Hearts and Crafts of Oaxaca

Oaxaca is known for the variety and beauty of its handicrafts. Exquisite pottery, woodcarving, weaving, basketry, embroidery, and many other crafts attract collectors from all over the world. Many of the small towns and villages surrounding Oaxaca City specialize in one particular type of craft. The skills have been passed down through the generations and often the whole family takes part in the various stages of producing the art, each adding their unique creative touch.

My husband and I visited several of the artists’ villages and, in some cases, even their private homes. We found that by hiring a private driver to take us around, we were able to tailor our experience to our interests and benefit from the guide’s personal knowledge. The “one-size-fits-all” packaged tours only visit the more touristy shops (never the private homes), often spend just a short time at each stop, and (we were told) steer purchases to locations that offered the tour operators a commission.

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In addition to viewing the displays of finished products ready for sale, several of the studios we visited demonstrated how the items were made, including how dyes were created from natural sources. When we visited a shop in the village of Teotitlan del Valle, famous for their hand-woven rugs and tapestries, we were shown how a tiny insect gathered from the prickly pear cactus created the intense reds used to dye wool for weaving. Other dye sources include the indigo plant, wild marigold, pecan leaves and shells, pomegranates, and tree moss.

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Another fascinating visit was to the village of San Martín Tilcajete, which is famous for the fantastical carved wooden animals called alebrijes (al-ah-bree-hays) created there. San Martin’s – and Oaxaca’s – most famous alebrijes artists are the husband and wife team, Jacobo and Maria Angeles. Not only do they produce bright and exquisitely detailed artwork themselves, they have converted their studio into a model of community development. They employ many talented artists from their village and offer tours and demonstrations. Although the alebrijes made by Jacobo and Marie were out of our price range, they also featured beautiful – and much more affordable – carvings made by their apprentices.

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Making our tours to the outside villages even more special was having the opportunity to visit the private homes of a few of the artists. We met Conception Aguilar, whose family helps her create beautifully crafted and whimsically painted clay sculptures in their small home, and Jose Garcia Antonio, also known as “The Blind Potter,” whose large and wonderfully messy compound is a jumble of his primitive – but exquisite – ceramic art.

My husband and I aren’t big souvenir purchasers, but we did come home with a few items we fell in love with. Not only are they mementos of our travels, but we feel that buying pieces directly from those who make them is the best way to support the artisans and their families, and helps them to keep their heritage alive.

38 thoughts on “Hearts and Crafts of Oaxaca”

  1. Such beautiful pieces of art, Janis! I am also not one for touristy souvenirs….but I LOVE the pieces that you highlighted here. It is such a great idea to buy directly from the artists whenever you can.

  2. If I were offered a choice, I’d select the private tour, too. You are able to engage more with the artists and their families and “be” there, front and center. Wonderful, colourful, memories!

  3. I have picked up a few key pieces in Baja, but these are simply lovely! Buying handmade art from the locals and seeing where they live and knowing something about them will keep those pieces alive in your home and make them that much more special!

  4. What a wonderful idea! It is always terrific to see the work of artisans and to meet the person and passion behind the work and as well to support the artists when possible. Mexican art has so much history color and connectivity to heritage and roots. Thanks for the slideshows!

    Peta

  5. What a fantastic idea to hire a local driver and have him (them) show you around. You really got a good feel for the lives and the art of these creative people. Some of the pieces are truly exquisite! Like the big, wooden ones, hand-painted with tiny, colorful designs. Yeah… that would be expensive. 🙂 I enjoy buying souvenirs in each country I visit, but, the last few years (without a home of ourselves), they are only allowed to be small and useful.

    1. Jose was a native Zapotec and Robert an American expat. Together, they made a great team and I’d recommend them to anyone looking for a unique experience in Oaxaca. I love the few items we picked up and I get a jolt of joy when I look at them. Believe me, if I could have justified the owl purchase, it would be here in my home now.

  6. I don’t do the touristy souvenirs either, but will, sometimes, buy something unique and regional. I’m glad that you found such items for your home thanks to hiring a local person. I love all the bold colors that the artisans use.

  7. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! There is something intimate about buying the art directly from the artist. I, too, love seeing something crafted and touched by the hands that made it. In a world where the arts are often seen as frivolous and unimportant, your support is not only helping their ability to make a living, but as you mentioned, it keeps the arts and their heritage alive! Bravo…

    1. I like that you used the word “intimate,” because that describes the experience exactly. Even though a lot of art was available for purchase in the city center, being able to buy directly from the artists added to the uniqueness and value of the item.

  8. I love to bring a piece or two home from our travels as they remind me of fond memories and they are always objects the draw attention and start conversations with our guests. Good choices.

  9. I always have trouble coming home from a trip without having purchased some works of art. I could probably do a world tour of art right in my own home.

  10. I buy a piece of art everywhere I go and love to be surrounded by those memories, Janis. The most difficult thing is that I live in an area where tours of artists’ studios are available every weekend through the fall. I can’t resist going – I love to see where artists work – but I also can’t resist buying. Now that I’m retired, this is getting a bit out of hand! I would have been in such trouble in Oaxaca.

  11. I stubbled across your wonderful through a search for natural dyes. Great post and superb photos. Oaxaca is now moving towards the top of my list for a vist. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh, please move Oaxaca up to the top! If you love weaving and natural dyes (or any type of art you’d use them for), you would be thrilled at what you can find there. I was amazed at the colors they were able to derive from natural sources. Thank you for visiting and commenting!

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