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Shopping: Oaxaca and Michoacan : Hearts & Crafts : Finding folk art treasures and their creators on a tour through one expert'sfavorite artisan villages

August 28, 1994|ROCKY BEHR | Behr leads crafts tours to Mexico and is the owner of The Folk Tree , a store specializing in Mexican crafts , in Pasadena

OAXACA, Mexico — For me, Mexico's biggest lure is the ingenuity and inventiveness of its people, particularly its artisans.

Over more than a quarter century of travels south of the border, I've amassed a large personal and professional collection of Mexican folk art. Most of my five or six visits a year have centered around small villages, some a quick detour from established tourist towns and others accessible only by long drives on unmarked, unpaved roads. There, drawing from craft traditions centuries old, multiple generations of carvers, weavers and potters create a wide variety of decorative and practical objects.

Mexican folk-art centers are found throughout the country, from the Chiapas area of San Cristobal near the Guatemalan border to the Sierra Tarahumara in western Chihuahua. I return often to the central state of Michoacan, particularly the scenic region near Lake Patzcuaro. But the richest concentration of crafts villages--including several of my favorites--are near Oaxaca, a Spanish colonial capital surrounded by a rural, largely Indian population.

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One of the easiest ways to get an overview of Mexican folk art at the source is to tour a local crafts cooperative or time your visit during a festival or weekly market day, when families from the surrounding area display their wares. In Michoacan's ( meesh-wa-KAHN's ) 16th-Century colonial capital of Patzcuaro, for example, hundreds of folk artists from throughout the country jam the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga during the Day of the Dead festival, which starts the week before Nov. 2. There, pottery, carvings, jewelry and other crafts compete for attention with the traditional Day of the Dead offerings: altars draped with marigolds, skeletons made of papier-mache and sugar, and skull-shaped bread called pan de muerto .

But establishing your own personal contacts can be even more rewarding. As a rule, I've found Mexico's artisans to be very accessible. Don't be intimidated by the idea of entering someone's home: With smiles, at least a rudimentary command of Spanish and perhaps a balloon or a simple toy to give to the children of the family, you'll find that most artisans are happy to show off and sell their work.

Bargaining in markets is both accepted and expected. But if you think the stated price is fair (and costs are almost always lower than what you'd pay at a retail store or crafts market), don't haggle with an artist in his or her home unless you're buying a very expensive item or in significant quantities.

A few retail stores, particularly in such major tourist centers as Oaxaca, can pack and ship your purchases. But it's safer, faster and cheaper to bring an ample supply of packing tape and plastic bubble wrap, buy an egg crate or bamboo basket, and cart them back yourself.

The following are a few of my favorite Mexican crafts villages and some of the finest artists working in them.

The first four villages are located within a 20-mile radius of Oaxaca, which makes an excellent base of operations. Patamban, Santa Clara del Cobre and Tzintzuntzan are in Michoacan, within a half-day's drive of Patzcuaro, a charming colonial town.

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My advice about driving: Don't. Hire a taxi in Patzcuaro or Oaxaca (about $10-$15 an hour), or check at the local tourist office in either city for hotels and/or tour companies that offer crafts tours of the local area.

* Arrosala: Manuel Jimenez is Mexico's most famous carver. Working with acrylic paints in bold, primary colors and an indigenous, rough-barked soft wood called copal , Jimenez's sophisticated animals and human figures (often grouped in Nativity scenes) are found in museum collections throughout the American Southwest. Jimenez is the only Mexican artisan I know who charges in U.S. dollars: His work ranges from perhaps $150 for a three-inch-tall frog to about $1,000 for a three-piece, 12- to 14-inch-tall Nativity group.

Jimenez isn't the only talented carver in Arrosala, which is located a few miles west of Oaxaca at the foot of Monte Alban, the Zapotec-Mixtec fortress-city built in 600 BC. Manuel's grandsons, Moises and Armando Jimenez, make fine large animals, reminiscent of their grandfather's work, but half the cost or less.

Miguel Santiago, whose prices are equivalent to those of the elder Jimenez, is wonderful. I recently commissioned him to do a carving of me, complete with my typical garb of T-shirt and Birkenstocks. Pedro Ramirez and his family, meanwhile, are noted for their brightly hued armadillos and other reptiles (about $15-$200 each), painted in a careful pointillist manner reminiscent of Georges Seurat.

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