Handmade visions on the crafts trail in Mexico

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Handmade visions on the crafts trail in Mexico
Antique handlooms still being used by Telares Uruapan, a boutique textiles company started by Walter and Bundy Illsley in Michoacán, Mexico on Aug. 13, 2019. A journey through lesser-known artisan villages of Michoacán reveals the ever-changing nature of their tradition. Felipe Luna/The New York Times.

by Michael Snyder

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Clambering down into the half-buried ruins of San Juan Paringuricutiro, past stone archways subsumed in lava less than 80 years ago, I glanced up over jagged spires of black basalt to the ash cone of Paricutín, one of the world’s youngest volcano, hovering like a specter on the horizon.

I’d seen views like this one before, rendered in expressionist shades of cobalt and eggplant gashed with dazzling flares of orange by the painter known as Dr. Atl. Starting in 1943, when the volcano emerged from a cornfield here in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, Atl, along with dozens of artists and scientists from around the world, spent years recording this geological miracle. Yet none of his paintings had prepared me for the hallucinatory strangeness of the real thing: a place that inverts geological time, where the ground underfoot is younger than the orphaned church spires rising above it, where a mountain — an immovable part of any ordinary landscape — is only a few decades old.

Paricutín, it occurred to me while contemplating the church’s miraculously preserved, fern-garlanded altar, makes a fine metaphor for the surrounding region of the Tarascan Plateau (known in Spanish as the Meseta Purhepecha), an area known for its fiercely protected indigenous communities and the unparalleled craft traditions that thrive within them. While urban Mexicans and foreigners often treat those traditions as static relics, in the region, they’re dynamic and ever changing, producing new icons with the same spontaneous creative energy that forced Paricutín up through the Earth’s crust.

I’d been planning on visiting Paricutín since I moved to Mexico in 2016, but had been hesitant to make the trip. Closely associated with the United States-backed drug war that has ravaged Mexico’s countryside since 2006, Michoacán is not the easiest place to visit. Particularly in the Meseta, tourism infrastructure is limited, and violent flare-ups spurred by the $2.4 billion avocado trade are not uncommon, particularly in the periphery of Uruapan, Michoacán’s second-largest city and the main urban hub for the Meseta.

But friends in Uruapan urged me to come. By and large, tourists are not the targets of the crime that the local communities face. With basic precautions (namely not to travel by road after dark) I could move freely, they said.

The last few years have also seen several new projects — a cultural center, an exciting new restaurant — that, in their own modest way, had begun to redefine Uruapan, an industrial town of about 330,000 people. In the surrounding countryside, dotted with craft villages less well known than their counterparts near Lake Pátzcuaro to the east, perceptions of insecurity had taken a toll on artisans, too, who relied on tourism for an important part of their modest annual incomes.

On the road to Uruapan
On a cool August morning I drove west out of Mexico City, stopping in Michoacán’s grand pink-sandstone capital of Morelia, at the powerful ruins in Tzintzuntzan, and in the graceful lakeside town Pátzcuaro, arriving in Uruapan a few days later.

Unlike Morelia and Pátzcuaro, colonial showstoppers both, Uruapan’s pleasures are humble: evenings spent people-watching on the broad central plaza; snacking on sweet corn tamales, called uchepos, at the Mercado de Antojitos, or snack market; and sipping dark, fragrant coffee at Café Tradicional, a dim, wood-paneled coffee house with atmosphere as dense as cigar smoke.

It was here that I met historian and teacher Arturo Ávila on my first evening in town. “Uruapan, throughout the centuries, has always been a crossroads,” he told me. An indigenous town before the arrival of the Spanish, the modern city of Uruapan was established by Franciscan monks in 1533 and declared a settlement for indigenous peoples in 1540. A communal garden and public hospice formed the center of the town, where weavers would come to trade cotton shawls for clay bowls thrown in ceramics towns farther north or woven mats from the lakeshore.

The products we think of as artesanía, or craft, Ávila told me, were initially developed out of necessity, using available materials and binding communities through mutual reliance. More than art objects, they were known, Ávila said, as “the skill and destiny” of each town, a division of labor consolidated under colonial rule.

Uruapan’s “skill and destiny” was mercantile, first as a center of trade for surrounding artisans who flocked to the town in particularly large numbers during Holy Week. Vestiges of that tradition remain during the city’s Easter celebrations, when artisans from across the state sell their wares in the central plaza and under the squat stone arches of the old hospice, now the Huatapera indigenous Museum. On Palm Sunday, easily the best day of the year to visit, Uruapan puts on the finest of Michoacán’s more than 20 craft competitions, gathering all the state’s most accomplished artisans in one place.

The morning after meeting Ávila, I took a short taxi ride to the hilltop Hotel Mansión Cupatitzio, a throwback to 1960s hacienda-style glamour, where I sipped a coffee in the flower-draped gardens, then wandered into the Cupatitzio Canyon National Park, one of Mexico’s most beautiful urban parks, established in 1938. I spent the better part of an hour wandering down stone paths damp with mist kicked up from waterfalls. I followed the river as it poured itself into iridescent blue plunge basins, rushed under arching bridges and slipped over geometric fountains designed in the pre-Columbian revival style.

Where the park ended, the river emerged into a sudden shock of light bouncing off the high stone walls of the San Pedro textile factory — the other reason I’d decided to visit Uruapan. For the first half of the 20th century, the Fabrica San Pedro, powered by the Cupatitzio River, had been one of the city’s largest employers. Four years ago, in March 2016, the factory, in decline for decades since World War II, reopened as a cultural center, operated by the foundation of Mexico City-based artist Javier Marín (he was born in Uruapan) and the Illsley family, which bought the factory in 1995 to save it from developers.

Walter and Bundy Illsley first moved to Mexico in 1950s. Over decades in Michoacán, Walter introduced irrigation systems in small towns and was among the founders of the Faculty of Agro-Biology at Michoacán’s state university. Together, he and Bundy founded a boutique textile company, Telares Uruapan, and collaborated over the years with luminaries of American modernism like Alexander Girard and Francine Knoll on custom designs. Though the Fabrica no longer operates at an industrial scale, it still produces textiles through the looms of Telares Uruapan, now run by Walter and Bundy’s children, Susana and her brother Rewi Illsley, out of the factory’s former storage spaces.

On the day I visited, Bundy Illsley, along with Rewi and Rewi’s daughter Clara, showed me through the Fabrica’s vast central gallery — high and narrow and suffused with tropical warmth — then down into the basement, among rows of obsolete machinery lined up under bending rays of dusty light: a museum to a dead industry. Upstairs, we visited the Fabrica’s small shop, selling a rainbow of napkins and tablecloths made on the Illsley handlooms, and garments by Japanese designer Minori Kobayashi, who came to Uruapan in the 1970s and never left. We flipped through the swatches of fabrics that Bundy Illsley had developed and produced for Knoll and Herman Miller. “Design,” Illsley said, “has always been part of our world.”

For dinner that night, I went, at the Illsleys’ recommendation, to Cocina M, where chef Mariana Valencia turns out surprising dishes like crisp petals of cecina (dried beef) to dip in a blazing sauce of Manzano chilies and dashi, and a decadent avocado mousse tempered with a bracing yuzu sorbet. Valencia, who grew up in Uruapan in a family of Lebanese origin, opened the restaurant with her Colombian husband, Marino Collazos, in April 2016, after several years working in restaurants in Miami, where the couple met.

Since then, they have traveled extensively around Michoacán to learn its regional ingredients and indigenous cooking techniques, still relatively unknown outside the communities that practice them. “In the process, we’ve really fallen in love with this place and its traditions,” Valencia told me. “Like the whole world, Michoacán needs love and care and connection, which is what we’re trying to do here.”

Before dinner, Collazos showed me around, pointing out the provenance of each object in the restaurant and, in many cases, the artisan who’d made it: the green wall planted with species endemic to the Cupatitzio River, copper wine pails from Santa Clara del Cobre, the installation of glazed green pineapples from San José de Gracía, and the Virgin of Guadalupe from Ocumicho, installed after a customer complained that they’d inadvertently tainted the space with inauspicious numbers.

To the craft villages
The next morning, armed with a list of craft villages and names of artisans gathered over the previous days, I drove north out of the city and into the high open country of the Meseta. Roughly 40 minutes from Uruapan, I wound through the pretty historical center of Paracho, a town known for its handmade guitars and vibrant Sunday market, to the sleepy village of Ahuiran.

In a modest house down a concrete-paved side street, I met Rosa Liliana Bautista, whose grandmother, she said, had been the first artisan to stitch feathers into the hems of her shawls, the style for which the village is now famous. Though Bautista herself spent five years living in the United States, continuing to weave with materials shipped north by her mother, it wasn’t until returning home in 2014 that she found a market for her work — largely among other Michoacán immigrants in the U.S.

Barely 10 minutes away by road, in the village of Aranza, at the hem of forested mountain slopes, Genoveva Zacari showed me blue, black and yellow cotton as delicate as lace that she and her sisters had learned to weave under their mother’s tutelage. “The imagination, the skill, even the love you feel for the work will affect the pattern. Like this one, for instance, was made by my sister, and I can tell that she wasn’t in a good mood when she made it,” Zacari told me.

From the textile villages, I went west to Angahuan, the jumping-off point for full-day hikes to Paricutín’s otherworldly crater, spending the night at the spartan, community-run Centro Turístico Angahuan. Two mornings later, after a day hike to Paricutín’s summit through the ruins of San Juan Parangaricutiro, its lava-choked chapel the only surviving remnant of the village, I drove north to the ceramics towns near the border with Jalisco.

In Patambam I stopped in the workshop of the Ayungua family, which locals in this pretty, terra cotta — roofed village call “the museum.” Here, three generations of potters decorate unglazed red clay pottery with paints made from white clay, a recent deviation from the traditions of burnished red and green-glazed pottery practiced by most families here, according to the craft expert Rick Hall, who runs an annual guided tour through the Meseta during Holy Week via his Patzcuaro-based gallery, Zócalo Folk Art.

A short drive away in San José de Gracia, the dusty main road was lined with ceramic pineapples glazed in glossy shades of pink and yellow and green. In one of the village’s many modest home workshops, the Gutierrez family told me about their own emblematic craft’s gradual evolution through the middle of the 20th century, as artisans from the Madrigal family added decorative elements to what had once been simple glazed jugs and casseroles. Today, meter-high pineapples from San José appear in the permanent collection at Mexico City’s Museum of Popular Art and regularly take top prizes at nationwide craft competitions.

Just a few minutes down the road from San José, in the village of Ocumicho, I visited the home studio of Tomasa Gonzalez Sánchez, populated with hundreds of winsome clay figurines painted in psychedelic acrylics: whistles shaped like peacocks, devils cavorting on a bridge that Gonzalez had seen once years before on a trip to Mexico City, and a miniature Last Supper of mermaids eating watermelon. Until the 1960s, Gonzalez told me, no one in town made figurines like these. Then a potter called Marcelino Vicente Mulato had a vision of the devil that he translated into clay: another spontaneous reinvention of the cultural landscape.

“When we dream, we carry these images in our heads, then we realize them in clay,” Gonzalez said. “I can take the things I see and imprint them on the material with my hands.”

If You Go

The charming rooms at the Hotel Mansión de Cupatitzio are a perfect jumping-off point for walks into the Barrancas de Cupatitzio National Park and start at 1,700 Mexican pesos ($87) during the high season around Holy Week.

Just a few blocks from Uruapan’s central square, the Hotel Mi Solar occupies a late-19th-century mansion that was remodeled as a hotel in 1943 (standard rooms from 1,232 Mexican pesos during Holy Week).

Cocina M offers the most interesting food in town. A dinner for two, including starters, mains and a glass of wine, should run about 1,100 Mexican pesos.

Another local favorite, famous for serving traditional cooking from the Tierra Caliente region of the state, is Rincón de Aguililla, where a filling meal for two will cost roughly 350 Mexican pesos.

The best option for visits to Paricutín is an overnight stay at the community-run Centro Turístico Angahuan, where a simple cabin with a working fireplace starts at 500 Mexican pesos. Guides often wait at the entrance to the hotel and the staff can help plan excursions, which usually start at 1,200 Mexican pesos for two people.

Most of the artisan towns have many families dedicated to craft but little infrastructure to help find their studios. A good starting point is the Casa de las Artesanías in Morelia, where the knowledgeable staff can help guide you. The owners at some of the more established galleries in Pátzcuaro, like the Zócalo Art Gallery, are even greater fonts of knowledge about the region.

Once in the craft villages, you can ask for the artisans you want to visit by name. As you leave one workshop, it’s always worth asking for that artisan’s recommendations for studios. Otherwise, just stop in the central plazas of a village to ask for artesanía; this will almost always bring you to someone’s home studio.

Prices can vary dramatically. Small, simple pineapples in San José de Gracía may cost no more than a few dollars, while more elaborately worked objects can easily run hundreds of dollars, if not more. Bartering is frowned upon, unless you’re in a large market and buying in bulk. Keep in mind that whatever you’re being asked to pay is almost certainly a modest price for the amount of work involved.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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