Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Los prototipos

Thursday and Friday of last week were spent at the house, taking our form experimentations from Monday and Tuesday and either pushing them further or turning them into products that the artisans could produce. We got a very late start on Thursday, as we were waiting for someone to show us where we could purchase some vinyl/fake leather in order to make our prototypes. And, as I've come to learn here in Mexico, if you think something is going to take about 3 hours, it will actually take 6. If you think someone will show up at noon, they'll actually be there around 2PM. We really have very little control over our schedules, and in some ways, that's a good thing for me. I've found that I can be a lot more wishy washy here (and without guilt!)...in the States, if I commit to doing something, I will do it, even if I don't want to anymore. Here, I can say I'm going to go to yoga at 6PM, or to the market at 2PM, or maybe I'll meet someone at the club at 2AM, and I can just flake on all of it without a worry. Maybe that's the nature of traveling, or maybe it's just Mexico, but either way, it's a huge pressure off my back, and I'm enjoying the freedom because I know I won't be able to behave the same way once I get back to the States.

In any case, a little bit of background about our project. As I've said in some previous posts, our artisans are very poor and the head of the clan, Don German, is staring down a lot of pressure to migrate to "el otro lado"--"the other side", i.e., the US, in order to make money in order to feed his family. Huaraches are not as popular with the locals anymore, and tourists don't like them either. In addition, the materials cost a lot. So, here's a peek into the mind of a designer: the first question I ask is, "What are my constraints?" As I see it, we have a several:

1. Create a product that can be sold to tourists or at galleries for a good sum of money. This actually creates a number of other constraints:
  • Create something that is beautifully designed (of course). :)
  • Create something that has beautiful craftsmanship. This one is a little more difficult, as the artisans are supposed to make the final product, not us. And quite honestly, Don German and Dona Clara do not yet have the sensitivity towards craft that is necessary to sell, for instance, a purse for US$100.
    2. The product must maximize use of materials and minimize waste.
    3. The product must be remain true to the nature of the materials. In other words, there should be a reason we are using leather to make the product. Leather has certain properties that other materials do not. We should be exploiting these properties to their maximum effect.
    4. This one is not really a constraint, but it is in the back of my mind: build upon the legacy of the artisan's product in some way. In other words, if they make shoes, we don't want to design houses for them to make.

    With these constraints in mind, I created the following:

    Handbag at rest:


    Handbag when there is weight placed inside the bag. The exterior of the bag (which is shown in vinyl but will be made out of leather) is cut with several rows of small slits. The interior of bag is longer than the leather portion of the bag, so when weight is placed inside, the exterior leather portion will stretch to expose the contrasting lining:


    Personally, I think the bag meets most of the constraints I listed above. It is interesting both from an aesthetic and functional aspect. It uses less leather than you would need for a bag of that size (due to the stretch), and it stays true to the materials (leather will maintain it's shape even when sliced; no other material would work quite as well as the leather with this design). The only thing I am worried about is that the construction is somewhat tricky, so I might need to make some changes if Dona Clara and Don German are to produce this design.

    I used the scrap pieces from the bag to make a pair of earrings (sorry, no photo), so there really was very little waste in this design.

    On Friday morning, I took a break from working to go run some errands. I was itching to get out and we needed some more supplies anyway. On my walk, I saw some shoes out of the corner of my eye and thought about them the rest of the way home. They inspired me to make these:




    I don't know why, but I love them! I can't wait to get home and make a pair for myself. :)

    Another experiment I did...I'm not quite sure yet what this will be:



    And, an experiment that Adrien did. We think it might be a lamp:

  • Monday, July 30, 2007

    Day Off

    This Wednesday, we were finally given a day off (and by day off, I mean "there are still activities going on but it is optional to attend"). Since I had ducked out of the Sunday market trip, I decided I had it in me to take part in the optional activities, which involved touring the town of Etla, and boy am I glad I went.


    We started our day in Etla by touring a paper workshop, where they make handmade artisanal papers. The workshop was up on a hill in Etla, and the view was absolutely stunning. I shot the photo above from the outdoor deck where they were airbrushing stencil designs by Francisco Toledo (the most famous living Oaxacan artist) on kites made of handmade paper. Not too shabby, huh? The workshop only uses natural fibers for their papers. Here is our cute tour guide showing us all the fibers they use:


    He demonstrated how they make a sheet of paper for us. This is the "chop"/watermark that gets printed into their papers:


    After the tour, you can browse through their gift shop. And, as you can imagine, a bunch of art students in a handmade paper store is like a bunch of kids in a candy shop. Plus, they make jewelry out of their papers! Super interesting and creative:


    Yes, those are just rolled up papers strung up as bracelets and necklaces! They also had earrings.

    After the paper workshop, we walked around the art school in Etla, whcih was just stunning. It used to a be a textiles factory and it was converted to an art school. WOW. The place was amazing. I would love to take classes there!




    We had lunch at a cute restaurant in town and headed over to a glass factory, where they make ear plugs like these:


    The owner of the place, Jason, was from the States. He was super nice and gave us a pretty extensive tour of the facilities. We learned a lot about glass and its production. Jason is really great to his employees, training them and giving them pretty extensive benefits.


    We walked from Jason's workshop to another glass studio run by another American, except this time, the studio specializes in using recycled glass. Apparently glass blowers don't like to use recycled glass because it can be difficult to work with. Xa Quixe (the name of the studio) has perfected a technique and formula for working with recycled glass, and the studio was also very green compared to many other studios in the states, capturing heat from their furnaces for the kiln and other small refinements that reduced their energy use to approximately 40% of the usage of an equally sized studio.

    One of several ginormous piles of used glass:


    That gets turned into these, artisinal mezcal bottles. The top row is populated by their "warped" bottles, which are also very popular.


    We also got to see one of the employees blowing glass, a really fascinating process:


    I had been waffling back and forth about going to Etla because I sort of wanted a day to myself, but in the end I was glad I had the chance to check out this beautiful town and meet a couple of really interesting artists doing fabulous things for their adopted country.

    Mis Amigas las Amoebas

    Alrighty folks, it has finally happened. I have amoebas. I thought I was going to make it, too! Oh well. :P

    The doctor prescribed some pills for me and I came home early today from Don German's house to recuperate. So, stay tuned for a bunch of updates (finally), as I'll be resting at home tonight.

    Friday, July 27, 2007


    So far my posts have been about all the different places and activities we have been doing, and not so much about the nature of the class. I suppose that's because the first week, while dense with activities, is not as academically heavy as the following two weeks. The structure of the class is as follows:

    1st week: Meeting and choosing the artisan groups
    2nd week: Concepting and collaboration
    3rd Week: Production and preparation for our show

    We started off our second week in Oaxaca by inviting the artisans to our house to play around with materials and brainstorm new designs. For those of you who wonder what exactly it is we do in art school, pay attention here. Randy (J's Dad) is always asking me how it is that people in creative fields stay fresh and generate new ideas on command. Well, I definitely run into walls and feel lethargic at work from time to time, but exercises like the ones we did on Monday and Tuesday with our artisans (which may seem like a colossal waste of time) do help generate inspiration and reroute my usual creative process.

    I should probably mention that the artisans NEVER do anything like what we did on Monday and Tuesday (and, I promise, I'll get to explaining what we did in a minute here). They see their trade as work, not as play. Huaraches, woven palm baskets, candles, fireworks, and red clay are a way to feed their families, not art. In particular, Don German and Dona Clara and the palm weavers are living just a bit above the poverty level. I think candles and fireworks are a little more stable financially, but not rich by any means. The one exception is the red clay lady, who is pretty well off. But even she got a lot out of the exercises because we started at a very basic level, just playing with materials without any preconceived notion of right or wrong. This is very much the opposite of what they do. Before she begins working, she thinks, "I will make a cup." She never thinks, "I have no idea what this piece will look like. I will just start doing it." Which is exactly what we did.


    When we met downstairs on Monday morning, we were greeted by a table full of raw materials that we purchased at the Abastos market on Saturday: foam blocks, straws, banana leaves, wool sponges, loofahs, etc. We were told to choose one material that we wanted to play with. I chose plastic straws (along with Dona Clara and Dina). Once we got settled in our material groups, we were told that we would be doing a series of 5 minute exercises. The intention of these exercises was the see how far we could push the limitations of our materials. For example, in the first exercise, we could do anything we wanted to our materials as long as we were subtracting from the form: burning, cutting, stretching, whatever. The point was to see how far we could push the material before it started to change in nature. At what point does a straw lose its "straw-ness"? Here is an experiment I did early on in the day. I like how the straw ceases to look like a manufactured material and starts to take on properties found in nature. It kind of remind me a little of an agave plant:



    I know all of this sounds a little crazy to people who don't go to art school, but we do this kind of thing all the time. Not only does it allow you to understand your material fully, but this kind of intellectual engagement is precisely what keeps you interested in the project. Well, it's what keeps me interested, anyway.

    After we subtracted from the material, we were allowed to add back in with the pieces we subtracted. Next we were to add in other materials; and then to interact with fixed objects, like the table, or a tree, or the wall. Again, I know this all sounds very weird. Here is one of the pieces I really liked. I love the contrast of safe (the foam) and dangerous (the nails and staples). I also like how the addition of the extra materials really brings out the spongy properties of the foam:


    Finally, we were told to take 5 minutes to walk out on the street, in the back yard, or in the house, and find an object that interested us: a leaf, a flower, a pine cone, whatever. The point was to stop us from thinking of the material for a minute and look to nature or our environment for inspiration. When we returned from our object gathering, we were instructed to use whatever material we wanted to capture the poetic qualities of the object we chose. We were not to recreate the object, but for instance, if we the object we chose was a flower, what did we like about the flower? the way it opened? the way its petals curled? And how could we transfer that concept into our material? The artisans had a very difficult time with this assignment and most of them just recreated the object in another material. Here is a good example of this concept. See the little nubs on the leaves? These get translated into foam and string:



    The following day, we did some similar exercises with our actual materials, but this time working in our artisan groups. Basically, the point was to explore the material and see what kind of shapes and forms we could come up with that were interesting. At the end of the day, we had a critique of our work to see what sorts of things we could make out of our explorations if we changed the scale, or twisted it, or folded it, etc. Some really interesting things came out of that experimentation. The experience of working with Don German was somewhat difficult. In addition to the language barriers, we felt that he was being very stubborn and making the same shape over and over again (the same shape from last year's collaboration--one which we did not find successful). But, when we critiqued with Raul, he seemed pretty pleased with all the forms that we made. Problem solved. :)

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Our First Weekend in Oaxaca

    I was really looking forward to the end of our first week in Oaxaca, as it was packed with activities and utterly exhausting. I needed some serious downtime! Well, it turns out that weekends are not off limits from this class, and we had activities planned for both Saturday and Sunday.

    We started off on Saturday by heading over to the organic market, which is only a few blocks away from the house. As I mentioned in my previous post, the organic market is the one place we can feel safe eating any of the food. So, I kind of went to town. :) I started off with a delicious horchata drink with berries and walnuts. YUM. Let me say it again, YUM. Wow, I am in love with this drink:


    I followed that up with a tortilla wrapped around this egg thingy with chiles. Yummy and spicy. Of course, I couldn't just stop there...I had to go and get chicken mole enchiladas. I was pretty stuffed at that point, though, and could only finish one of them. I am deifnitely going back to this market this Friday and Saturday.

    Our big class outing for the day was to Abastos market, which is an absolutely enormous outdoor market about a 20 minute walk away from the house. Seriously, you could probably get lost in there and not find your way out for several hours. Five of us (Adrien, Katy, Tomo, Josh and I) decided we were going to walk there rather than drive with Raul (Raul thinks everything is too far to walk and insists of driving everywhere). Anyway, we headed out to the market, and as soon as we got there, the Torrential Downpour started (see my previous post). Wow, I haven't seen rain that hard in I don't know how long. All the vendors were covering things up, throwing tarps over other tarps, setting buckets in the middle of the sidewalk, sweeping water towards the drains...clearly they were pros at this sort of situation.


    It was a crazy situation in a crazy place (really fun, though!). There are tons of vendors selling all kinds of stuff. I mean, there is an egg vendor:


    A yarn vendor:


    A chile vendor:


    A candle vendor:


    I think you get the picture. :)

    We were pretty exhausted when we finally got home, and unfortunately, we were out of gas for our water heater, so we went over to the hotel to shower. I hung out and watched a movie with Tomo and josh as Katie showered, and decided to head back to the house after a couple of minutes. I walked out of the hotel and there were about 15 tour buses lined down the street, with music and fireworks going off. It was the guelaguetza parade!

    I hurried back to the hotel to grab everyone to tell them they HAD to come out with me to the parade. Each different ethnic group in the Oaxacan state dressed up in their traditional garb and danced, played music, set off fireworks, and handed out mezcal shots. Literally, within the block we walked, we had taken about 4 mezcal shots each. :) Here are some photos I took...the one immediately following is my favorite photo I've taken so far in Oaxaca:




    After the parade, we headed over to the mezcal fair (it is going on right now for about 10 days) with Eberth and Leo to try out some mezcal. Overall, I don't remember trying any fantastic mezcals, but I can tell you that I didn't like the mezcal con crema (kind of like Bailey's but with mezcal--why?!?). Tomo was brave enough to try a mezcal con gusano (with worm), and I was able to document this moment in the following (very funny!) series:


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    We ended the night be heading over the El Central, basically the only cool club in Oaxaca, where we danced until 3AM (and I had to fight off a bunch of hopeful latin lovers by telling them I was married). :)

    The next day (Sunday), the class was scheduled to go to the market at Tlacolula, where all the different Oaxacan ethnic groups dress up in their traditional garb to vend. Unfortunately, I was a bit hung over from the previous night's festivities and opted to bow out. I stayed in bed all day recovering, and ended the weekend with writing class and movie night. We watched Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It was hilarious! Seriously, if you get the chance, watch this movie...the cheese level is VERY high.

    All in all, a great week in Oaxaca... :)

    Daily Life Part I

    I realized today that I've spent so much time recapping all of our different activities that I never had a chance to talk about some of the daily quirks of life here in Oaxaca. I love traveling because it makes you see things with new eyes and notice the tiniest little differences from life at home. So, here we go...



    Topes or reductores are basically speed bumps. Sometimes they are big, sometimes they are small, and sometimes they are just a series of small round object all in a line. The difference is that they are not painted, just marked with a sign off the side of the road (and sometimes not marked at all!), so you can't really see them coming. When we are sitting in the back of the Tanque de Guerra, you basically fly about a foot into the air. It's not that pleasant.

    Torrential Downpours


    So, I guess this is the rainy season in Oaxaca, because every morning when we wake up, the sky is blue and beautiful. then, around 4PM or so, we get torrential downpours. I'm talking serious rain here. Plus, the drainage in Mexico is really bad, so there are huge lakes in the street after it starts raining and for several hours afterwards. The photo above was taken literally about 2 minutes after it started raining. No joke, that's how hard it comes down.

    Limited Water
    Despite the rain, the state of Oaxaca actually has very little water in general, much less potable water. The house we live in is supposed to get water three times a week from the city, but last week they only delivered it once. There are rumors that the government is in cahoots with the water company; if you use more water than what is delivered, you have to buy it from the water company. So, the rumor is that the city fails to provide the water, so you have to buy more, and the water company will provide a kickback to the city.

    Anyway, we've already run out of water once, due to a running toilet. That means we weren't able to use the toilets, showers, nothing. Kind of sucked. We got water delivered the next day, and thank god no one was sick during that time or else it would have been a bad situation. Also, there are a number of failure points in water delivery. For example, even if we have water in our tank, it needs to get pumped upstairs, where the rooms are. We've had a couple moments were we thought we were out of water but we just needed to turn on the pump. Also, we ran out of gas once in our water heater so there was no hot water for showers. We just went over to the hotel whenever we wanted to bathe. Even when everything is functioning correctly, water is a scarce resource around here, so we take very short showers about once every other day, and we've been "letting it mellow" if it's yellow.

    Fireworks and Policia


    As I said in a previous post, we arrived just in time for guelaguetza, which is an annual celebration in Oaxaca. It is typically held the last two Mondays in July, and for pretty much a week, there are fireworks going off at all hours of the night. They're very loud so some it's not so great when someone down the street starts setting them off at 4AM.

    There is a lot of civil unrest surrounding this cultural celebration because it used to be a celebration by the people for the people, but the government has taken it over and now only the "pretty" cultural groups get to participate and only tourists go to it. As a result, some teachers in Oaxaca banded together to put on an alternative guelaguetza which they call "guelaguetza popular".


    Anyway, last year, there was a lot of violence at the government's guelaguetza, and i think it actually got canceled. This is a big deal because this is the single most touristed event in Oaxaca and the city lost a lot of money as a result. So, there are cops EVERYWHERE. And, if you are driving, there are tons of checkpoints going into the city. It's kind of scary sometimes because you are not sure if the loud booms coming from outside are fireworks, bombs (there were bombs last year), or thunder (see Torrential Downpours). I'm happy to report that there was no violence with the guelaguetza this year. in fact, we didn't even leave the house on guelaguetza night because if there was any violence, it was going to be that night.

    Street Food and Veggies


    We Americans have notoriously weak stomachs. We have to be very careful what we eat here in Oaxaca because not only are we in danger of getting food poisoning, but we can get amoebas. Yeah, I said amoebas. Basically, any vegetables that we buy, we have to soak them in purified water and these disinfecting tablets for half an hour. That means we're not really eating too many salads around here. Also, we can eat street food, as long as all the components are cooked. They put lettuce in the tacos and quesadillas here so we have to ask for our food "sin verduras." Also, we can only eat fruit from the market if it has a skin we can peel off. Otherwise, it gets the same treatment as the vegetables. The one exception is the organic market, which happens on Fridays and Saturdays only. We can eat any of the food sold by the vendors there (like the fruit cups in the photo above) because they go through the whole purification treatment. Additionally, there are all kinds of wonderful aguas frescas at the market, which are also off limits to us, since they usually consist of fruit juice and water...and you know what happens when we drink the tap water here. Our friends the amoebas come to visit. We've had our fair share of aguas frescas, however, and Dona Ofelia makes a new delicious drink every day to accompany our lunch.

    It's worth mentioning that when I say "market", I mean a big outdoor market with different vendors selling vegetables, food, and other items. I am not sure where the supermarket is in Oaxaca, but it's nowhere near us. So, we have to buy our food fresh from the markets if we want to cook at home. So far, I only know of the market at Abastos (Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday--more on that in the post about Saturday), the organic market on Fridays and Saturdays, and the market in Tlacolula (about 1/2 hour away) on Sundays only. So, you have to plan ahead if you want to cook at home.

    OK, I think that's enough for this post...I will definitely continue this series. Stay tuned for huge beetles and dogs on the roof. ;)

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007

    En el Taller Don German

    On Friday we returned to San Dionisio Ocotepec to finally work with Don German making huaraches. His workshop (taller) is basically a shack in his backyard. You have to walk through his backyard, which is more or less a petting zoo. From what I saw, they have a cow, a dog, a pig, two piglets, a goat, several chickens, and two cats.



    Don German started off by showing us the tools that he uses in order to cut leather. Mariana, the TA for the class, had driven us out to S.D.O. and she stayed and translated for a bit as Don German went through the basics. As she prepared to leave, Don German all of a sudden got really nervous that we weren't going to be able to communicate (even though Adrien and I have been able to get the gist of most conversations). He kept making her translate one more phrase and one more phrase, and then before she left, he made us ask him a question in Spanish so that he could make sure we could communicate. Kind of weird.

    Anyway, Don German has a whole set of tools to make his huaraches. For example, in order to cut leather strips, he uses these tools, which he made:


    And he uses them with a knife in the following way:


    It's actually a lot harder to use than it looks. I was the first one to try it, and it was really difficult. Plus, everyone was yelling at me telling me how to do it, and I got really overwhelmed and freaked out, especially since I was trying to cut this leather with a knife and I was afraid to slip and cut myself. Anyway, I don't think Don German was very impressed with my skills, and for that matter, I don't think anyone else impressed him, either.

    Anyway, Don German went through and showed us all the tools he uses to make the huaraches. He actually has several different styles and several of them were very cute, like this pair:


    The issue is that most of his shoes are work shoes, and though some of the styles are cute, they don't all appeal to a tourist market (the people willing to pay the big bucks for this stuff), and the locals are starting to wear things like Carhartts and Timberland boots, so he really needs to do something different in order to continue making a living working with leather. Plus, the workshop is a mess and, quite honestly, though the shoes are sturdy, they are a little rough around the edges. I guess that's why he agreed to do this workshop with us...he and his family are in a difficult position right now.

    So, on to the huaraches. Each of us chose a different style to make from leather to shoe, and I chose this pair:


    First, we traced around a template for the foot bed:


    We cut out the shape using that knife to the right side of the photo. Next, we use a compass to trace around the shape of the foot. This makes an indentation about 1/2 an inch in from each edge. You punch slits and holes along this line and attach the straps through these holes.


    You punch holes and slits with tools like these:


    Next, you cut all the strips you need in order to make the shoe. To make them more flexible, you get the leather wet first.

    You attach the straps through the slits and holes you cut, and then you use a foot mold in order to get the length of the straps correct:


    At this time, there are all kinds of other things you are doing: attaching straps to other straps with grommets, braiding the leather, etc. I won't go into details on this part. Finally, after the top of the huarache is all together, it looks like this:


    You glue the straps down to the foot bed using some glue (they make the glue themselves boiling down who knows what body parts...it was kind of gross and I'd rather not think about it). :P Finally, you glue the top of the huarache to the sole of the shoe and cut it out:


    Here are my completed shoes:


    Ok, here's the real story: it took us FOREVER to make our shoes. in fact, I was the only one who completed the shoe from start to finish. I think we were there for like 6 hours, and again, I was the only one to finish the sandals. For reference, Don German can make 20 pairs in a day. Then again, these people get up at 4AM and work until 8PM, 7 days a week. I think he was kind of unimpressed with us. In fact, he told me my shoes were "prototipos solamente...nada mas" (samples only, nothing more). Thanks, Don German. :P

    By the way, I documented the entire process in a Flickr set here:

    In between making the shoes, and despite Don German's initial skepticism that we would be able to communicate, we talked about politics. Don German is super smart and very well educated on politics, even in the US. He asked if we were Democraticos or Republicanos, and when we told him we didn't vote for Bush, he seemed pretty pleased. Things took an uncomfortable turn when he started talking about how rich we are in the US and how different our lives are...and then asked if we did drugs. He straight up asked me if I had ever done cocaine. Um, NO, Don German. Let's just cut that off right now...we're not going there.

    All in all, it was a good day at the workshop and we were exhausted by the time we got home. We made it out for dinner and we tried to go to a club, but when we couldn't find it, we just decided to go home. It had been a very long, action-packed week.