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A folk art collector goes shopping

By Susan Page

In his 4000-square-foot showroom of the best of Mexican popular art, Galeria Atotonilco owner Mayer Shacter has personally selected every single piece. He travels all over Mexico to find the best artists, and then he buys their best work. As I write, he and I (his wife) are in the middle of a four-week driving trip all over the south of Mexico. We are filling our large van with dazzling pieces.

Galería Atotonilco
Open House
Exhibiting new folk art treasures
from a recent shopping trip
Sat & Sun, Jun 1 & 2, 12-5pm
Directions to the gallery in our ad in this issue

The new work will be exhibited at an open house on Saturday and Sunday, June 1 and 2 from noon to 5pm. Refreshments will be served.

Mayer Shacter’s gallery collection is distinctive in many ways. His own background as a ceramic artist himself for 27 years gives him a skilled eye for design and craftsmanship, and he is extremely discerning when he selects pieces. He goes to great lengths to include work that he loves but that is not easy to obtain.

For example, we drove over pot-holed roads to the town of Tezuitlán near Jalapa on the Gulf coast, definitely not a tourist destination. The mountain town is built on such a series of hills and valleys that we had to go into a building to find a level place to stand. It’s a mountain range called the Sierra Puebla where they have a unique, little-known tradition of puppet shows that combine pre-Hispanic spiritual beliefs with Catholicism. The hand-carved puppets with hand-sewn clothing are rarely seen outside this area, because few people venture into the remote mountain villages to find them. Each puppet couple represents Mary and Joseph on one level, but they are also designed to entertain with elaborate stories. For their religious significance, they remain on altars in village homes all year when they are not being used in performances. All of the puppets have large wooden hands because clapping is an important part of each puppet show.

Every set of puppets comes with a most beautiful folk-painted wooden box, designed to contain the puppets, the carved wooden chenchere (woodpecker) that is a part of each play, and the masks worn by the puppeteers. We were able to purchase an excellent selection of these rare vintage puppets and several stunning boxes.

San Cristóbal de las Casas is situated at the heart of a large population of Mayas, most of whom live in several hundred small villages in the surrounding mountains. Each village specializes in an ancient Mayan craft, including eye-dazzling embroidery and weaving, beadwork, delightful stuffed animals, and ceramics. We added to our textile collection and bought over 100 animals, actually more like fabric sculptures than stuffed animals.

Then we headed to the ceramic village of Amatenango, long known for its dramatic jaguar jars, sculpted jaguars, and traditional roosters. The stands that line the highway near the village are heartbreaking to us, because most of the artists have abandoned the traditional work in favor of garishly painted, molded decorative items apparently preferred by Mexican tourists. However, we have cultivated relationships with several artists who are still making wonderful traditional jaguars, ollas, and roosters. Esperanza Perez is a warm, enterprising 32-year-old who prides herself on quality work. Her home has traditional cement floors and unpainted brick walls, but it is spacious and bright and impeccably clean. In the dirt yard behind her home, she showed us two types of kilns she uses. We enjoyed selecting jaguars, large and small, and ollas from her, purchasing as many as we could because we know they sell fast out of the gallery. Wrapping and packing them all in boxes to install in our van took a couple of hours.

Then, Esperanza graciously showed us to the home of Albertina, the only person left in Amatenango who still makes traditional roosters. We were able to purchase four, and kept telling her how much we value her carrying on the venerable customs of the village. As we were leaving she said, “Would you like to see the meter-long iguana I made, in the traditional style?” Meter-long iguana? Ahh, yes, we would like to see it! We all piled in our van, two little girls giggling in the back with the boxes, and drove to a different section of the village where the dirt roads were in even worse repair. She wasn’t kidding! We gazed upon a huge, amazing clay iguana with wonderful spines all along his back. A meter? He was almost four feet long! We had to have him. It took three of us to lift him into the van, and he will be in the gallery to greet you when you arrive at the open house, June 1 and 2.

The Indian market in San Cristóbal is one of our favorites in all of Mexico. But for a few Coke bottles here and there, the entire outside part of the market could be a scene from 300 years ago: Mayan men and women, all dressed in their traditional garb and speaking Tzozil or Tzsitál, with their fresh produce spread out on the ground, shoppers picking their way through the oranges, mangoes, bananas, beans, rice, corn, all locally grown. The inside part of the market is row after row of stalls selling everything from pineapples to batteries to haircuts. It’s the indigenous version of a mall, and remains virtually as it has for centuries. Last time we were here, we happened upon slingshots, cleverly carved as animals or figures. They sold quickly out of the galley, so we wanted to resupply. With little trouble we found them again and selected all of the most skillfully carved.

I am writing from Oaxaca where we have found a new wood carver who works in the style of the famous Jocobo Ángeles but whose finely painted carvings, unlike those of Jocobo, are affordable. We are excited to introduce his work to the gallery. From here we will visit the almost inaccessible village of San Augustín Oapán in the Guerrero mountains to purchase more of their much beloved large clay reinas (queens). Last time we were there, they told us no one had ever ventured into the village to buy work. They carry their work out to nearby cities to sell it. And we will again be in the lacquer village of Tamalacatzingo on the day of their annual competition, where, last year, only we and the Mexican government craft division, FONART, were purchasing museum-quality work, most of which has already sold out of the gallery. We are eager to see what this year’s competition reveals.

Except for the open house on June 1 and 2, Galería Atotonilco is open by appointment. 185-2225 or 044-415-153-5365. Directions to the gallery are in our ad in this issue.


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