In these pages, we have written many times about various artists here in Merida who have caught our eye. As believers in the importance of Art (yes, with a capital "A") to the enjoyment and understanding of Life Itself, we tend to focus a lot of attention on those who create art. It has occurred to us many times, however, that those who buy and collect art are as important to Art as those who create it.
Art Needs An Audience
Without an audience, the artist can only go so far. Art is expression. Most artists create because they absolutely must… because the impetus to bring forth something new and different and beautiful springs from deep within them. But if you probe a little deeper, we think you’ll find that Art is also communication. In order to continue creating, growing and expanding their art, artists must have an audience… an audience that appreciates and encourages them. Not to mention, for many artists, it is important to have an audience that supports them by actually paying them for their art. Without people who are willing to buy their creations, artists are often forced to find another way to support themselves, and the time they spend grilling hamburgers or counting beans deprives the world of their creations.
This seems to us a basic Truth about Art, and in any case, it is a handy rationalization when we find a piece of beautiful Art that we absolutely HAVE to buy.
For this story, then, we turn to the collector, the buyer, the aficionado… the person who loves, appreciates, buys and collects art. And who better to choose as an example of a collector than Paul Ziegler, who has one of the most extensive and interesting Mexican art collections we’ve seen in Merida?
Paul Ziegler, Collector
Like most of us, Paul Ziegler has a past life in the United States. Paul’s past includes owning a ski shop in Aspen, Colorado in the Seventies, and owning an antique store in Atlanta, Georgia for many years after that. Somewhere along the way, Paul, who also happens to be an intrepid traveler, started focusing on collecting Mexican pottery as he planned to someday retire in Mexico. In 2003, Paul sold his home in Atlanta and settled down in Merida, bringing his nascent collection with him.
For Paul Ziegler, settling down did not mean slowing down. It meant continuing what he has always loved to do, but with a new excitement. To find out more about Paul’s passion for collecting, we went to his home near Merida’s Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting ring located on Reforma towards the north of the centro. Paul bought a mid-century modern home and has continued renovating it over the years, creating a home that is spacious, comfortable, colorful and full of art and artful surprises.
Actually, Paul collects art of many different kinds… paintings, sculpture, folk art, etc. Most of the art in his current collection has been found either in Merida, in Mexico City, in various other places around Mexico or on eBay. Paul is a huge fan of eBay as a way to build a collection, by the way. He posits that the existence of eBay is going to create some of the best collections the world has ever seen, as it allows collectors to scour the planet in search of additions to their collections, and allows people with special pieces to reach a worldwide audience of collectors.
Touristware Pottery from Mexico
Although Paul collects many different things, on the day we visited, we were there to learn specifically about Mexican "touristware", pottery that has been created over many decades to be sold to tourists visiting Mexico. Paul says that touristware is some of the most easily collected Mexican folk art because the makers were (and still are in some places…) quite prolific, and many of the pieces were and still are affordable. What makes it difficult and challenging, however, is that pottery is fragile. The oldest pieces of Mexican touristware are from the 1920′s and 30′s, and because of their scarcity, even slightly damaged pieces from that time period are valuable today.
A Brief History of Touristware
As it turns out, Mexican popular art was extremely popular in the 20′s and 30′s in the United States. There were major Mexican art exhibits in Los Angeles and New York during that time, and there was a traveling exhibit that began at the Met in New York City and traveled to thirteen cities before it ended in September 1931. Also back then, a lot of major stores, including Macy’s in New York, imported Mexican art and sold them to the American public. More and more people became interested in Mexican art and started traveling, by car and plane, to Mexico during this time, spurring production to meet demand. Today, Mexican art is still popular and it is important to support the artists making work in modern times. But as a collector, it is also a challenge and incredibly rewarding to find older pieces that survive from earlier times.
The strange fact is that you probably won’t find tons of old touristware here in Mexico, because it was created for, well… tourists! Therefore, the vast majority of pieces ended up in the United States, Canada and Europe. Still, with persistence and patience, you can also find some lovely pieces in Merida and in other parts of Mexico.
Touristware To Die For
For our education in touristware, Paul had set out some of his collections to show us. He explained that the term "touristware" refers to the pottery made in and around Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. The pottery could have been made in Tonalá, Tlaquepaque or Santa Cruz de las Huertas. Many times you will find works referred to as Tlaquepaque pottery because that is where the biggest market for this work has always been, but pieces could have been made in any of these towns.
While most of the artisans of this type of pottery go nameless, there are some families that have a long tradition of creating quality work. Some of the named artists signed/sign their work, while others are recognizable only by their technique. The Lucano family, for instance, is one of the most famous families of artists and still makes touristware pottery in the same workshop on Avenida Independencia #131 in Tlaquepaque. Another famous artist, Jose Bernabe, is a well-known artisan of the Tonalá style. Other artists are not known by name, but their style was so unique and beautiful that they have been collected over the years and have been referred to by nicknames like "Baby Face" who painted beautiful faces on his people, "Trailing Tendril" known for the trailing tendrils in his designs or "Delicate Dan" who painted sweet looking animals with a narrow and delicate brush.
We might add that not all collectable pottery comes from Jalisco, either. There is collectable pottery from many other states in Mexico. In Puebla, for instance, the principal makers of the area’s famous Talavera pottery is the Uriarte family. Other famous pottery comes from Ocumicho (sculptures, toys), Metepec (trees of life) and many places in the state of Michoacan, including plates and Catrina dolls from Capula and ‘pineapple’ or piña pottery from San Jose de Gracia.
But, back to touristware. There are three colors of touristware plates and other pottery: red or terra cotta, black, and yellow or green. According to Paul, black is the most desirable as it is the most dramatic and many think, the most beautiful. In addition to the variation in colors, there are variations in glazes: night, fantasía, petatillo, grained and molded. "Night", as it sounds, refers to pottery with nighttime scenes painted on them, usually with stars in white on a black or dark blue background. "Fantasía" usually portrays animals (rarely people) in a sort of surrealistic way (A fantasía plate is pictured at the beginning of this article). "Petatillo" refers to a style of crosshatching that forms a background or texture to parts of the picture and is difficult to do well; therefore it is more valuable to collect, and the finer the lines, the more valuable the work (an example from Paul’s collection is pictured to the right). "Grained" glaze has multicolored dots over large areas, and "molded" is the term used when the clay has been pressed into a plaster or wood mold to create the piece.
An Affordable Hobby… At First
Paul has a vast and varied collection of these plates, most of which are not expensive to purchase, but the best of which can cost upwards of $100 a piece. He has only been collecting Mexican pottery, however, for ten years and says it is easy to do and incredibly fun, precisely because you can find it in the most random places, and it is not an expensive hobby… at least, not at first. In Merida, he says, the easiest things to find are Oaxacan dripware, recognizable by the large splashes of green, blues and reds, Michoacan piñas (pottery pineapples, usually dark green but sometimes blue or brown), patamban dishes in green and black animal and floral patterns, and the Tonalá burnished ware tiles, pitchers and animal figures (both pictured earlier in this article).
Like Paul, you may find yourself attracted to the unusual and simple beauty of many of these pieces at first, and then as you collect more, you’ll find yourself fascinated by the differences in technique and the complexities of production. Of course, when that starts happening, you will probably find yourself in the throws of a collecting addiction, searching for pieces that are more rare, more complex and of course, more expensive. (Sadly, we know of no Collectors Anonymous, but if you decide to start one, we promise to publicize it on Yucatan Living.)
In addition, Paul also points out that these works are all made by artisans usually working from their homes. These are true cottage industries. Each piece is done by hand and each design often tells a story. The stories are from their everyday lives, showing typical Mexican life, then and now, in stylized and artistic ways. Says Paul, "Whether it is dishes, chargers or vases from Tlaquepaque, sculptured "trees of life" from Metepec or religious pieces featuring devils, crosses and saints from Ocumicho, Mexican pottery is as beautiful and unique as the country it comes from."
We couldn’t agree more. Having traveled the back roads of Michoacan and bought plates from families cooking up pottery in their back yard, we too are fascinated with the beauty, variety and artistic competence that can be found in some of the most out-of-the-way places in Mexico.
Pottery in the Yucatan
In our own state of Yucatan, while there is not the wealth of pottery that you can find in other states, we do have a tradition of beautiful burnished and carved pottery from the Ticul and Muna areas. The best quality pottery from the Yucatan is found in that area, and the artist Patricia is probably the best of the best.
The pottery she creates are museum reproductions, and the designs copy the bas relief figures and styles of the Mayan paintings and steles found in the archaeological zones around the Peninsula. The beautiful and quite large vase pictured here on the left is from that area and stands in the entrance of Hacienda Chichen, a hotel next to Chichen Itza. The workmanship of these pieces is exquisite. Patricia and her brother mix their own clay, they make all the stains from minerals themselves, and they burnish the pots with polished stones to make their vessels and plates look like polished wax. In addition, these pots are not thrown, but made from coils. In fact, these museum reproductions are so well executed that they must be signed so that people are aware that they are not buying the real thing, but a reproduction of an ancient design.
To Each His Own
Some people collect Mexican touristware (and other pottery) by color. In fact, Paul displays his pottery collection sorted by color, which is quite striking to see. Others collect only plates or vases, others only those with certain glazes, like the petatillo. Others collect from a certain period or a certain artisan. Paul collects eclectically, buying and pursuing pieces that strike him for their overall beauty, while still being cognizant of their origin, the artist whenever possible and the specific techniques that are used.
Our Favorite Pot Story
Soon after we first met Paul, years ago, he had a quintessential collector’s experience right here in Merida. He was driving behind a big truck that was full of escombro, the detritus of any restoration or construction site. The truck was filled with broken pieces of stone, cement, concrete block and stray pieces of metal and other garbage. Stuck in the corner at the back were two large pots, each about three feet high.
At the stoplight, Paul got out and asked the driver of the truck if they were throwing the pots away. The driver replied that they were, and Paul offered him $100 pesos for the pots, which the driver accepted. Paul returned home with his pots, sure that he had seen a photo of something similar in one of his books on Mexican art. Sure enough, both pots were collector’s items. He kept one of them and sold the other for hundreds of dollars on eBay. The pot he kept is pictured here to the right, where it proudly stands now as one of the most beautiful pieces in his collection. As it turns out, this pot is from Tonalá, an example of burnished ware from that town. It was probably made in the 1930′s and probably collected by someone here in Merida until finally, after they died, there was nothing left to do with it but throw it away. Lucky for Paul and for us, now it is safe and valued for the beautiful work of art that it is.
It’s Easy… You Can Do It Too!
We end with this story to let you know that collecting touristware and other Mexican pottery in Merida is not just for people who can afford expensive shops or trips to other parts of Mexico. There are treasures hidden in every old home and junk store throughout Mexico. It helps, of course, to know what you are looking for. But look for beauty, whimsy, color and craft, and you will be able to find many treasures here in the Yucatan… some that were made just yesterday and some that have been around for decades.
Paul told us he would like to meet other collectors. He would like to share his collection with others, and have the chance to see what other people here have been collecting. He continues to collect and buy pieces to increase his collection. He says there is always something out of reach for the collector… always something a little too difficult to find or a little too expensive. If that wasn’t true, it would just be called buying, not collecting.
So, now, if this interests you… go forth and collect! If you have questions, feel free to email Paul Ziegler (his email is below) and he will gladly share his knowledge. You might also consider buying one of the books listed below that Paul recommends. Frequent the Museum of Popular Art on Calle 50 at Parque Mejorada,or the smaller one in Izamal, to see changing exhibits of popular art from around Mexico. And search out your little piece of Mexican art in the antique stores, junk shops and flea markets around town, and in towns all around the Yucatan Peninsula. Collecting, as Paul will attest, is fun… and it serves to preserve some of the beauty produced by our beloved adopted country.