Thursday, September 01, 2011

my patina on copper

For those of you who asked me if I had (or would) visit Santa Clara del Cobre.

I have.

And it is a very good place to wrap up my trip to Pátzcuaro because it pulls together some of the history pieces we have been discussing this past month.

Wednesday was my second trip to Santa Clara.  Felipe showed me the town earlier in the month -- at the start of the town’s annual copper festival.

For those of you who do not know, Santa Clara de Cobre’s fame rides lightly in its name.  Not Santa Clara, the star-studded saint.  But, cobre.  Copper.

And therein lies the tale.

You will recall that the people who lived in this area when the Spanish arrived were the Purépecha -- and still are.  One reason their empire thrived and why it survived repeated attacks by the Aztecs was their ability to forge metals.  Farm utensils.  Jewelry.  Military weapons.  In fact, weapons forged in the area of Santa Clara may have been used to slaughter 30,000 Aztec prisoners after one of those battles.

The Purépecha closely guarded the secret of their metal work.  And far better than America kept the designs of the atomic bomb from the Soviets.   But, as we know, that advantage was never put to test against the Spanish tribe and its Indian allies.

When Nuño de Guzmán began his terror campaign, the Purépecha fled.  And the foundries fell silent.

Only upon the arrival of Don Vasco did the bellows start up again.  Don Vasco’s plan was to designate a special craft for each village.  For Santa Clara, it was a no-brainer.  These were copper people.  But it was all to be in service to the Spanish Empire.  No more weapons, thank you very much.

Instead, the main copper item to roll out of the new craft shops were Spasnish cazos.  Or cauldrons.  You can still see the same design in daily use throughout Mexico – usually at a butcher shop.  The cauldron is filled with lard, heated, and strips of pork rind are fried up.  My grandmother’s favorite snack.

The cauldrons were similar in form to this piece in the town plaza -- chained like Sampson in the Philistine temple.

But not all went well.  The town burned down in the late 1800s and once again in 1910.  And the copper mines the town depended on ran out of ore.

Following World War Two, the town revived.  Not with cauldrons, but with a revived interest in decorative items.  Some of that came from outside artisans -- especially a movement to teach local women how to fashion jewelry.  Don Vasco redux.

I was a bit reluctant to make the trip back to the village.  And I know why.  I dislike shops and shopping.  The copper shops we visited had some intriguing pieces.  But the shop attendants were a bit too attentive.  Particularly when it came to preventing photographs pf their goods.

This time I started with the town plaza.

If you did not know this was a place of copper, you certainly would with just a glance.  The lamp posts are copper.  The benches are copper.  And, of course, the giant cauldron in the center of the plaza is copper.

And all of it well-crafted.  The detail on the lamp posts, gazebo, and benches is Victorian in manner.  But its style is pure Mexican.

An acquaintance told me not to miss the interior of the parish church.  Other churches may have plenty of gold.  But this is a copper church.

Such as the chandeliers.

And the decorative maize pieces on each side of the altar.

But my favorite spot in town was the Copper Museum.  It allowed me to look at each piece without the constant hover of sales girls.

I may do a post on the other pieces on a future date.  But let me share these few with you.

It amazes me how metal can often seem to flow.  Or how shapes can be formed on such a hard surface.  As an example, the curves in this pot designed to look like a coiled snake intrigued me.  Even the bands on the snake are a different texture than the rest of the piece.

Or the stag motif on the urn and the handles.

I could not pass up a crocodile piece.

I admit a certain weakness for the animal pieces.  But when it comes to detail, look at this piece.  And then compare it with the detail photograph of the same piece at the top of the blog.  That is true craft art.

One thing you will notice almost immediately when you enter Santa Clara is the constant hammering of metal against metal  -- as the craftsman slowly add form to each of their copper pieces. 

It almost sounds as if Santa's elves are working out their obsessive compulsive disorders.  But what they produce is phenomenal.

And how could I not love a town whose main highway is lined with lampposts bearing my initials?

I hope Santa Clara will forgive me for piggybacking on her name.


Felipe Zapata said...

Santa Clara is a swell place. As with the silver in Taxco, the copper in Santa Clara goes from the cheapest piece of tourist junk to astounding (and astoundingly pricey) pieces of art. I like Santa Clara.

You mentioned correctly that the mines ran out of copper. The copper these days comes from rolls of industrial copper wire bought elsewhere. Or at least that's what I have heard.

Denkura said...

Thank you Felipe, trying to guess where the current copper comes from was going to make me do unwanted investigation.

Steve Cotton said...

I was temptyed to buy some of the pieces for sale at the museum. Thet were top notch.

Steve Cotton said...

I saw one source that claims a portion of the work is recycled copper wire.

jennifer rose said...

Nice treatment for one of my favorite towns in all of Mexico. Did you happen to notice that the workers there don't seem to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome?

tancho said...

 Or from conduit that has been run from a power panel to a location , then becomes missing the next morning.........
We learned the hard way that you have to finish any wiring job the same day if you want to keep the wire in the ground.

tancho said...

Or brand new wire not yet connected.....

tancho said...

Did you happen to notice that as you come into town the absence of small copper pots hanging on the lamp posts? When they first remodeled the street with pavers and sidewalks, perching new lampposts they had small copper baskets hanging immediately below the lamps. About 4 or 5 months later half disappeared, now they are almost all gone.
Recycling at it's most primal form.

Felipe Zapata said...

I sho nuff luv the culture heah.

Steve Cotton said...

Or overuse syndrome.  That museum is amazing.

Steve Cotton said...

I did notice.  I wanted to get a photograph with all of the decorations, but I settled for the one I shot.  More empasis on the "SC."

Steve Cotton said...

Indeed.  But I could use chamber music now and then.

Nita said...

A marvelous piece on the copper. Now go to Taxco and do one on silver. I bought a necklace in Taxco that was a replica of one winning in the silver fair. You would like their museum!

Babsofsanmiguel said...

ff you're interested in knowing about the couple that helped bring copper items back to the populace, world wide, read Jennifer Rose's article at    Well written and very enlightening about the area.

Steve Cotton said...

Thankds, Babs.  I meant to include the link in my post.

Steve Cotton said...

It is on the list.  But I need a rest from my "vacation" right now.

al lanier said...

The pieces with the lizards and the antelopes (or whatever those animals are) are particularly amazing. I've always found metalworking to be an amazing skill, twisting and creating all those details while the metal is red hot. But then again sculpting marble or granite can't be too easy either.

Steve Cotton said...

The pieces in the museum are extremely high quality.