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Artisans of the Lake,
Santa Clara de Cobre and Erongaricuaro : Two Craft Towns of Lake Patzcuaro
by jennifer j. rose
jennifer j. rose is a writer, editor
and lawyer living in Morelia, Michoacán.
She is editor-in-chief of GPSolo, a magazine published by the American
Bar Association. She can be reached at email@example.com
James Metcalf, Stephen and Maureen
Rosenthal and Vasco de Quiroga have a lot in common. Each was a foreigner who
came to Michoacan’s hills and dales surrounding Lake Patzcuaro, married art
with commerce, infused heritages from around the world with local custom,
emphasized training of artisans, and raised the utility of ordinary objects to
art forms – all the while caring for the fragile environment.
Let’s start with a basic history
lesson. Spanish lawyer Vasco de Quiroga got sent over to Michoacán in 1532 by
the Church to clean up the mess that his predecessor Nuño de Guzman left
behind, and in doing so, he became the indigenous peoples’ advocate,
encouraging the villages and burgs surrounding the lake to develop unique
products to trade with one another and the outside world. That sparked the 16th
century building boom which assured Patzcuaro would reign as the capital of
Tarascan culture. Vasco de Quiroga drew a lot of his ideas from the
best-seller of the day, Thomas More’s Utopia.
James Metcalf, a Modern-day Visionary
In 1937, fearing war was imminent,
James Metcalf’s parents, who met working in a stained glass studio, took
their New York-born 12-year-old to Europe, where they made more than 14,000
Kodachromes of stained glass windows, while providing him with a close-up
education of the 12th Century artisan’s life, growing in him an
appreciation for details as well as the product of collective organization to
create great projects.
After the war, Metcalf hung out with
the art and intellectual community in Majorca and France, meeting up with
Robert Graves, who steered his interests toward ancient society, Greek
mythology and poetry. The London School of Arts & Crafts was his next
destination, where he steeped in the mystical crafts in stained glass and
metalworking, tempered by the spirits of William Morris and Ruskin.
The energy Metcalf took with him to
Paris brought him success, working alongside Constantin Brâncusi, living the
romantic and Bohemian life of an artist. And then he met French Dada artist
Marcel Duchamp, who changed his life when he told him that an artist who
doesn’t change his life completely at the age of 40 will be content to copy
himself for the rest of his life. It was time to move on.
And for James Metcalf, the year was
1966 and the place was Mexico. Before long he began negotiations with the
Olympic Committee, who commissioned Metcalf and his new-found town of Santa
Clara de Cobre to make the Olympic torch which now can be seen at the National
Museum of Anthropology and History.
Santa Clara de Cobre, a place that’s
not on every map of Mexico, was back on the map.
Santa Clara de Cobre
Nestled amid pine and oak forests above and beyond Patzcuaro, ten miles distant, along the banks of the Sisipucho River, back in times of yore the Purèpechas established the villages of Churucumeo, Cuirindicho, Andicua, Huitzila, Taboreca and Itziparátzico, plying a metallurgical industry as sophisticated as the Greeks of Homer’s day. Burial grounds have revealed copper objects such as axes, masks, and pincers.
Life continued until 1520, when word of
the approaching Spaniards reached the area, scattering the locals. One monk,
Fray Martin de Jesus, accompanying the Spanish, founded the town in 1521,
calling it Santa Clara de Acuero. In 1553 the burg became known as Santa Clara
de los Cobres, but three hundred years later, in 1858, its name was changed
from Villa de Portugal to Santa Clara de Portugal, and then in 1932, Villa
Escalante, after a revolutionary figure. Even though it remains known on most
maps as Villa Escalante, the locals still call it Santa Clara de Cobre.
In 1540 a large forge was built to
exploit the copper ore, which incidentally didn’t come from the neighborhood
but from the nearest copper mines miles away in the Tierra Caliente. Smelting
ore takes three times as much charcoal as ore, so it’s more economical to
transport the ore from the mines to the source of charcoal than the other way
around. The nearest mines played out about forty-five years ago, and today
most of the 10,000 tons of copper which comes into Santa Clara each week
arrives in the form of copper wire and cable from electric and telephone
companies from here and abroad.
Using the smelting techniques they
brought from Europe, the Spanish soon recognized that the native techniques
were more efficient, and Vasco de Quiroga encouraged the locals to continue
their work as they’d done in what are now quaintly referred to as
pre-Hispanic times. And to this day, the bellows used in Santa Clara remain
completely different from European bellows.
There might not have been much market
in trading axes and pincers among villages, so Vasco de Quiroga’s group,
fomenting commerce in the region, urged the coppersmiths of Santa Clara to
make cazos, or cauldrons, giving them the exclusive right on production. Not
unlike the vat used by Macbeth’s witches, these cazos can be seen all over
Mexico, most frequently filled with the sizzling lard of chicharrones.
It wasn’t long before Santa Clara
became the most important copper smelting in all of New Spain, meeting the
swelling demand for cauldrons, stills, casks, church bells, sending copper to
the mint to be stamped into coins. Production peaked in the second half of the
19th century until a great fire destroyed the town, which remained
impoverished during the reign of Porfirio Diaz. Again it burned in 1910, but
by then the Spanish population had moved on, mostly to Patzcuaro and Morelia,
leaving only the Indians.
The town sort of kept going, in the way
that the small towns out in the middle of nowhere and elsewhere which once
enjoyed glory days do, eking out undistinguished existences and ignored by the
rest of the country. The country’s artistic and intellectual elites paid no
attention to Santa Clara. Even the famed Dr. Atl, in his 1921 classic work The
Popular Arts of Mexico failed to acknowledge the very existence of Santa
Clara’s metalwork. Finally in 1946 a group of local artisans, out of concern
for their town’s grave situation, organized the first copper fair, which
continues to this day, revitalizing the industry through production of
decorative pieces such as jugs, vases and centerpieces. The copper fair, which
became a national one in 1971, runs from August 11 to 22.
Setting up a studio in Santa Clara,
Metcalf and his wife, Ana Pellicer, brought new approaches to coppersmithing
from both the technical and organizational fronts. The first House of the
Artisan in Mexico, founded in 1972, emphasized the collective aspects of the
ancient artisans’ guilds, previously forbidden in the region. Giant public
pieces were produced, from murals to bas-reliefs, which now adorn the Acapulco
Convention Center and the Institute for Foreign Trade in Mexico City, bringing
the craft to the rest of the world in images far greater than a single vase.
Not all concepts were an easy sell – Metcalf’s
introduction of a flat thick edge instead of the traditional rolled edge met
with as much resistance as the theories suggesting the earth was round.
Unlike other artisan towns, Santa Clara
left women out of the artisan process, relegating them to the usual roles of
women’s work. Pellicer, who designed the jewelry of Brobdingnagian
proportions for the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday, changed
that when she introduced jewelry-making, a creative process that didn’t
require the upper-body strength demanded by hammering out large pieces. Today,
women turn out everything from gossamer chains to luminescent red oxide pearls
of copper, melding ancient universal designs and techniques into wearable art.
Technology, as well as themes invented
shortly after the discovery of fire, has added new dimensions to the
artisans’ lot. Lathes, levelers, and even computers are now used in the
creative process. The introduction of three-phase electricity into small towns
meant that electric motors could enhance production possibilities. Designs
ranging from the Tarascan tweezer, a traditional symbol of power in tribal
societies, to shapes reflected in Colima and Chupicuaro pottery met up with
repoussè over pitch and silver inlay. Èmail (pronounced M-I) brun, first
described in On Divers Arts, The Treatise of Theopilus back in the 11th
Century, involves linseed oil painted into engraved copper in a
heat-controlled process, resulting in a gilded black finish. Corn, pumpkins,
and even lizards grow out of copper designs, some of which resemble pottery.
Utilitarian objects meet up with
decorative form and what might appear as purely ornamental becomes a Möibus
strip. Santa Clara’s interpretation of the Japanese rain chain, a series of
pierced bells, connected by a chain, creates and channels a stream of water,
replacing the ugly downspout, transforming an everyday utility object into a
work of design and art.
“I don’t believe in talent, and
I’m very leery of originality,” James Metcalf, February 24, 2000.
With government support, Metcalf and
Pellicer founded a school of arts and crafts in 1976 in the town, undertaking
instruction in new techniques, development of new tools, and cultural,
technical and artistic studies. As the school grew, so too did the
participation of the Mexican government, and the school became known as the
Adolfo Best Maugard Center for Creative Technical and Industrial Training (CECATI
No. 166), now teaching its third generation of students from the entire
Republic of Mexico. The Santa Clara school remains the mothership, nurturing
branches in Dolores Hidalgo, Oaxaca, and two in Chiapas.
Metcalf drove us up the winding gravel
road to the school in his four-wheel drive pickup, through some two hundred
acres on which 160,000 pine trees have been planted during the past decade.
Expecting little more than the ordinary federal public school that dots the
Mexican countryside, I was more than just a little amazed to find a campus of
buildings set in a rose garden. Students and maestros worked among workshops
housing huge machines to studios designed for stained glass, lost wax work,
jewelry-making, blacksmiths’ forges, to even a studio focusing upon making
artisans’ tools in a curriculum focusing upon far more than simply pounding
out copper. A library and a children’s nursery completed the scenario. But
Metcalf saved the best for last — the computer lab. Not only row after row
of state-of-the art computers, but DSL lines too!
What are computers doing in an arts and
craft school? The link to distance learning is obvious, but computers play a
direct role in the school’s system of teaching a basic system developed by
Maugard, who served as Art Director under Jose Vasconcelos, the Minister of
Education who revolutionized the spirit of learning beyond the three Rs back
in the 1920s. Maugard first recognized the seven motifs, the symbols which
appear in design throughout the world: the spiral, the circle, the
half-circle, the “s,” and wave, the zigzag, and the straight line. Designs
from each of these seven can be computer-generated, transferred to acetates
and then on to copper with a photoengraved system. AutoCAD and PhotoShop and
Intel will play just as big a role in the artisan’s life today as the
machines of a century ago.
In this town the census claims some ten
thousand souls (although my best guess would place the count at least twice as
high), more than three hundred traditional family tallers (workshops) ply the
craft, turning out everything from souvenir-quality to high art. A one-way
street leads toward Ario de Rosales. Turn left sometime after passing the old
church on the right, and the next block will lead past the town square to the
one-way main street, Av. Morelos, where a left turn leads to the heart of
Santa Clara’s cultural and shopping district.
The corner of Av. Morelos and Av. Pino
Suarez marks the Museo Nacional de Cobre (National Copper Museum), an easy
one-stop overview of the coppersmithing as well as a display of award-winning
pieces. Pino Suarez is where the
best shopping can be found. From the Galleria Tiamuri (Pino Suarez No. 110,
tel and fax (434) 3-03-21), which offers up the finest designs of Ana Pellicer
and the school in jewelry and decorative objects, to Casa Felicitas (Pino
Suarez No. 88, tel (434) 304-43,
fax (434) 300-43), in which the
best displays are found, to Taller El Porton (Pino Suarez No. 69, Tel and fax
(434)303-05), where you find the most merchandise at the best prices. El
Porton, owned by Juan José Paz Ornejas and Rosa Ibet Glez. Cenedjas has been
in the same family for over a hundred years. At the back of both Casa
Felicitas and El Porton are working tallers where the visitor can watch
artisans coax a disk of copper into a work of art.
Following Av. Morelos toward Patzcuaro
a few blocks down, at Ave. Morelos Ote. 368 is Galeria Arte y Diseño en Cobre
y Plata (Tel and fax (434)-301-89) of Maestro Ignacio Punzo Angel, one of the
prize-winning elite. Because the tools of the trade are not commercially made,
he makes his own to fit the intended design – not unlike those who build
their own computers to create a tool superior to commercial manufacture.
Santa Clara de Cobre used to be one of
those towns where the journey exceeded the delight of the destination, but now
it’s the hottest spot in the annals of Michoacán artesanía.
ERONGARICUARO – The Place Where
Dreams Come True
Perhaps you’ve seen the Gauguin chair
in the Neiman Marcus catalog. Or the chairs at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
African restaurant, the Hard Rock Hotel bar in Las Vegas, or a café in Grand
Cayman. Or the Monopoly table and chairs licensed by Hasbro. The Dancing
Gecko, a Tucson firm, http://www.dancinggecko.com/
highlights some of the most
popular benches, armoires, barstools and tables which have been among the
touts of Stanley Korshak, Kings and Queens in New Orleans, and Architectural
Digest. Each of those came from a tiny burg on the far side of Lake Patzcuaro
When Stephen and Maureen Rosenthal set
off on a six-month post-college adventure in Mexico almost thirty years ago,
they never dreamed it would take them to Erongarícuaro, an end of the road
venue at the time not noted for much of anything, save a monastery and a tale
about Andre Breton and his coterie’s sojourn during World War II. He was
going write screenplays, and she was going to make tapestries. A single chair
and a trek back to Steve’s hometown of Tucson changed those plans.
Someone wanted to pay a lot of money
for that chair. And Rosenthal knew where more could be found. And after time,
he knew how to make a better chair.
By 1981, Rosenthal had spent nearly a
decade working among the carpentry shops of Cuanajo, a small town buried in
the hills between Morelia and Patzcuaro, processing orders for Dos Cabezas, an
elegant shop in Phoenix. His efforts caught the eye of Cuahtemoc Cardenas,
then Michoacán’s state governor, who asked him to organize a
government-sponsored rural workshop along with twenty paid Michoacán artisans
to teach carpentry. Redesigning traditional furniture, changing and tweaking
old Spanish designs, early emphasis was placed upon collective craftsmanship
But there’s more to the story than
simply inventing a better chair. And that’s where discussions of the fusion
of art and commerce began. Fine-tuning the product, locating distribution
channels, and developing production efficiencies marked the long road between
furniture that’s still nestled inside a pine tree and that’s displayed in
a showroom floor of an interior decorator. The road from Cuanajo to High
Point, North Carolina, and around the world is a long one which can’t be
measured in miles.
Five years after the rural workshop was
born, a Mexican corporation was formed to obtain financing for even more
commercial success. Within three years, changes too prolix to explain easily
and in a politic manner here created a stumbling block.
Let’s flashback to Vasco de Quiroga,
who introduced steel to the lake region. This meant that steel tools created a
huge leap in artisans’ ability to produce.
Trees in the area’s abundant forests could be felled more quickly,
hewn into lumber, and furniture production caught on in Michoacán like no
other state in all of Mexico. Even what’s known as “Santa Fe Style” has
its main influence in Michoacán furniture, the most prized, traded northward
through Zacatecas and beyond, imitating European designs.
A century and more later, Mexico became
the waystation for Oriental porcelains, embroidered silks, and furniture
destined for Europe. Galleons brimming with merchandise from the Far East
docked at the Acapulco and ports along Mexico’s Pacific Coast before the
overland journey to the eastern seaboard. Curiously enough, Patzcuaro was once
the customs office. And some of those imports just sort of managed to fall off
the truck along the way.
The notion of lacquer and Japanning,
which never really caught on in Spain, became a viable and popular means of
stabilizing and decorating wooden furniture. While the Chinese influence
didn’t bring lacquer to Mexico, it did introduce new designs and
applications. Resin-based lacquers, from sumac, which the Chinese used,
weren’t available, because sumac doesn’t grow in Mexico. But Michoacán,
one of the three states in Mexico which does feature lacquer (the other two
are Chiapas and Guerrero), uses maque, a lacquer made from bug juice. And so
the furniture made possible by the introduction of steel tools brought over
from Spain, influenced by European designs, and enhanced by the Oriental
styles of lacquer, synthesized.
Meanwhile, back on the far side of the
lake in Erongaricuaro, Maureen’s background in art history came to the fore
as Steve created a design workshop, piercing and carving frames. What began as
a government project became private enterprise as the years advanced. Before
long, there were four companies in operation, each addressing an important
phase: marketing, design, production, and teaching.
mfa/eronga, inc. is an allied
U.S.-based marketing and distribution company which channels the product to an
exclusive, dedicated national distributor who understands the needs of
residential and commercial markets.
Teaching remains a major focus,
conducted as a non-profit organization. Artisans participate in regular
classes and visiting museums, parks and wonderment which might be beyond the
ken of the workaday craftsman constrained by time, money, and the need to
produce. Some of Rosenthal’s designs have already fallen into the public
domain, misidentified as “traditional Tarascan.” The sun chair, its beams
rising from the backrest, is a Rosenthal design, using borrowed and universal
symbols, and it’s been copied and interpreted so much that it’s become
part of the landscape.
Rosenthal led us through the workshops,
beginning with the raw lumber, alder wood imported from the U.S. and Canada,
and explaining the use of medium density fiberboard (MDF), an ecologically
correct compound of ground wood which doesn’t split, warp and is more stable
than wood. Built on the premises, the chair, table, armoire, or frame is
carved, sanded, and buffed before it’s moved across the street to a second
workshop where the painting process takes places in yet another series of work
stations. Each piece proceeds through a number of sketches, paint, lacquer,
paint, sanding, buffing, and re-lacquering in more stages than the average
Rolls Royce’s paint job as lacquer and design becomes one with the
underlying wood in a lyrical process.
Whether it’s filling those Neiman
Marcus orders or supplying eight customized bar stools each with a stylized
fish, mfa/eronga enjoys the beauty of remaining small and flexible. Unique
designs ranging from one customer’s order for a cabinet featuring the faces
of his best friends or another’s memorialization of a bullmastiff on a chair
are affordable. One customer has requested a trompe l’oeil of a messy
Yet this is no assembly-line factory.
In private workspaces, each artisan worked at a comfortable pace,
concentrating upon detail in a very personal way, as if each piece would bear
the artisan’s name.
In a way, each piece does, because the
150 men and women working in each step of the process from the first sketch to
delivery of the final product are not simply paid workers with health care
benefits and a credit union. They’re part of a cooperative guild, UNEAMICH,
shareholders in mfa/eronga.
Juxtaposing traditional techniques with
modern materials, beckoning the roots of everyone’s heritage, mfa/eronga has
breathed new life into Erongarícuaro, enfranchising the region’s people as
the largest employer in the area.
Standard-issue guidebooks scarcely
mention Erongarícuaro, if at all, duly noting the Franciscan Monastery of the
Virgin of the Assumption, an architectural complex began sometime in the 16th
century, which grew into perhaps one of Mexico’s homeliest religious
edifices, no doubt assembled by a committee. Reined in by tradition, the
town’s one of those bucolic oases of tranquility, the kind that outsiders
call “quaint.” To its denizens, the beauty of the countryside and red tile
roofs hunkering down over marvelous lakeside vistas can mean that places like
Erongarícuaro, 13 miles from the town of Patzcuaro, are someone’s decaying
rural Iowa town, a place to leave for better opportunities elsewhere. It’s a
lot like Jerome, Arizona. mfa/eronga has revived, slowly but steadily, the
town’s economy and spirit like no foreigner since the days of Vasco de
mfa/eronga’s product is available
only through high-end interior designers, but its sales room in Erongarícuaro
offers up a fine selection of its wares at 40% less. Take the first right turn
as you enter the town at Av. Urueta Carillo S/N. Tel and fax (52) 434-400-17
The Rosenthals need no longer worry
about those screenplays and tapestries. The tapestry of the lives and art
they’ve created on that western edge of the lake are the screenplay.
This quartet of foreigners left more
impact upon the direction of Michoacán arts and crafts than anyone else
during the past five hundred years, unifying heritages, creating a stream of
commerce, and reinvigorating local economies.
Recognizing that the artisan is a vital natural resource, the state of
Michoacán just this year enacted the new Ley de Fomento Artesanal (Law for
the Promotion of the Craft Industry), broader in scope than any other
state’s legislation, raising the artisan’s lot and putting its imprimatur
upon Vasco de Quiroga’s dream.
© jennifer rose, 2000.