Colour and Light, Part Two: A Cultural Vanguard

“Oaxaca, a la vanguardia en cultura.” (Oaxaca is in the vanguard of culture.)  So states a special report in our morning paper.

The statement reflects everything I have been experiencing this week. The state of Oaxaca blends a respect for tradition with an awareness of contemporary issues, politics and ecology. Rural towns specialize in indigenous crafts of pottery, rugs, alebrijes (brightly painted fanciful wooden creatures) and mescal, but the valley also houses artists of the new Mexico, whose work is exhibited in urban galleries. Within moments you can travel back in time, or leap forward with new approaches and creative solutions to new problems.

Our friend Lynda Wilde is a photographer and writer who lives in Mexico during the fall and winter months Lynda offered to take us on an adventure to discover some of the range of Oaxacan culture. Our first stop was  a tiny village three quarters of an hour out of the city, San Marcos Tlapazola, where she wanted to get  a new cooking pot from los Mujers del Barro Roja.

The road to Tlapazola
The road to San Marcos Tlapazola

The signpost outside of Tlapazola lists the population as 1500, but I think that this may be generous. The village is tucked into the side of a mountain, as are many of the rural villages.  An old reference book mentions the tourist Yu’u in Tlapazloa as a place to get a guide, and to stay the night. As we passed, it was clear that it has been deserted for many years – woe betide any tourist who heads there looking for accommodation!

But in the heart of San Marcos Tlapazola is an extraordinary family of women – the Mujers del Barro Roja – who have been making extraordinary red clay pots, plates and jugs for several generations.

Mujeres del Barro Rojo
Mujeres del Barro Rojo

The women work in a completely non-mechanized way, spinning their pots on pieces of leather stuck in the ground and firing them in a kiln coated with wood and donkey dung. Lynda visits them every year, and has made a film of their firing process.  When we arrived the women greeted her with great hugs and smiles.

Their pottery is simple, elegant, light weight and incredibly functional. Polished and shiny, you can cook with them on the stovetop or in the oven. We sat in their small storage room and pulled pots from the shelves, comparing sizes and shapes, and searching to find lids that matched our favourites. If I weren’t flying home I would buy them all. I loved their feel and glow.

the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola
the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola

The sister’s warmth and humour was infectious, their way of life honest and indigenous. Their beautiful elderly mother sat polishing a small bowl. A young niece worked over an open fire preparing comida. Chickens scratched in the yard. There are no men in their world, and they seemed entirely happy and at peace.

With our purchases made, they sent us on our way with freshly made Tlayuda (a regional crispy, thin tortilla about 20” in diameter).

Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo
Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo

Lynda also wanted to show us the other, contemporary Mexico. Any excursion into the arts of Oaxaca must pay tribute to Francisco Toledo. Toledo is renowned for his artwork and his encouragement of the contemporary arts of Oaxaca. He was instrumental in starting an art library at the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca and in founding the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO). He was also one of the driving forces behind the Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

Founded in 2006, the centre is the first ecological arts centre of Latin America. Housed in a former spinning and weaving factory outside the small town of San Agustín Etla, it sits in atop Vista Hermosa, Beautiful View, looking over the valley of Oaxaca. The Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla was created to encourage training, experimentation and collaboration amongst artists in all disciplines. The classrooms, display halls, residences and libraries are an inspiration to national and international artists.

The Vista is indeed beautiful, as are the renovated buildings of the centre.

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

On the day we arrived, there were no classes going on, but we were able to wander through the facilities to our heart’s content. A new display showed us that the next phase of the project is to build a home for the study of mathematics, which to me seems thrillingly creative. There was also an exhibit of new work by Francisco Toledo– a wonderful show of drawings and watercolours created as an homage to Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastical animals. Ribald, sexual, surprising, the show revealed Toledo’s collaborative approach and incredibly artistry.

A steady stream of water flowing down from the top of the mountain made the location ideal for the nineteenth century factory, and in the twenty-first the flow of water encouraged the creation of Arte Papel Vista Hermosa. An artisanal paper making facility just down the mountain from the Centro de los Artes, Arte Papel encourages the use of natural fibers and techniques, using ecologically motivated production processes and contemporary artistry. The discipline and craft of the institute’s paper artists are reflected in the sheets of hand made paper and paper creations (jewelry, kites, hand bound books) offered for sale. Paper, I thought to myself, is easier to carry home than pots.

A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa
A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa

From the peace and beauty of Vista Hermosa, Lynda said she’d like to take us to an industrial park. An industrial park? “We’re going to visit a glass factory,” she said. “I need some new glasses.”

We drove through a gate surrounding a number of sterile looking buildings.

Xa Quixe, the glass factory
Xa Quixe, the glass factory

Walking through a yard of machinery and broken bottles we entered Xa Quixe, a Zapotec word meaning, amongst other things, “a time for transparency”. Inside the factory we were greeted by Padro, who informed us that they were not blowing glass that day but we welcome to look through the showroom and factory.

While lacking the natural scenic beauty of Centro de los Artes, Xa Quixe is equally inspiring in terms of artistry. Founded in 2002 by Salime Harp Cruces and Christian Thornton, Xa Quixe has a mission to produce original designs while being commited to environmental and social ideals. “Xaquite is a calling to a disciplined process manifested through creative action with fire and glass,” says the translated web site. The web site is a wonderful combination of poetry, imagery and information, blending Zapotec history with contemporary sensibilities.

Glass pieces in Xa Quixe
Glass pieces in Xa Quixe

Standing in the slightly dusty showroom, I was hooked. Sleek forms had been stretched into bird like sculptures. They nestled beside functional glasses in organic forms that begged to be held, admired and sipped from. And what a range of colours! The pieces were vibrant and full of life.

Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe
Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe

Padro introduced us to Salvador, who spoke fluent English – which was necessary in order for us to fully comprehend the innovations that Xa Quixe is undertaking. Environmentally conscious, he explained, they use recycled glass. Recycled glass doesn’t take colours well, but Christian Thornton has developed a new way of working, a new secret chemical process that allows their recycled glass to accept colour.

Salvador also explained that a glass factory uses an incredible amount of energy – the furnace is constantly burning at 1300° centigrade. In order to save on energy, they have converted the furnace to use vegetable oil recycled from restaurants. They are able to get it to burn hot enough, and to have no bi-product. Looking forward, they know that there will be a huge competition for recycled oil, so they are working to develop a solar heating system. Solar? I ask. Solar up to 1300°? Yes. They think they are about 3 years away from that, Salvador says. Solar, plus an ecologically friendly combination of hydrogen and methane.

Inspiring. Blending modern technology with ancient craft and social consciousness. Salvador and Pedro are people who bubble over with the love of their profession and their art. This was a new Mexico for me, a forward-thinking Mexico of innovation.

Now I if I can just find some bubble wrap to pack up my hand blown mezcal glasses…

On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca
On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca

Author: Amanda West Lewis

AMANDA WEST LEWIS has built a life filled with words on the page and on the stage, combining careers as a writer, theatre director and calligrapher. Her book THESE ARE NOT THE WORDS was published in April 2022 by Groundwood Books. Previous books include The Pact, (Red Deer Press) which was listed on the 2017 USBBY Outstanding International Books List; selected for the 2017 ILA Young Adults' Readers Choice List; Nominated for 2017 Snow Willow Award; and listed in the Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Books for Kids & Teens, Spring 2017. SEPTEMBER 17: A NOVEL was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downie IODE Award. Amanda has an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her theatre career, Amanda is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and directs children. She has developed specialized drama and literacy programs for youth at risk, and for children with autism spectrum disorder. She has a Certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences with Complex Difficulties from Rose Bruford College, England. In 2015, Amanda co-produced the hit play “Up to Low” is based on the book by Brian Doyle. As a professional calligrapher and book artist, Amanda is passionate about the history of writing and has taught calligraphy courses to students of all ages. She studied with Hermann Zapf, Mark Van Stone and Nancy Culmone among many others. Amanda lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, in the woods in Eastern Ontario. They have three wonderful grown children. Find out more on her website at Photo Credit: Marianne Duval

One thought on “Colour and Light, Part Two: A Cultural Vanguard”

  1. What a fabulous report. I find myself thinking of how the new doesn’t — can’t — replace the old in any kind of wholesale or meaningful way. How poor we would be, culturally, if it did. Making the old new again…well, that seems to be the ongoing story of being human. There’s that scene at the end of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, where the character Dot appear to George Seurat’s (great?) grandson, who himself is an artist, but one that has lost his way. The interchange goes like this:
    D:…Are you working on something new?
    G: No I’m not working on anything new.
    D: That’s not like you, George.
    G: I’ve nothing to say —
    D: You have many things
    G: Well, nothing that’s not been said —
    D: But by you, George…

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