On Mexico and Making

On Mexico and Making

September 22, 2022

I started making jewelry in Mexico. At the age of nineteen, with workable Spanish and a restless spirit, I returned to the country where I had lived for a portion of my senior year in high school. This time, I’d chosen a new city, in the high desert of central Mexico, San Miguel de Allende. Intent on studying painting, I enrolled at the local art institute. On a whim (and a healthy dose of upsell by the jewelry teacher who I happened to meet in the vaulted stone hallways that surrounded the central patio of the school), I also enrolled in a jewelry class. This was the first teacher who said, “what is in your sketchbook, let’s work from there.” At the time, I was deep into reading Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins and designed a pair of earrings with silver half-moons suspended under bezel-set turquoise that represented the pyramids in the book. That was the first time I repeated a form and those earrings are still out there in the world, given to an old friend, lost or re-gifted or floating around in the vast jewelry pile of misfits and mis-matched. 

The pulse of artesania in Mexico, (translated into English as handicrafts but for which no real translation exists), has been at the center of my experience with jewelry. Sometime during those first months in San Miguel a friend introduced me to the writings of B. Traven, by giving me a collection of short stories called Macario and Other Stories. One of the stories, “Assembly Line” is about a basket maker in southern Mexico, Oaxaca or Chiapas. He gathers the reeds, dries them, gathers the seeds, the bark of a cedar tree, the sapote peel, the cochineal beetles and prepares the natural dyes so that he can intersperse bright strips of red, pink, purple and yellow with the natural reeds. The owner of a New York candy factory traveling in Mexico comes across the baskets and buys the basket maker’s entire inventory for a pittance and returns to the United States with them where the board of directors at the candy factory decide that these handmade objects, bought for pennies, should become the new packaging for their candies. And so, the businessman returns to the basket maker and orders ten thousand baskets but now the price is quadrupled and the lead time is five years because the reeds only grow at certain times, the quantity of natural dye is limited, hands weave only so fast. A moral, to be sure, about the time it takes to construct a handmade object, its resistance to commodification, que no se vende por mayor. 

In his essay, “The Heart of the Table,” the Mexican poet, essayist and diplomat Octavio Paz writes of the handmade object, and quotes Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the 17th century intellectual nun, “a woman’s hand is white and beautiful because it is a thing of flesh and bone not ivory or silver; I esteem it not because it gleams but because it grasps”. All around Oaxaca City, are the roots of the handmade objects one can find there. Deposits of red, green and black clays, the cedar and pine trees used to carve the forms for alebrijes, the vegetable paints that are used to meticulously apply pattern, the metal gates, the murals, the cement tile floors with incredible repeating patterns that one can also see carved into the walls of the archeological sites of Mitla or Monte Alban. The process of overlay, of conquest and colonization, resistance and activism on display everywhere in obvious and subtle ways. The church built at Mitla, an inhabited city at the time of the arrival of the Dominicans, who built their church utilizing the very walls of the temple, an architecture of power and subjugation that ran parallel with the church’s efforts to indoctrinate indigenous nobles and those in line to be priests, thus controlling the flow of knowledge and information to the majority of the population. Artisans trained with European carvers, fresco painters, weavers, and the great hybrid vocabulary of Mesoamerica began to appear on churches and textiles, door knockers, dolls.

Mexican Spanish is full of nahautl words, guajalote, agacate, elote, huarache, molcajete, the mortar and pestle made of volcanic rock that grinds and pulverizes at the same time, extracting more complex flavors and textures from humble ingredients, chili, lime, cacahuate, jitomate. I chat with the woman preparing salsa de molcajete in Oaxaca’s Mercado 20 de Noviembre about my Aunt Indu’s electric mortar and pestle that takes up 1/3 of her kitchen in Bangalore India. It makes the best coconut chutney – one unachievable in a blender or food processor because of the way the fibers in the fruit are treated. The slow work of process and ritual yields the best tasting sauce.

The words for sourdough are masa madre or dough mother/mother dough. In Oaxaca, there are moles that are hundreds of years old, a small bit of the previous batch added in with the new, ancestry written into taste, ghosts of cacao and chili, grown under different skies, inform the new generation.

Paz says of the handmade object, “In craftmanship there is a continuous movement back and forth between usefulness and beauty; this back-and-forth motion has a name: pleasure...our relation to the industrial object is functional; our relation to the work of art is semi-religious; our relationship to the work of craftmanship is corporeal. In reality, this last is not a relation but a contact. The transpersonal nature of craftsmanship finds direct and immediate expression in sensation: the body is participation.”

After a month of jewelry classes at the Instituto in San Miguel, my teacher invited me to work in his studio where he rented out benches to students with whom he might want to drink a beer. We stumbled along together, forgetting to drill holes in closed hollow forms, avoiding the expandable drum wheel when it rained (it lived outside on the terrace where water pooled and where I once received a hefty shock), soldering with massive propane and air torches, making our own ingot molds out of sand and oil and maybe a little bit of concrete that we would pack into cans around a steel rod that we removed before pouring in the molten silver. We needed two torches for that operation. The thrill of that transformation, liquid metal passing into solid still makes my hands shake. 

The north central highlands, where San Miguel is located is part of colonial Mexico. It grew around the silver traveling from mines in San Luis Potosi and Real de Catorce. The train runs this route, from the outskirts of San Miguel to the Texas border. San Miguel’s streets are cobbled, heavy carved wooden doors open from ochre and pink buildings into cool stone courtyards. Life centers itself around the plaza central with its candy cane neo gothic church and birds that flock to the trees in the evenings.  

Tools were hard to come by, brought by a runner/courier service from the border. We placed group orders to Rio Grande and waited for them for weeks while enough packages built up at the PO in Brownsville to merit the trip through the border states snaking along through San Luis Potosi and finally Guanajuato. 

Silver was cheap, brought into the studio in all forms by a brother and sister who recycled it from photographic emulsion. Stone dealers came through too. Ismael from Chiapas with red amber and hair thicker and longer than mine was at the time, fire opals or quetzalitzpyolitili/ “stone of the bird of paradise”, from the nearby mines, turquoise, labradorite, garnets, jasper. Many of these dealers made the journey north in February to the Tucson Gem Show, carrying their inventory wrapped in paper towels and newspaper, in backpacks, setting up in no-name motel rooms. Sometimes they were robbed on the return through Mexico City carrying a year’s work in cash wrapped in paper towels and newspaper. Such were the lessons about provenance I learned in Mexico, where the open veins of Latin America walked in and out of the studio at a steady pace.