The Hidden Talent Of Mexican Artisans
By Harriet Hart
Mary Ellen Rushworth and Mony Angulo opened El Creativo Corazon, a retail space for local artisans in central Ajijic two years ago. Since opening day they have grown from eight to fifty artisans and put over $250,000 pesos into the talented hands of those individuals. Mary Ellen says she has learned a lot in that time frame, but the most incredible lesson is how much untapped skill Mexican artisans possess.
“A customer came in looking for a hand-carved chess set for Christmas. We called Lalito, a local cabinetmaker who hails from a long line of woodworkers, and he carved and hand-tooled an exquisite set for her.”
This brought back memories. I have at least five items in my home that were custom made for me because I asked someone one simple question: “Can you make me one of these?”
I met local carver Rene Moran in the Ajijic Plaza about seven years ago now. I craved a horizontal wooden angel for my living room. I took Rene a Christmas ornament to give him the idea. A week later I had my masterpiece: Gabriela is six feet long, blowing a trumpet, and she is exactly what I wanted. Since then, Rene has carved a mermaid and a merman for me, and a totem pole for my friend.
Talent surrounds us. Mexicans have artistic ability buried in their DNA. I was walking down a village street one morning and spotted an embroidered blouse hanging in a doorway. I entered, asked the proverbial: “Can you make me one from a picture?” I took Lupita a colored photo of a russet crowned motmot and asked her to make me a cotton blouse with the bird embroidered on the front. She had never seen such a bird, but tackled the assignment with enthusiasm. When I stroll through town wearing my top, people stop and ask me where I got it.
Mary Ellen recently gave a lecture to the British Society and generously shared her thoughts with me:
“There is a lot to be said about generational skills; many of these folks learned their craft at their father’s or grandfather’s knees. They intuitively know more about the materials and processes than can ever be taught. But they have always made the same things, in the same way, generation after generation, because that’s what sells. And, as you know, most marry young and live week-by-week financially, so their focus quickly becomes income versus expanding their creativity. Our seamstress Carmen is a perfect example. She worked at Los Telares when she was a girl, learning to weave and sew and embroider from an uncle. As a teen she always wanted to be a designer, but needed to work to help the family. She cleaned part time and helped her husband at the polleria.
My partner Mony brought her in, in her “off hours,” to sew our WINGs line to raise funds for a vocational training group. A month or so after she started I took a photo of a customer’s blouse and showed it to Carmen as something I thought women would like. It was a fairly complex cross-layered item. The following day when I arrived, there it was. She had no pattern, no example to follow, just a picture on a cell phone, yet she just intuitively knew how to create it. Fast forward a year and she’s making half a dozen custom dresses and suits for the Niños Incapacitados Denim & Diamond ball, from customers’ pictures or hand sketches. And there are so many like her.”
Everyone knows the traditional San Miguel de Allende rectangular tin mirror frames, sometimes inlaid with tiles. We asked artisans to replicate a 6ft oval antique tin mirror for a client. It was easy for them, and we’ve sold another half dozen for them since.
These artisans know their skills inside and out, they are ingrained from childhood, and they can create just about anything our imaginations can concoct, so think about us next time you say “I wish I could find…” or “wouldn’t it be cool if we had a… And, an added bonus, we’ve seen the confidence artisans gain given the opportunity to create a custom piece, not just pride in a job well done, but renewed passion for their traditional trade and true pride in themselves.”
I think Mary Ellen and Mony should be equally proud because they have created a retail space where customers can discover the untapped talent of the Mexican artisans who are our neighbors. Pay them a visit at Galeana #14 in Ajijic.