Gallery in cen­tral Mex­ico dis­plays folk art

The Prince George Citizen - - Travel - Kim CUR­TIS

ATOTONILCO, Mex­ico — It’s been said that if you’re not an artist when you first visit San Miguel de Al­lende, you’ll cer­tainly be one by the time you leave. Sim­i­larly, if you step into Mayer Shac­ter’s Ga­le­ria Atotonilco as a novice, you’ll walk out an ap­pre­ci­a­tor of fine Mex­i­can folk art.

Shac­ter, a former ceramics artist from Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, who has lived in Mex­ico since 2003, is much more than a cu­ra­tor. He trav­els to re­mote areas of Mex­ico to meet the artists and learn about their craft, and then he brings their work back to his gallery, where he im­parts his knowl­edge to his cus­tomers.

His is now re­garded as hav­ing one of the finest col­lec­tions of Mex­i­can folk art any­where. On Tri­pAd­vi­sor, the gallery, which opened in 2006 in a 600-square­foot sec­tion of his home and now con­sumes 6,000 square feet, is cur­rently the top-rated “thing to do” in San Miguel de Al­lende, which is a short 15-minute drive away. Shac­ter’s pas­sion for his gallery is im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. His col­lec­tion, which ranges from tex­tiles and woven bas­kets to an­tique iron­work and pa­pier mache masks, is broad, and “a re­flec­tion of my many in­ter­ests.”

“I have a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with these people. I love help­ing them pre­serve these cul­tural tra­di­tions,” he said.

For example, about 15 years ago, he met some ar­ti­sans from Na­yarit, who make Hui­chol yarn and bead art, after they rearended his car. Shac­ter said the po­lice threat­ened to con­fis­cate the fam­ily’s pickup truck be­cause it was unin­sured.

“We got their in­for­ma­tion and agreed to pay for our own re­pairs. They agreed to give us some yarn paint­ings,” he said, adding that they’ve been doing busi­ness ever since.

The Hui­chol are an indige­nous people who mostly live in the moun­tain­ous areas of north­west­ern Mex­ico. They press brightly col­ored yarn onto boards coated with a thin layer of spe­cial beeswax from Cam­peche and tree resin. The “paint­ings” be­gan as cer­e­mo­nial re­li­gious art, and often in­clude rep­re­sen­ta­tions of deer, corn, pey­ote and other sym­bols from Hui­chol mythol­ogy.

Shac­ter says the artists’ qual­ity of life and sus­tain­abil­ity are paramount to him. He rarely buys work on con­sign­ment.

“With one or two ex­cep­tions, ev­ery­thing in the gallery, we pur­chase out­right,” he said. “When we leave a per­son’s house, they have money in hand or money in their bank ac­count.”

Another high­light of his col­lec­tion is the lac­quered gourds from Te­mala­catzingo, Guer­rero. Lac­quer­ing is one of Mex­ico’s old­est crafts. Dur­ing the pre-His­panic pe­riod, oil from chia seeds was mixed with pow­dered min­er­als or plant-based dyes to create pro­tec­tive coat­ings and dec­o­ra­tive de­signs. The gourds can grow on trees or vines and are dried be­fore us­ing. Those with bot­tle-like shapes are cut so the top can be used as a lid.

The lay­ers of lac­quer must be ap­plied sep­a­rately, dried and then burnished. Sev­eral small pieces can be done in a sin­gle day, while a larger dec­o­ra­tive piece may take two or three months.

Be­cause Shac­ter has de­vel­oped re­la­tion­ships with some of the best artists in Mex­ico, his gallery is packed with trea­sures.

Among his cur­rent favourites is the pot­tery from Ton­ala in Jalisco.

He’s par­tic­u­larly proud of the work by Geron­imo Ramos, one of the few artists who still cre­ates petatillo pot­tery, which is iden­ti­fied by its light, yel­low back­ground filled with crosshatch­ing that looks like a woven palm mat or petate.

The tighter the crosshatch­ing, the finer the piece. The style re­quires a cer­tain type of clay to pro­duce a smooth paint­ing sur­face.

On top of the crosshatch­ing, the artist usu­ally paints in black, green and cream, and one of the most com­mon images por­trayed is the nagual, a myth­i­cal halfhu­man, half-an­i­mal crea­ture. Then, the piece must go through two sep­a­rate fir­ings to get its high­gloss sheen. Shac­ter and his wife, writer Su­san Page, who started the San Miguel Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence and Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val in 2005, were drawn to this part of cen­tral Mex­ico in part be­cause of the arts com­mu­nity.

San Miguel de Al­lende was in­hab­ited by rich arts pa­trons from its start in the 1500s. And in the 1600s, sil­ver was dis­cov­ered nearby, mak­ing the town an im­por­tant trade thor­ough­fare.

By the mid-1800s, it hit its stride, and many of its man­sions, palaces and churches were built dur­ing this time. But San Miguel gained its con­tem­po­rary rep­u­ta­tion as an arts cen­tre after American artist and writer Stir­ling Dick­in­son ar­rived in 1937.

He and Felipe Cos­sio del Po­mar, a Peru­vian painter and po­lit­i­cal activist, es­tab­lished the town’s first art school, which still ex­ists today.

In the years after World War II, veter­ans flocked to the school and others when they re­al­ized they could stretch their G.I. Bill money fur­ther south of the bor­der.

The city’s ar­chi­tec­ture, cob­ble­stone streets and rich, sat­u­rated colours make it an artist’s – and collector’s – dream.

Some be­lieve it’s built on a bedrock of rose quartz, which chan­nels pos­i­tive en­ergy and at­tracts creative types. What­ever the rea­son, they con­tinue to flock to San Miguel de Al­lende – and Shac­ter’s gallery. For more in­for­ma­tion visit­le­ri­aa­to­


This is a col­lec­tion of Wounaan woven bas­kets from Colom­bia, at Ga­le­ria Atotonilco near San Miguel de Al­lende, Mex­ico.


Gallery owner Mayer Shac­ter holds a Hui­chol yarn paint­ing, at Ga­le­ria Atotonilco near San Miguel de Al­lende, Mex­ico in June.

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