Saturday, February 3, 2018

Jacobo & María Ángeles ... an artist workshop that links the past to the future

One of the joys of Mexico is meeting artists … in their workshops, they become real people rather than names on a gallery or museum wall. I’ve had this pleasure several times while visiting Oaxaca, however, the most impressive in many ways was the workshop of Jacobo & María Angeles

It was love at first sight when I found the alebrijes (fantastical painted creatures) of Jacobo and María in Voces de Copal. Seeing their incredible work sent me to their website where I found a connection to my other passions of creativity, innovation and collaboration. When I read, "… we are a solid team whose main tool is innovation," I was hooked, especially when I saw the values they aspire to: innovation, tradition, spirit, team.
First view of Jacobo & Maria's work

The taller (workshop) of Jacobo and María in San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca, employs over 100 people from ages 15 to 70. They invite anyone to join the workshop and learn the practices. Those who show determination and talent continue on the path to becoming master artisans.

Alebrijes are carved from the sacred copal tree and the widespread popularity of alebrijes has added to the decline of the copal population. In the 1990s, Oaxaca painter, Rudolfo Morales began a reforestation program and this workshop began it’s own program in 2010 and in 2014, they gathered more than 200 people to plant 2,000 saplings. Their website explains their dedication to the copal: The copal has shaped our destiny as artisans and as human beings; it has made us conscious of the place we inhabit; it has given us identity and recognition of our history.

A student-artisan in the workshop
Oaxaca Alebrijes: Nahuals and Tonas - Manuel Jiménez Ramírez, a native of San Antonio Arrazola, Oaxaca, is considered the creator of Oaxacan alebrijes. It was he who introduced the concept of the nahual to the pieces. In Mexican culture, the nahual is an animal fused with a human. The nahual is a protector who defines your personality depending on the year and day you are born. Tonas, of which there are twenty, are animals which represent the Zapotec calendar.
It has little to do with Mexican folk art, but you might find it fun to know more about your Mayan astrology. Click here to find out more.
In case you won't be coming to Oaxaca soon, here’s your own 3-minute visit to this amazing workshop:  
Click here to watch video.
 And, remember the incredible details and workmanship of this folk art when you start to buy a piece.

If you go to the workshop, you'll know you're there when you see this entrance.
Entrance to the workshop.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Beyond colors and shapes ... Zapotec weaving symbols

Rug from Teotitlán del Valle
When I first started looking at weavings, I only saw colors and shapes. It took awhile to realize that each work represented a connection ... a connection to past traditions, to beliefs about the world, to something important to that particular weaver. Now looking at a rug is more like looking at a tangible meditation, a prayer or story. It is a piece of the weaver, a piece of tradition and contains an energy to be shared with viewers and buyers.

When I visited the rug-weaving village Teotitlán del Valle, I was captivated by many rugs such as the one to the left. The color and designs stunned me, however, it was only later, after researching the designs, that I began to truly appreciate it and its story.

I've made up the following since I have no idea of what the weaver was thinking as she created this beautiful piece. If this were my rug, I would call it:
Invitation to the Spirit World:

A favorite with a simpler pattern
Over a sunny agave field, God watches his people, seeing all, understanding all, remembering the deep past as well as the current struggles, sending wisdom as well as sun and rain to the four corners of the earth in a never ending cycle of life and death. Through this door to the spirit world you must prepare to walk, using candles to light your way.

 Zapotec Weaving Symbols

Geometric Pyramids - represent those at the ancient Zapotec political and economic center, Monte Alban, capital of the Zapotec empire from 700 BC to 700 CE. (1)
Lightning - zig zag pattern represents lighting, which is connected to the ancient Zapotec god of lightning and rain, Cocijo, similar to the Aztec god Tlaloc. (1)

Agave - the agave plant, or maguey as it is locally known, is integral to the central valleys of Oaxaca. Both wild and cultivated, this plant offers sweet nectar that can be enjoyed as-is or fermented into the local alcohol of choice, mezcal. The leaves and flowers are eaten, the fibers used as thread and the plant even has medicinal uses. The shape of the large spiky plant is stylized in its woven form, with a central point representing the agave flower. (1)

The Corn Plant: This sacred plant is represented in the three places that it occupies - roots in the underworld, leaves and seeds in the earthly world, and pollen spike in the celestial world. Each space holds its own significance. (5)

Geometric Spiral - represents the life cycle, according to the Zapotec worldview. Each step represents a stage of life, beginning at birth, moving on through youth, maturity and then decay; follow by the other world. (1)

From (4)
  • These geometrical figures represent the life cycle according to the Zapotec Cosmo vision.
  • The steps are the stages of life of human beings: the first step represents the base or starting point and covers the period between conception and birth; the second stage is related to childhood and the third to youth.
  • The fourth is the stage when the individual has reached maturity in all aspects; this is represented by a horizontal line.
  • After this comes the gradual loss of life energy indicated by the descending line and thereby represents old age and death.
  • Finally, it is stabilized with another horizontal line which represents life in another world. This same symbol is found in the friezes which decorate the Mitla Palace and which represent the cosmogonic duality of the Zapotecs: the high relief, illuminated by the sun, is associated with tonality.
  • The low relief, in dimness, is associated with nagual (which in Mexico has to do with witchcraft). The continuity of symbols indicate that the spirit residing in a person is reborn or ‘reincarnated’ in the body of another person.
  • In rugs, friezes are in different colors because each person in which the spirit reincarnates itself is different and there is always a bright color – tonality, and a dark one – the nagual.
Butterfly - represents the wings, body, and antennae of a butterfly. There is some evidence to show that the ancient Zapotecs worshipped a butterfly god, that is more commonly found at the Teotihuacan ruins in central Mexico. (1)

Arrows - important to the Zapotec people, as in many cultures, due their importance both for hunting and warfare. (1)

Fertility: The spike at the top of corn gives pollination to the ears of corn or maiz, the sacred food of the Zapotec. (5)

Sacred Necklace: In the time of our ancestors, corn, beans and squashes were sacred foods. Necklaces were made with their seeds to pay tribute the gods for blessings received. (5)

Rain and Seeds: Rain in the diagonals passes by the seeds in the diamonds between the rain. (5)

Abundance: This design represents the corn on the cob and pays tribute to abundant crops. (5)

Lighted Candle: The ever-lighted candle is an offering of thanks to God. (5)

The Night Sky: Stars represent the eyes of the Gods expressing their love to those on mother earth.present the eyes of the Gods expressing their love to those on mother earth. (5)

Mountains - and the rain that is so crucial to the survival of the people that live there. The ancient Zapotecs had a predominance of deities associated with fertility and agriculture, and the rain god Cocijo is well represented here. (1)

From (4)
  • These mountains appear in our rugs to remind us of the Zapotec pilgrimage through the mountains.
  • In this way, we keep in mind that this land is not ours, that we should care for it, and what’s more, if possible, leave it in a better state.
  • It is possible that climatic changes which affected the fertility of the land forced the Zapotecs to look for new lands and in these pilgrimages they learned from other civilizations.
  • The Zapotecs became aware of their precarious condition on this earth through their journeys through rough mountains, camping in the wilderness, and fighting against wild animals to get their precious food.

The Walk of the Serpent: The walk of the serpent which is also the shape of the river, reveals the wisdom of our mother earth, accompanied by seeds in representation of life. (5)

Ojo de Dios - symbolic of the power of seeing and understanding the unseen. Most weavers will offer an in-depth and personal definition of the God’s eye, and it is very prevalent in their work, although the form varies. (1)

From (4)
  • A symbol inspired in the skin of Quetzacoatl whose name comes from the nahuatl language and is translated as ‘feathered serpent’.
  • In Zapotec, it is known by the name of WIXEPECOCOCHA.
  • The serpent referred to is the rattlesnake because on its skin one can see diamond-shaped figures.
  • The symmetry of this diamond represents the four types of energy found in the human body: above the naval, the quetzalli energy of the bird; below the naval, the coatl energy of the serpent; to the right of the naval is the tonal and to the left the nagual.
  • The diamond also resembles the horizontal reflection of a pyramid, which means that the reality we see is a mirror that reflects our inner life.
  • It is no surprise that it was from the skin of the rattlesnake came the inspiration for builders and artifices of the Monte Alban pyramids, known as HUIJAZOO in the Zapotec language.
  • The figure at the center of god’s eye is known as butterfly, which is associated with the moth carrying on its wings the dust of wisdom which slowly arrives like dust or like soft mist.
Door to the Spirit World - The God's Eye symbol in the middle is the entrance to the spirit world and a sacred place of spirituality. The integrated symbols on the sides represent death receiving corn and lighted candles as offerings. (5)

Tradition and Innovation 

Some weavers are now working in a more contemporary mode. This one stole my heart, and almost my purse. The artist explained the symbolism, however, I only understood part of it. The light focus is the caracol (snail). 
I truly love this piece and came very close to bringing it home with me. However, I reminded myself of the deep downsizings I've done in the past several years and walked away. 
Some lucky buyer will enjoy this amazing and symbolic piece.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Farming cochineal insects for natural dye

An insect died to create this color in my hand.
Hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago, a Mexican weaver crushed a bug in her hand, found a bright red color and applied it to the thread she was weaving. That unknown weaver launched a cultural revolution. Well, it might have happened that way.

A fundamental aspect of folk art is doing things the way they were done before the advent of computers, mechanized production lines, and chemicals concocted in a laboratory. The terms hand-crafted and natural are as common in the folk art world as organic is in the world of agriculture.

This is as true of color as it is of natural materials such as cotton, wool and silk. While there is a huge world of commercial dyes, inks and paints, there is also a smaller, but growing, world of artisans using only colors available from the natural world of plants, animals and insects. 
Cotton dyed with the cochineal pigment.
One of the criteria used by the Feria Maestros del Arte, one of the most respected folk art fairs held every mid-November in Chapala, Mexico, is the use of natural pigments and materials in the traditional ways of the past.

Yesterday, I joined an excursion that included a stop at the cochineal farm Tlapanochestli (meaning scarlet colors) in Santa Maria Coyotopec, a village just outside Oaxaca. It looked like a field of prickly pear cactus, however, the real “farming” was happening in a green house where cactus pads are resting in carefully labeled beds tracking the maturation of the cochineal insects growing on them. Each pad hosts white cocoons dusted with what looks like a powdery substance but is actually a natural, waxy coating that prevents water loss and protects the insect from the sun. A bug sunscreen, so to speak.

Coachineal cocoons on a prickly pear pad.
The insects feed on the cactus which contains carminic acid, thus producing the red color. After 90 days, the mature insects are scraped off the cactus pads and dried. It takes approximately 70,000 insects to make a pound of dye. That might be why cochineal dye at one time was Mexico’s second most important export, next to silver.

A "baby bed" for the bugs.
Natural dye workshops have become very popular in the Oaxaca area and this YouTube video will give you a 5-minute sample. 
Click here to watch video.
Bug free cactus flower.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Magical Day in Mexico

Some days seem to be under a magic spell cast by a master planner. This one started out with a cool, blue-sky morning as we loaded ourselves and our luggage into a short cab ride to the Puerto Escondido airport.
Ready to fly
 A man with a phone and a plane -- That’s how Carlos Vega was introduced to us when we started figuring out how to get to and from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido. Because all the “normal” airlines were booked, we wound up taking the twisty, seven-hour bus trip through the spectacular Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains to Puerto Escondido. We were delighted with the trip but thought one, long bus trip was enough.

To get back to Oaxaca, Bette found Carlos Vega and we called him and he said to meet him at the airport. No reservations, no tickets, no money exchanged … just “meet me there.” We didn’t know what to expect but we went to the airport, sat at the “restaurant on the left” like he told us to, and waited. Promptly, about the time we thought we should call him to make sure everything was on track, he walked up and led us through security and into a six-seater, twin engine plane. About 30 minutes later we landed at the Oaxaca airport. Next time, we’re going both directions with Carlos … phone number: 954-588-0062, in case you want to call him. 
Goodbye Puerto Escondido
Sierra Madre Sur
Detail from airport painting
Bathroom breaks and art -- When I landed in Oaxaca two weeks ago, I was on a mission and sped straight through the airport into a waiting cab. After the short flight from Puerto Escondido, we wanted a bathroom break before the cab ride. Bette went first and while I watched the bags, I started exploring a stunning painting but couldn’t find the artist’s name. When we exited the building, we saw a series of what looked like giant, metal alebrijes (fantasy creatures, usually wooden). We waived off the taxi driver and spent several minutes taking pictures of the delightful sculptures, which looked like the work of the same artist as the painting inside. 

Finally, I found the artist’s name: Fernando Andriacci and he found a new devoted fan. His work also turned up later in the day.

Old money breakfast and synchronicity —  Lisa Sonora, creator of Art House Oaxaca, where I’ll be staying for the coming week, met us for breakfast at Vieja Lira (old money), a small Italian cafe in Oaxaca central. Talk flowed freely and then Bette and I decided to do a short walk to give her a feel for the area before we were to meet Linda Hanna, folk art tour guide and Oaxaca co-ordinator for Feria Maestros del Arte. Linda had invited us to her bed and breakfast, Casa Linda, for comida (mid-day main meal) and was planning to pick us up at 2 pm so we had about three hours to wander.

We had just gotten oriented when Bette spied a shop that looked inviting. As we crossed the street, about half a block away from us, we saw a woman waving in our direction. We’re in the middle of Oaxaca. I don’t know anyone, but the woman looks familiar. Suddenly we realize, it’s Linda. She’s going into a meeting and tells us she’ll be out in an hour and could give us a mini-tour before we have to go to lunch. “Just some of my favorites,” she tells us. We’re delighted. 

El Templo San Jerónimo Tlacocha- huaya — When we entered the sixteenth century church, an organ was playing, creating a musical backdrop to a most unusual church. I didn’t know it at the time, but the organ is around 300 years old. The church is one of Linda favorites because of the extensive indigenous art work, primarily flowers. Built as a meditation and contemplation center for the Dominicans, it has a warm, inviting energy that made me just want to sit there quietly. Maybe next time. 
For scale, see the man in lower right.
Note tree on left ... big?
El Tule -- When I was creating my Google Map for this trip, one of the “must sees” was a tree Wikipedia states has the “stoutest trunk of any tree in the world.” In spite of my love for trees, it was beginning to look like this must-see would not happen this trip … until Linda mentioned it as one of the many things we could see in the two hours we had before comida. 

I jumped at the opportunity to see the ancient tree (age estimates between 1,200 - 3,000 years with 1,600 being the most agreed upon) and we were off to the village of Santa María del Tule.  
Note the person at the bottom right.
More people at bottom right.
I’ve seen big trees: the giant sequoias are overwhelming in their grandeur, and I’ve seen old trees: the twisted bristlecone pines in the eastern Sierra are mind-bogglingly old, with at least a couple dating back five thousand years. However, El Tule has it’s own way of stealing your breath away. It is massive in the way a mountain is massive and its trunk meanders rather than maintaining the expected round trunk shape, creating walls of textures and burl flowers.
This is not a close up.

Technically El Tule (named for the tule grasses growing from this naturally wet area) is a Montezuma cypress or ahuehuete (meaning "old man of the water" in Nahuatl). Mythically, the local Zapotec legend holds that it was planted about 1,400 years ago by Pecocha, a priest of Ehecatl, the Aztec wind god. All of that aside, it was humbling to stand in the shadows of this incredibly beautiful living being.
The artist Fernando Andriacci has two pieces of art close to the tule tree and the church. This one gives you another sense of scale of the tree and church.
Note tree and church in background.
Casa Linda — I had heard tales about Linda’s folk-art-filled bed and breakfast, but still wasn’t prepared. Nestled on a beautiful, half-acre of trees, rocks and a creek in the village of San Andres Huayapam, five miles from central Oaxaca, this is a little piece of paradise. Linda is a weaver who came to Oaxaca sixteen years ago, and stayed. She now leads folk-art tours and shares her love of indigenous art and the villages of Oaxaca.
Dining room mural.
The above photo from Linda's website shows an incredible mural in her dining room and is better than any photo I was able to take in my beauty-stunned state. For more photos, please check out

Not only did we get to feast on the incredible beauty and variety of the folk art displayed, her friend, Chef Sam, fed us royally.

And the beat goes on — By the time Bette and I were returned to Art House Oaxaca we were stuffed, with food, beauty, culture and inspiration. We had an hour or so to rest before time for Bette to catch a taxi for her flight home. We crashed in my room and it wasn’t long before we heard the distant sounds of band music. We wondered what it was, but not enough to get up and find out.

Walking the half block to the corner got Bette's taxi made me realize what an incredibly beautiful evening it was … and I could still hear the music, so, once Bette was on her way, I followed the music and found bands and mojigangas (large puppets) celebrating a wedding in Santo Domingo Plaza. I followed them for awhile and then ran into a similar parade for a quinceanera. The birthday woman was beautiful so I joined her parade, taking futile pictures in the dark with my iPhone but enjoying the music, dancing and conviviality. 

At some point, a guy handed me a thimble full of a clear liquid (presumably mezcal), the first sip of which burned for a block and a half. The gesture of inclusion seemed to be a perfect note on which to end this incredible day.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Tequila vs. Mezcal: It's all about the story

Mezcal in Oaxaca by Joyce Wycoff
It’s almost like a sports event: my team vs. your team, Jalisco vs. Oaxaca.

Technically, tequila is a mezcal since both are made from the agave plant, however tequila is only made from the blue agave while mezcal can be made from any of 28 varieties of agave. Tequila is primarily made in Jalisco, while mezcal comes mainly from Oaxaca.

The primary difference is in the piña. After the stalks of the agave plant are cut away by the jimador, there is a head which looks like a pineapple … thus piña, the Spanish word for pineapple. Tequileros bake the piñas in above-ground ovens. Mezcaleros bake the piñas in below ground pits.
The Mexican restaurant Acapulcos, clearly favoring mezcal, describes the process:
The agave heads (also called agave hearts, or piñas) are roasted or grilled over hot rocks in a cone-shaped pit (called palenques or hornos). A fire is started and burns for about 24 hours to heat the stones that line the pit. The agave heads are put into the pit and then covered with moist agave fiber that is left over from the fermentation process. A layer of agave leaves or woven palm leaves cover the fibers and the agave heads are left to cook for two to three days.
They go on to explain the types and aging process of  mezcal … as well as the worm!
Types of Mezcal
Mexican government regulates mezcal, defining various types and aging categories in a manner similar to tequila. The regulations split mezcal into two categories:
Type 1: 100% agave (using any or all permitted agave plants)
Type 2: Minimum 80% agave and maximum 20% other sugars.

There are three aging categories:

Abacado (also called joven or blanco): clear, un-aged mezcal that results from the distillation process. It is often bottled immediately, but flavoring or coloring agents can be added.
Reposado (also called madurado): aged in wood barrels for two to eleven months.
Añejo: aged in wood barrels for a minimum of twelve months.
The regulations also forbid mezcal producers to make tequila, and tequila producers cannot produce mezcal.

The Worm Surprise

Mezcal is widely known for the agave “worm” (or gusano) that floats toward the bottom of the bottle. It is primarily a marketing gimmick to help boost sales, especially in the United States and in Asia. In fact, it is not a “worm” at all, but one of two insect larvae (a caterpillar of a night butterfly or the larvae of the agave snout weevil) that can infest yucca and agave plants.
Tequila never (ever!) has a worm in the bottle.
So, which is better?

Food court in Oaxaca
John McEvoy, who bills himself as the Mescal PhD and wrote the book Holy Smoke!: It’s Mezcal, obviously leans toward mezcal. For the rest of us, it’s either a matter of taste or story. Tequila has a clear, contemporary story, while mezcal has a smokey, artisanal story. And, then, there’s the worm.

Since I don’t actually like the flavor of either, I’m swayed by the story and the thought that somewhere in a mescalero village there is a donkey turning the wheel that crushes the piña heads that have been baked in a pit lined with volcanic rock. Add that to the story heard in my much younger days that eating the worm produces a psychedelic trip and I probably wind up on the mezcal side.

While here in Oaxaca, my friend Dolores and I stumbled across a delightful food court and met the owner who focuses on the mezcal bar. He made me a mojito-like drink that was wonderful, primarily because I couldn’t taste the mezcal, but thoroughly enjoyed the idea of it. No worm, of course.

Alhóndiga Reforma also has a remarkable mural on their wall. I'm still looking for the name of the artist.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Art House Oaxaca

Dolores in front of a giant travel journal page
This is a woman’s place. (Sorry, guys!)

Especially women, who after a full life of working and tending to a family, are now looking for ways to activate their creativity.

I am here with one of my long time friends, Dolores Forsythe, and staying with Lisa Sonora, a woman we met YEARS ago at an Intuitive Painting workshop at Hollyhock on Cortes Island in Canada. The workshop changed my life and the three of us have stayed friends over the years, however, this is the first time we have all been together since that long ago workshop.

Colorful walls with creative messages
Lisa is a queen of art journals and using them to unleash our inner artist. After moving to Oaxaca several years ago, she created Art House Oaxaca to serve that process. Walls have been painted by with bright colors and inspirational sayings by workshop participants and a large outdoor studio offers an abundance of art materials and space for projects. The residence spaces are basic but comfortable and the location is in the heart of historic Oaxaca. Within easy walking distances are coffee shops, restaurants, historic architecture, crafts markets, art galleries, and shops featuring unique Oaxacan folk art.

Materials galore!
More glimpses of Oaxaca

Art House offers a variety of creative workshops and long-term creative project residencies. For more information, Contact Lisa Sonora Beam