Sunday, March 6, 2011

Unsung Mexican Artists

Most people use their skill and energy every day to do a job that they don’t like, but need to survive:  everything from flipping hamburgers or laying bricks to drilling teeth or programming computers.

But some people use a special talent or skill with such pride in what they’re creating that they qualify, in my opinion, as artists, whether the creation is food, clothing, embroidery, furniture, music, ceramics or whatever.  And these artists are usually happy to demonstrate their art and to allow me to take their photos, even in Mexico where many people don’t want their photo taken. (I think this reluctance is because of concern about the Evil Eye, rather than fear, as in some countries, that the camera will steal their souls.)

Here’s one example of an unsung Mexican artist I met a couple of years ago in San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico.  Her name is Maria and her embroideries knocked me out—I thought she was the most skillful of the women displaying their textiles in the city’s marketplace.  I wanted to buy all of Maria’s creations, but could only afford one.  (Her costume or traje indicates that she comes from the village of Cholula.  One of the great things about San Cristobal is that all the women still wear the trajes from their native villages.)

On my visit to Morelia, Mexico, a month ago, I met several more of these  “unsung artists” as I like to think of them.  They each take pride in producing the best product they can and are happy to display their technique to a gringa  from the U.S. who can’t even speak Spanish.

(I already wrote, on Feb. 13, about two indigenous Mexican women, Benedicta and Cayetana, who have improved the quality of life for themselves and their families and won prizes and renown through their skill at the labor-intensive, pre-hispanic cuisine of Michoacan.)
On our way from Morelia to see the Monarch butterflies at the El Rosario mountain sanctuary, we stopped at a humble restaurant on a curve in the highway to try their carnitas and were fascinated by the skill of the Tortilla Lady, who was turning out tortillas on a primitive  wood-burning stove with amazing skill and speed.  She was happy to demonstrate, and even offered us a chance to try our hand, but I already knew from experience that tortilla-making is a lot harder than it looks.

Back in Morelia, the leader of our culinary tour, Susana Trilling, (, led us to the small store where she said we’d find the best gazpacho in the city.  You probably think, as I did, that gaspacho (that’s how they spell it) is a cold tomato soup, but in Morelia it’s a mixture of exotic tropical fruits topped off with just the right seasoning of chili flakes.  I could see by the care and concern (and pride) that the owner, Sr. Sandoval,  showed while demonstrating his specialty that he was a true artist, determined to produce a gazpacho that lived up to Susana’s  praise.

The unsung artist who stole my heart was the star of a mariachi group whom we met when a new friend—who makes the famous Cotija Cheese –took us to a beautiful national park, Lago de Camecuaro, filled with families boating, swimming and partying around the  crystalline lake shaded by ancient  trees.

One family invited us to join them at their table, and soon we were surrounded  by a group of mariachi musicians. The older man who seemed to be their leader sang with such intensity and passion that I couldn’t stop taking his photo, and everyone else kept requesting more songs. Now I’m obsessed with painting his portrait.

I love painting the people I encounter in my travels, --portraying them in their  native surroundings, especially involved in their daily work.

The gray-haired Mariachi singer reminded me of an even older musician, well into his eighties, whom my daughter and I met in Crete a few years ago.

He came up to us as we were drinking coffee in his mountainous village of Axos. We learned that his name is Yiannis Demarachoyiannis and he is the self-appointed mayor and greeter for his village. He said he wanted to practice his English with us. “You look so young,” he said to me, full of Cretan flattery and charm, “that I thought you were brothers.”

He insisted we come to his barbershop where he served us pears and his homemade raki (moonshine) and played and sang to us on the lyra—a rare instrument native to Crete. He sang mantadas—the Cretan songs  which the singer makes up in rhyming couplets to suit the occasion. “Take me to New York as your bar-bear,” he sang to Eleni, “and I will style your golden hair.”

I hope he’s still playing the lyra on his mountaintop in Crete.  He probably is, since both his parents lived past 100.  Like the Mariachi singer in Michoacan,  Mr. Yiannis deserves to be remembered in a painting, because he is an artist.


lactmama said...

As I was looking at the fotos of the older man that you want to paint I kept thinking, this guy is a yasu yasu, next paragraph you were in Crete with his - you could be brothers people.

I think this type (not the word I want) of man is seen all over the world. Takes in life and sings it out to all, as a part of his daily existance.

I hope you bought a lot of embroideries, they are amazing- put them in your gift closet when no more room on your walls. They are not to be left in their native countries.

Interesting with the people,cameras, evil eye and soul snatching -how universal it is. I always ask permission, all over the world before I take a foto.

As usual, good photos, great descriptions and yes you have to paint this guy.

Joan Ellen Gage said...

Gorgeous embroidery! I also liked your painting of the gentleman from Crete.

You lead an exotic and interesting life. How blessed you are!