As I follow Apolinar Hernandez Balcazar up the hill from his house, an idyllic view of the rural Mexico of my childhood unfurls behind me.
Orchards and corn plots slope down the valley, and pine trees blanket the mountains. On the translucent blue horizon are the tile-roofed houses of the artisan town of Tenancingo. The only sounds are the crowing of roosters and the braying of a burro.
Measured by the meager income his few acres of corn yield, the 41-year-old Hernandez, a short, powerful man with an impish smile, is just another subsistence farmer. But with the harvest over, his "real life," as he puts it, begins. Hernandez is a basket weaver, one of such remarkable artistry that he has won national awards in Mexico and gained a small, but avid, following of collectors who pay $8 to $150 for his creations. I am accompanying him as he collects the reeds he uses to weave his deceptively simple baskets.
With a scythe-shaped knife, he cuts off a few tender branches from willow saplings growing along a stream and then expertly scrapes away their outer layer. Back at his three-room brick-and-adobe house, he dries the reeds in the sun and then soaks them until they are flexible enough to weave.
He finishes a basket in a single 10-hour workday, although the larger ones, as much as two feet in diameter, can take a week or more. He weaves in all sorts of patterns: crosses, diagonals, triangles, squares, zigzags, braids. "I use three types of willow and several other tree species to give my baskets different colors and texture," Hernandez says. "I don't use dyes because I don't like the look."
This natural look, devoid of all artifice, is Hernandez's signature style. The outside of each basket, meant for viewing, "must be perfect," he says. The inside deliberately displays his knots and the occasional discoloration and other flaws in his materials. At first sight, the baskets look like the same ones used by tortilla or fruit vendors all over Mexico. But on closer inspection, these baskets are too precious for everyday tasks.
I grew up in Mexico during the 1950s, when the country seemed infused with art--not only the easel paintings and murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, but also the baskets, shawls, ceramics and fine metalwork of anonymous artisans. In recent decades, the art scene hasn't been as vibrant. Mexican painters and sculptors rarely are mentioned in the same breath with the leading artists of Europe and the United States. And Mexican folk craft, like expensive nylon rebozos and factory-produced ceramics aimed at a mass market, appeared to have suffered an irreparable decline in quality.
Or so I thought, until my recent travels in the interior of Mexico convinced me otherwise. Drawing on the advice of friends and contacts at several cultural foundations and institutes, I discovered a hidden world of superb Mexican folk art kept alive by scores of master artisans. Some of them are old and fearful that their crafts will die with them. But the younger artisans I encountered are optimistic that a new generation of wealthy, discerning Mexican art collectors is ensuring a revival of fine craftsmanship.
I decided to track down seven or eight of the best artisans within a two-hour radius of Mexico City, each working in a different medium. None of them sells their wares in stores or galleries. They are virtually unknown abroad; in fact, I came across only one, a ceramist, who exports to the United States. So they must be visited in their workshops and homes, where they spend a dozen hours a day, sometimes weeks on end, fashioning a single object. Their prices can top $1,000. And because these are unique items, the customer must usually place an order and either arrange to have the piece shipped back home or pick it up on another trip.
Whether or not one makes a purchase, searching out these master craftsmen is a wonderful excuse to experience a more tranquil, village-like existence away from the frenetic, overcrowded and crime-ridden Mexican capital, and an opportunity to escape an increasingly homogenized chain-store shopping world.
There are two ways to undertake this adventure. The first is to lodge at a hotel in Mexico City and hire a car and driver-guide for day trips. The alternative is to combine a stay in the capital with sojourns at an inn or hotel near a cluster of artisans and use a local driver-guide. Guides are indispensible both as translators (none of these artisans speak English) and as drivers (because studios are often difficult to locate).
I divided my own visits into three trips: the first, traveling southwest and southeast of Mexico City, using Cuernavaca as my base; the second, hiring a car-and-driver from my Mexico City hotel and heading west of the metropolis; and the third, overnighting in the city of Puebla, east of the capital. The more upscale hotels will sometimes arrange to handle and ship purchases to the United States.