Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chiapa de Corzo: Lacquer Artists

When you visit Chiapa de Corzo, the first thing you notice, aside from the heat, are the lacquered gourds and bowls hanging from the ceiling of the portal on the west side of the plaza. Well, you might first notice the plaza and it's huge castle-like structure complete with buttresses. For sure you would notice the ancient ceiba tree that is fenced off to protect it since it may be older than the town which goes back 2000 years before Christ. The indigenous people saw the Ceiba as the tree of life, probably because they live longer than most people could imagine.

But after all that other noticing, you would surely see the gourds. The entire west side of the plaza is devoted to shops that sell artesania: clothing used by the festival goers, the flowered full skirted dresses of the women, the masks and "blond" wigs used by men during the Parachicos festivities, painted furniture and objects in lacquer with bright colors on black, red, and dark blue backgrounds, handmade ice creams and ice cream hot dogs served on platters smothered in chomoy sauce and chile powder, and carved objects like Mayan heads and Jesus nailed to the cross.

Dona Marta with a young student

Lacquer work is a local tradition revived by a woman named Dona Marta. People have been doing it for a long time, but she began to teach it and now it's wide spread. She is now 70+ years old, and still teaching in the school for traditional arts, where they also teach building and playing marimbas, pottery, and wood carving.

Brigitte and I went on Saturday to Chiapas de Corzo specifically to see a woman named Graciela, winner of numerous awards for her lacquer artistry, to view her work, take photos of her workshop, and possibly  invite her to the Feria in Lake Chapala next November. Brigitte had an appointment with her for 11:00 but when we arrived at her place nobody was home. We were fashionably late, by 45 minutes, but when we called her cell, she was even more fashion conscious. She was in Tuxtla and apparently forgot about the meeting or thought it was later. Who knows? It's Mexico. She promised to return so Brigitte and I went to the plaza for lunch. We ate cochinito asado, chunks of tender pork in a rich brown chile soup with bits of potato and onions. It was fabulous. Then we sweated our way across the giant plaza to the ice cream store and got a cone to cool down. The cool lasted for a few minutes before the outside temperature returned us to dripping mode.

Polishing the Japanese "seed"

We stopped at the school to see Dona Marta and talked with her while a couple of students painted pieces. A young man was lacquering some seed-shaped wood pieces to be used by a Japanese artist for a sculpture. He spent at least an hour on each "seed" putting layer after layer of color and polish until each one shown brilliant in the sunlight.

Finally Brigitte called Graciela. She was home and waiting for us. Brigitte, in spite of living in Mexico for 13 years, still gets frustrated with the lack of business mentality. If she was ready, why didn't she call us??

Her house sits up on a hill overlooking the city, and is a pleasant plain cement block house with a long driveway. At the back of the property there is a large covered open-air studio. A helper was washing caliche, mined nearby from a hillside. This is the base for the paint they use in lacquer work. I'm not sure what they may have used in the old days for the lacquer part, but now they appear to use car polish. Graciela makes all the paint from caliche, car polish and commercially available tints. Her paints were stored in shoe polish tins. On shelves were her finished products: boxes, crosses, bowls and platters. Unfinished wood boxes and sculptures sat on other shelves, and hanging from giant garbage bags from the ceiling were dried gourds of all sizes and shapes.

Painted gourd

We spent about an hour there, setting up photo shoots of her artwork, and then I took photos of her working. She sits in a chair next to a table and paints the objects in her lap. Many of the basic flower shapes are first dabbed on with a finger tip, then other paints applied with a paintbrush she makes herself from a feather and hairs from a cat's tail. Considering the amount of time and effort that goes into each piece, it's amazing how reasonable the prices are. Small painted crosses are less than $50 pesos ($4.00 US).

She pulled out a photo album of her life's work. Even the album was gorgeous, thin wood lacquered with flowers was fastened to a plastic binder with brads. Brigitte fell in love with that idea and suggested that Graciela make some lacquered books to bring to the Feria as well as her more traditional pieces. The book contained many diplomas, awards, and photos of her receiving accolades. She is top notch. I photographed her over a period of ten minutes painting the side of a box. The development of the design was amazing. She started out putting on blobs of paint with her finger, and ended with a trail of flowers and leaves.

Graciela starting the
flowers with paint on a finger.