  We explore how we might organize more visits to the U.S. for great weavers who have not been discovered by the guide books and the New York Times, whose travel editors continue to send people to only those most well known and most expensive.  We talk about ways to mount exhibitions in the U.S., in Oaxaca City, in Mexico City, in San Miguel de Allende, in San Augustin Etla.  All of this requires commitment, money, organization, and someone to doggedly lead the way.