Mexican Residency with Hojalata Master Inspires Collaborative New Objects

Clare Waddle, AAS Member and part of design duo Yellow Broom lighting and product design, reflects upon her residency in Mexico with artisan Fabian Pacheco, master of the art of Hojalata, and how through making they overcame the language barrier to collaboratively create new functional objects.

Pre Pandemic in November 2019 I was lucky enough to be selected to be part of a three week long design based residency in Oaxaca, Mexico. Developed by the British Council Crafting Futures in partnership with Applied Arts Scotland in collaboration with Oax-i-fornia the programme requested a somewhat unique strategy: rather than set up a designer/maker relationship in which the designers design and the artisans make, this residency’s intention was to enrich what already existed by creating equal collaborative ways for making and thinking.

After a long solo passage from the Scottish Highlands, its winter and snow covered sub zero peaks, and three planes later I finally reached the warmth of Oaxaca in Mexico. Greeted by Raul Cabra multi disciplinary design eye and co-founder of Oax-i-fornia and true supporter of local artisans and their products. Raul introduced me to my residence for the next three weeks. A converted 200 year old stone hacienda in rural Tlacochahuaya, what’s not to love!

La Hacienda

I was equally as excited as I was nervous about the contract and brief to co produce two collections of objects in such a short space of time. It was pre arranged that I work in collaboration with the already established local Mexican artisan Fabian Pacheco, master of the art of Hojalata.

Fabian Pacheco

Hojalata is Mexican tin art and one of Mexico’s oldest crafts dating back to the 16th century. Often referred to as Mexican folk art whereby flat sheets of tin are cut out,  punched embossed and soldered, all highly decorative, typically depicting Mexican skulls, day of the dead figures, angels, iconic hamsa and iconic religious imagery. The wall of his workshop displays typical examples of Mexican Hojalata, of his craft.

Wall of Fabian’s workshop

A soft start and week of introductions to my project partner fashion designer Sophia Jimenez Marrufo, to the local area, its artisans and its culture, all fuelled my growing love of Oaxaca and what it means to practice and live in diverse remote indigenous communities whereby craft and making is fundamental to many generations of makers. I felt fortunate to be exposed to the reality of these rich cultures around their own dinner tables. Their willingness to share their food, family life and their craft was incredibly moving.

As the days passed the language barrier became less of an issue, growing more comfortable with each other we discovered the best tool of communication…our making hands. With this common tool that required few words we made steady progression. Oaxaca is the most culturally diverse state of Mexico, home to 16 indigenous groups, all of whom maintain their distinct languages, dress, gastronomy and traditional ways of producing their craft.

Working hands

The idea behind this residency was to re-think traditional form, material and technique through experiment and play with an end goal of a unique collection of work that could be commercialised by the artisan. This was no mean feat, how could I even begin to suggest alternative ways of application to such skilled working hands and interfere with an inherited craft passed to him from generations of family. I must admit to being a little scared at this point.

I began collecting information from hours of observation, of working in a very hot, small  corrugated tin workshop day after day. Observing what Fabian enjoyed, how he bent, how he embossed,  I finally attempted to learn and apply a few of his skills myself under his watchful eye. Our path gradually become apparent.

Fabian and Clare at work

Fabian’s work was mainly decorative. Me being me I couldn’t help but think how incredible it would be to place a focus upon function. Over the coming days and weeks together we tried to apply his DNA and very traditional approach to making to a collection of utilitarian objects, some successful, some not so. Together we worked upon re thinking his application and construction with a material he knew more than most. Not keen at first Fabian slowly embraced our journey impressing both himself and me daily.

We constructed basic maquettes from what we had at hand, these were not only a vision of what we were aiming to create but our tool for dialogue given neither of us were proficient in each others language, to me this was more poignant than the finished object itself.  

Inspiration for this collection took the form of the humble yet almighty tortilla and the infamous Acapulco chair of whose inventor to this day remains a mystery. Slowly week by week a body of work was emerging combining Fabian’s traditional skills with a different purpose. 

We fused embossing and tin construction skills with the introduction of copper and wood. Days of cutting, and embossing in immense heat finally lead us to harmony and a collection of utilitarian objects.

The artisan holds all rights to further production and I am told Fabian holds this experience as close to his heart and making practice as I do.

This experience has had an impact upon my own work on many levels. Our new Surface Light upon reflection appears to be subconsciously influenced from the work I did whist taking part in this residency with connections to the tin workshop and tortilla. My approach to collaborative working has also been influenced, I am now confident that not understanding a verbal dialogue can be overcome with a combination of human contact and more importantly the dialogue of making hands working together.

Surface Light, Yellow Broom

Image: Light by Fabian Pacheco and Clare Waddle

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