Compared to the United States, Mexico has very little in the way of lakes. The largest is Lake Chapala on the Michoacán/Jalisco border. But perhaps the most culturally significant is Lake Patzcuaro. It was the center of the Purhepecha Empire and still holds a special place in modern Michoacán.
Mexican lakes tend to be shallow, allowing for the natural growth of reeds and rushes that form the basis of most basket making. The same plants used millennia ago are still gathered and worked into both utilitarian and decorative items.
Most are traditional but even this humble craft has seen innovation. The Tzumundi workshop is located in the basketry town of Ihuatzio, on the eastern shore of Lake Patzcuaro. It was founded and is run by Mario Lopez Torres, who grew up in Mexico City but found his calling here.
Although from a creative family (his father was a photographer), he does not have artisan lineage. Initially, he studied the fine arts, leaving home as a teen to learn wicker techniques in San Francisco el Tepeji in the state of Puebla. But Lopez is a multifaceted craftsperson, able to work in metal, stone and wood and had the idea of making basketry items with metal frames, an idea he could not explore in the small town.
Friends living in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacán invited him to stay a while and work out his idea at their workshop. He arrived there at age 18 over four decades ago, but by the time he was 19, he had decided to move to and live permanently at the Tzimundi site in Ihuatzio. All the rugged stone buildings with wrought iron and wood were made by his hands.
The Lake Patzcuaro area has a millennia-old tradition of basketry, using reeds and rushes that grow along the edges of the shallow lake. The eastern side of the lake in particular is still noted for the making of basketry items.
But the technique that dominates Lopez’s and many other workshops in this area today is not pre Hispanic. It is particular method that originated in the Philippines, and introduced to the area by a handcrafts dealer from Texas about 40 years ago.
Instead of using split stiff stems, the leaves of bulrushes (called “chuspata” locally) are twisted into a kind of cord, than woven like fabric over a frame. This frame can be of various materials, including stiff wicker, but Lopez focuses on the use of frames shaped by bending thick steel wire and soldering joints.
Despite the foreign origin of the technique, the bulrushes used are local, still collected from the lakeshore. Lopez himself directly works with the making of the steel frames, employing various people in Ihuatzio and surrounding communities to do the weaving work. This is true from small plates and animal figures to large sofas, with only the thickness of the wire used varying.
The cord is woven tightly so that metal frame is not visible, making the piece look a whole lot lighter than it really is. After the chuspata cord is woven, the piece is varnished for preservation and for looks. A large lounge chair takes about 20 days, from start to finish.
The business is still in the family but it has had its ups and downs. Early in its history, Lopez sold principally in Mexico City but over time this became impractical. He began working with exhibiting at various fairs and other events in central Mexico, particularly from Guanajuato to Jalisco, and he still exhibits and sells regularly in San Miguel de Allende and the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala, Jalisco.
At the business’s height, Lopez was shipping items regularly to small stores and galleries in the U.S. and Europe. However, Michoacán went into economic crisis a couple of decades ago, principally due to the steep drop off of tourism, itself due to drug trafficking and some political violence. Tourism and the overall economy has begun to recover somewhat according to Lopez, but there are far more artisans can he can re-employ.
Lopez’s children have mostly gone into professional occupations, with the workshop benefitting with one’s career in computers, resulting in a website at http://www.tzumindi.com/
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter