by Marianne Carlson
Paola Rosendo was born in the village of Olinalá, in the northwestern part of the state of Guerrero, near Tlapa. Her village is the most important lacquer center in Mexico.
This dusty town, with its whitewashed adobe houses and unpaved narrow streets, is way off the beaten tourist trail — 10 hours from Mexico City by car. It is a special destination that requires some effort to find the place and rough travel to actually get there. There are few tourist amenities, and Olinalá might well go unnoticed were it not for the colorful lacquer ware that is made here.
The art of working with lacquer came to Guerrero from the Orient on the Manila Clipper ships in the 1600 and 1700s. Olinalá produces a style of lacquerware similar to the finest examples produced in China. Most people living in Olinalá work in lacquer, and their work is exported throughout the world.
The two main lacquerware products of Olinalá are gourds and chests. You will also find trays, platters, boxes, paneled screens, and coffee tables that are treasured by collectors of Mexican folk art and crafts. Paola handcrafts all of these items with loving attention to the detail so important in this art.
Lacquerware is also Olinala’s main source of income. A majority of the town’s families work as independent production units, often with special design motifs or signature colors. Paola’s craft has been handed down generation to generation in her family. She is well known for her artistry and Novica (National Geographic’s art outlet) sells her work. Like Paola, fathers and mothers have taught their children through successive generations the techniques that predate the 16th Century Spanish conquest, and so the art continues. In Olinalá, lacquerware is a way of life and the pieces from this little village have received worldwide recognition.
The gourds destined for decoration come from the fruit of the jicara tree; the chests are made from the perfumed wood of aloe trees. Aloe trees have been exploited, however, to such an extent that other woods are now often used and then perfumed with essences acquired in Mexico City. In years past, large lacquer ware chests were used in homes to store clothing because of the wonderful scent of the wood.
The construction of these pieces begins with the sanding of a wooden box or a hard-bark gourd. Next, the piece is sealed with a varnish prepared from oil and earthen pigments. The pigments are extracted from deposits near Olinalá, which are lightly roasted before being ground to powder. When the sealer is dry, a stone is used to burnish the surface until it is smooth. Powdered pigments mixed with oil are then applied in many layers until the desired tone and shine are achieved. Afterward, the piece is set aside for up to a month to cure. Finally, the piece is ready for decoration, and the outlines of a design can be sketched. Motifs are created spontaneously and each color is allowed to dry before the next is applied. Often the brushes used to apply the color layers are homemade from bird feathers or cat hair.
Olinalá artisans usually work in one of two styles: dorado and rayado. Named for the gold leaf once used to sketch the decorations, dorado is distinguished by use of additional colors applied on top of a base coat to create bold floral patterns or idyllic or patriotic scenes of Mexican history and religion.
Rayado is more complicated. A second color is applied over the base coat to create floral patterns, usually combined with animal motifs and some geometric designs. While the color is still damp, a turkey feather quill is used to fashion details such as flower petals. Rayado designs are usually painted in red or blue on white, black on red, or red on a black background.
Some contemporary artists work in pastel colors and have even created some white-on-white designs.
Although artists have distinctive styles, this work is rarely signed. Lacquerware today is an anonymous art, just as it has been for centuries.
Paola Rosenda will be presenting her art at this year’s Feria Maestros del Arte folk and indigenous art show November 12-14 at Club de Yates de Chapala. For more information on Paola or the Feria, contact Marianne Carlson (376) 765-7485, mariannecarlson@ gmail.com.