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Ensenada's treasures

Look beyond the sand and surf and you'll find one of Baja California's biggest surprises: exceptional crafts made by top Mexican artists. The trick is knowing where to shop.

June 15, 2006|Tony Cohan | Special to The Times

Ensenada — THE border crossed, the tangle of Tijuana behind you, you sweep south along a pretty coastal road, passing signs in Spanish, others in English, still feeling in that twilit realm where cultures collide on uneasy terms. Then from a height, a broad bay appears, rimmed by this palm-fringed city. You descend to a boulevard in traffic, past a tall green Dos Equis beer sign, to a rutted parking lot a few steps from the harbor. Turning off the engine, you step out into soft Pacific air and enter a small, one-story art center, painted orange with blue trim. Moments later you are standing in the Galeria Perez Meillon, surrounded by hand-crafted pottery, baskets, jewelry and masks of exceptional beauty, the scent of willow bark filling your nostrils.

Mention the Baja California town of Ensenada and it's a good bet that the first word that leaps to mind won't be art. This semi-languid Mexican coastal city of about 250,000 people, an hour and change south of Tijuana, is about sport fishing, cruise ships, RVs, off-road motor racing and tequila sunrises. A walk down the low-slung main drag of Avenida Lopez Mateos at happy hour among the vendors of cheap huaraches, sombreros, blankets, naughty T-shirts and Viagra at 30% off suggests preoccupations that fall somewhat shy of culture. If, in fact, Ensenada is a town with a true history predating all this -- the Manila galleons used to take shelter here, and indigenous tribes have long populated the area -- these days the conversation pouring from the cantinas and restaurants tends to be between Corona and Bud Light.

Yet over the years Ensenada has quietly become a key contact point for the work of the region's artisans and mainland Mexico's bottomless fount of folk crafts. Considering that Mexico is generally regarded, along with the Indian subcontinent, as the world's richest source of hand-crafted arts, this is saying quite a lot. But paradox is not uncommon in a less orderly culture, and in this sporty town of budget sybaritism ("Full Swedish Body Massage for $40," reads one flier), where the Baja 500 kicks up dust every year and the blaring horns of massive cruise ships drown out the mariachis' keening laments, artistic revelation awaits the visitor willing to look beneath the surface.

Beautiful ceramics, basketry, lacquerware, woodwork, silver jewelry, textiles and other crafts from Baja, nearby Chihuahua and the great classic regions of central and southern Mexico -- Michoacan, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Chiapas -- can be found in select Ensenada galleries and shops. These handmade goods, many of them quite inexpensive, lend uncommon beauty, depth and sensuality to the lives of those fortunate enough to have them.

THE Galeria Perez Meillon, low and narrow, with just enough room to move about, at first glance seems a modest enterprise, but as so often in Mexico, humble appearances may deceive. The exquisite objects filling the shelves are gathered mainly from villages in the Baja region and northern Chihuahua. They seem to erase the line between store and exhibition space.

With the arrival of owner Adalberto Perez Meillon, things quickly become clearer. An affable, informed man somewhere in early middle age, Perez Meillon tells how his gallery came about. Like so many dealers in fine art and crafts, the work surrounding him mirrors a personal obsession.

After completing his education, he received a government grant to go to the poor Casas Grandes region in the mountains of northern Chihuahua to promote change -- economic, social and ecological. "What I found there was so rich culturally, it changed me instead," Perez Meillon says. "I visited archeological sites, met indigenous artists in the villages. They inspired me to do something with this art."

After working as a teacher, Perez Meillon opened his gallery in 1988. Since then he has exhibited the work at American galleries and institutions such as the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles and the San Diego Museum of Man, and he sells to customers and collectors, mostly from the United States.

At the heart of Perez Meillon's collection is pottery from the northern Chihuahua village of Mata Ortiz, home to one of Mexico's most remarkable craft artists, ceramist Juan Quezada. Inspired by prehistoric shards he'd come upon in the region, Quezada began making pottery in the 1970s. These hand-painted, stone-burnished pots and vases, with their powerful geometric designs and lizard motifs, immediately seduce the eyes and senses.

Now scores of potters in Mata Ortiz -- indeed, entire extended families -- create these superb pieces, the best of them ending up in museum collections. Prices have soared, with some Quezada works selling for $2,500, but less intricate pottery goes for as little as $25.

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