Folk Art, Fine Art – Sometimes the Line Blurs

Jorge Chávez
Feb. 22, 2016

Wondering what artistic treasures you might discover in Puerto Vallarta that are typically Mexican and one of a kind, yet won’t break the bank and aren’t difficult to transport back home? Our local shops and galleries carry a cornucopia of beautifully made Mexican handicrafts, the lines blurring between fine art and folk art, tradition and innovation, when it comes to the following.


Most ceramic art grew out of pieces made for practical use that eventually became appreciated for the aesthetic value of their ornamentation – Talavera from Puebla, for example. Introduced to New Spain in the 16th century, its origins Spanish Majolica, Talavera is the oldest tin and lead- glazed ceramic in America.

Still made the same way it was then, by master potters in certified workshops held to strict standards of authenticity, the most coveted Mexican Talavera comes only from the state of Puebla, which has an abundance of quality black and white clay and a long pottery tradition.

Displaying hand-painted patterns and scenes handed down for centuries, only six traditional mineral pigments are used: blue, green, yellow, red, brown and black. By combining them, different tones are achieved, as well as orange and purple.

Detailed and vibrantly lustrous with a unique texture, this pottery decorates kitchens, walkways, home interiors and exterior walls in Poblano Mexican architecture. Each piece with its own personality and character, here in Vallarta you can find Talavera dishes, vases, canister sets, tiles, sinks, bathroom accessories, garden ornaments and more.

Sought by collectors, quality Talavera is expensive, reflecting the time dedicated to each piece. Since there are many imitations, authentic pieces must be signed by the workshop producing it and state that it is from Puebla. Irregularities are characteristic and desirable.

Mata Ortiz Pottery

Fragile, earth-toned pottery is the hallmark of the village of Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua, where more than 400 artists create these thin-walled ceramics painted with intricate, finely drawn geometric designs, each unique. At least a dozen of them have gained renown as world-class potters of this sophisticated art movement, which has its roots in a pre-Hispanic culture.

The inspiration of Juan Quezada, this unique art form originated in the ’70s and soon became the town’s dominant occupation. While gathering wood as a youth, Quezada found shards of fine ancient pottery, then spent 15 years figuring out how to duplicate it by recreating the whole long-forgotten process – mining, treating and forming the clay, decorating and firing the pots the way the inhabitants of the ancient city of Paquime did five centuries ago.

Teaching his family, they, in turn, taught others, each making their own artistic contributions and developing distinctive styles. For his effort, Quezada received the highest award for accomplishments in the arts from ex-president Zedillo, the same award given to artist Diego Rivera.

Still quite affordable, Mata Ortiz pottery is increasingly being displayed in galleries and museums, demand and prices increasing accordingly.


Springing from symbols in the collective unconscious that appeared in a dream, alebrijes are bizarre, fanciful winged creatures handcrafted in copal wood, a light wood similar to balsa, with delicately sculpted faces and bodies painted with extremely intricate patterns.

Originating in Oaxaca in the ’60s, this art form began with master craftsman Pedro Linares, who had been a skilled carton juda figurine maker for Diego Rivera until giving life to his visions. The roots of this novel art form are pre-Hispanic, with the indigenous penchant for color and love of the fantastic, even the macabre.

Beginning in the imagination of the artist and creatively carved, no two are alike. Soon Pedro’s family and fellow villagers began imitating him, and as competition arose they became more elaborate, complex figures. Classic figures are monster-like, while the newer designs are more whimsical than scary. In general, men do the carving and women the painting, which is true of a lot of folk art.

Since “Smithsonian” magazine published a photo of a dancing rooster albrije in the ’90s, they’ve become increasingly popular with collectors, prized here and around the world. Produced in workshops across Mexico, they are definitely conversation pieces that make a novel addition to one’s home.


While their poses and outfits vary dramatically, these hand-sculpted clay or papier maché female skeletons are always grinning and garbed in finery from head to toe.
Conceived by Mexican political satirist and engraver Jose Gualaupe Posada in the second half of the 19th century to illustrate the popular song “La Cucaracha,” he used La Catrina’s image to mock the social pretensions of Mexicans who were obsessed with all things French. Catrina is a Mexican term referring to someone dressed up in his very best.

Via the powerful media of newspaper cartoons, Posada was prolific in reporting on the Mexican mores of his time, the artist Diego Rivera calling him “the artist of the Mexican people, an interpreter of their joy and pain.”
Elaborately embellished with colorful, hand-painted clothing, sequins and lace, these whimsically elegant figures are reminders that regardless of how lavish our possessions, we’re all going to meet the same end where they won’t do us a bit of good.

Pointing out the futility of accumulating wealth, Catrinas became a popular symbol during the Mexican revolution. And they’re integral to the culturally important annual Day of the Dead celebrations, which have made lighthearted depictions of death a common motif in Mexican folk art. Today, throughout Mexico, artists continue creating an ever-expanding retinue of Catrinas and even Catrinos, so that none of us, rich or poor, forget our shared humanity.


Masks of the human face represent the three primary races that comprise the population of modern Mexico – Indian, Caucasian and Black – and to look at them is to recall Mexico’s history. The ancient Indians believed that covering one’s face with a mask removed the identity and soul of the wearer from the everyday world and they became someone or something else.

The mask-making tradition goes back long before the Spanish invaded, masked pageantry and dancing important aspects of ceremonial practices in Mexico to this day. Shamans wear transformation masks to contact the spirits, including those of animals – a frog if crops need rain or a jaguar when strength and agility are needed for a successful hunt and so on.

The Spanish introduced the concept of the devil, the two-horned demon that the Mexicans adopted as a kind of foil or jokester. Some diablo masks smile merrily and others are as varied as the roles they typify.

Most 20th-century Mexican masks are made of carved and painted wood with symbolic significance, but disguises portraying a combination of human and animal features are also made from leather, cloth, cardboard, wax, papier maché, rubber tires and metal cans.

The original pre-Hispanic lacquer technique is still used in some of the most prized masks, up to 20 coats of all-natural ingredients like seed oil and vegetable pigments rubbed in by hand, resulting in an exceptional patina.

Guerrero and Michoacan are leading mask-making states, artist Juan Horta making elaborate pieces carved from just one piece of wood.

Huichol Yarn and Bead Art

The Huichol Indians have rich ceremonial practices, but masking is not part of their tradition, with the exception of the First Fruits ceremony, when a simple wooden one is worn by a dancer who takes the role of a sacred clown. This style of mask is now being finely beaded and sold to tourists.

Living in secluded mountain villages in Jalisco and Nayarit, their lives are interwoven with sacred and magic mythology. Sustained by corn, peyote and deer, they use these symbols freely in their shamanic art, which originated with prayer bowls made of gourds and placed in caves as offerings.

Creating sacred objects of meticulous beauty as a way of honoring their relationship to the gods, today’s yarn painters use fine acrylic yarns in a rainbow of colors, the designs increasingly complex and time consuming. An ever-evolving art form, originally thick wool yarn was used in simplistic, traditional designs. Their intricate beadwork is also time intensive, tiny beads in precise patterns placed by hand on a sticky beeswax-pine resin mixture.

Called nierikas, or mirror images of God, the visionary peyote empowers their art, creative manifestations embodying the Huichol belief that we all make our own realities.


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