Thursday, November 2, 2017

CVII. Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead


Someone must have died in the village today. We heard the death knell from the church this afternoon—slowly repeating the same low and then ascending notes for a minute or so. We immediately thought of Vicente and hurried to the front door to look down the block to his casa, relieved that there wasn’t the activity you’d expect if he’d just passed away. It’s been several weeks since we’ve last seen him sitting in his daughter’s store looking out at the street. We used to always greet each other when I walked by, but the last couple of times he’s been there his eyes were closed and jaws slack.

What a coincidence to die on Día de los Muertos.

Later in the evening, after a trip to the plaza visiting the ofrendas—offerings—to the beloved departed, we passed the person’s wake for whom the bells were earlier tolling, mourners sitting in folding chairs under an awning taking up most of the cobblestone street facing the house where the body lay. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CVI. Construyendo Un Monstruo Gigante Pero Amable Que Se Llama "Al"

Building a Giant But Friendly Monster Called "Al"

Al to scale against the front of our casa.
He's looking down at a señora y niño.
The small model is made of clay. One
of the first steps in this project was
determining the size of the finished
piece, and thus the scale ratio: 1:12.
For the past three months much of the free time I'd previously used to write in this blog has been spent in my recently renovated taller, or workshop.  I've been working on a large alebrije, a fantastical creature of a type popular here in Mexico. Once finished--and its completion date keeps getting rolled back--Al will go up on our rooftop where he'll lean over its parapet looking down at the street traffic below.

Progress has been much slower than anticipated for several reasons. I've been scaling up from a small model, and have never before attempted anything of this size and complexity. Deciding upon, and then finding, the materials and tools I need has taken a lot of time, due to fewer and different things being available, the language barrier and my lack of a car.

Big Al will primarily be painted turquoise, span over 4 feet
from hand to hand, and rise almost 3 feet above the parapet,
sticking several feet over its edge.
The primary medium I finally decided on is one-inch thick, pink polyurethane insulating foam in 4' X 8' sheets. It took awhile to find it. After some rigorous math to determine how much was needed I ordered ten sheets delivered from the nearest of five Guadalajara Home Depot stores found online. I would have preferred three-inch thick sheets like I've used in the States for carving, but insulation requirements here are not as severe as up north and this was lo más grueso (the thickest) available locally.

Some friends brought back a half dozen glue cartridges (cartuchos de pegemento) from Texas, but that was soon used up. Fortunately local ferreterias, AKA hardware stores, carry a similar product called No Más Clavos that seems up to the task of bonding the insulation sheets into a secure laminate. Likewise I bought a utility knife with a blade that can be extended far enough to be useful cutting multiple sheets. A cepillo de alambre (wire brush) has proved a very excellent tool for shaping the foam. Plus, toothpicks have been indispensable.

Big Al's body composed of 25 sheets of
glued together pink foam
Now that a good deal of the sculpting is finished it doesn't seem like much of a big deal, but at each new step along the way I've been consumed by consideration of all the practicalities. The decisions about what needed doing next and how to do it originally assumed monumental proportions in my obsessive 3AM mind. As the work has progressed though--and of course I've made mistakes--each miscue has helped me loosen up a bit and realize that que sera, sera, which is Mexican for "No worries".

Creating the blocky laminate of Al's body and arms has mostly involved numerous measurements of the small model and an equal number of multiplications by twelve to achieve the same look at a bigger scale--all very left-brain type of activities. And then cutting to measure through many meters of foam taking care not slice off part of a finger.

The wire brush, upper right, is the primary tool for shaping the
foam. I got carried away and removed too much around where
the PVC shoulders jut out from the body. The channels around
the pipe were filled will spray foam and a 4" top added.
After I finished the body's laminate, and before attaching the arms, I used the wire brush to smooth the many overlapped edges and create the shape of Al's upper torso. Viewing the sinuous convex and concave lines was almost shamefully satisfying, but I soon discovered that I should have postponed this gratification until the entire figure was finished and looking like some kind of Lego creature. As it was, I took off too much foam so had to apply additional cuboids of polyurethane where the PVC armature attaches to the body.

I've just finished covering those arms with oblongs of foam sheet, each about the size of a large paperback book. This involved challenging calculations to determine the odd angles at which I needed to cut in order to accommodate the twists and turns of the arm "bones". And then actually making those cuts on cubes of foam. All that remains of this portion of the obra, or piece of work, is to complete the laminate for Al's elongated neck and head--about 1' X 2' X 3'. Then I can indulge myself shaping and smoothing the contours, creating the expressive details of the mouth, eyes, and hands.

This is about where I am now. Note the small model on top of
Big Al. Al's neck and head will be skewered by the protruding
PVC pipe.
When I'm satisfied with the sculpture and feel good about Al's size and look--including how he'll fit at the parapet--I'll try to figure out a coating for the water-resistant foam that will provide a good base to begin the painting part of the project. Alebrijes achieve much of their effect from intricately painted designs and wild colors as the one pictured below can attest. That will be a whole new and fun thing to learn and practice.

I figure the finished whole will weigh about fifty pounds. Hoisting it up to the roof will be done with block and tackle. I'm eagerly anticipating that event!


This is an carved wooden alebrije made by Antonio Mandarin from Arrozola, Oaxaca. I've had him for about twenty years.
He's about six inches tall.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

CV. Día de Independencia

Independence Day


Late last night most of the people in Mexico could have been found in the plazas of their respective cities and villages. We were gathered among them in our little town to hear reenactment of El Grito, Father Miguel Hidalgo's 1810 shout out to his congregation to throw off oppressive Spanish rule. We were in a block-long full-body jam in front of the cultural center as our local delegate to the municipal assembly rang a bell and recited a call and response homage to each of the leaders of the revolution ("¡Viva Morelos!" "¡Viva!", etc.) ending with "VIVA MÉXICO" shouted three times.

[Cue the fireworks]

We enthusiastically joined in and then shuffled through the crush to a place where we could enjoy an ice cream cone, marvel at the number of busy late night fast food and gee-gaw stands, and feel empathy for all the roving adolescent tribes in pursuit of who-knows-what. Then, holding hands as the banda started up, we slowly walked back home to bed and a very late morning wake-up. Today is Día de Independencia, celebrated here by a parade of school children and charros on horseback. It'll mostly be quiet during the day but you can bet there'll be music and parties tonight.

Monday, September 11, 2017

CIV. Globos en Fuego

Hot Air Balloons on Fire


--Evening, Saturday, September 9

I just walked outside to look at a globo floating away up in the night sky heading across the lake in the direction of Jocotopec. A "globo" is a hot air balloon that can be as big as a small kitchen, made of colorful tissue paper and kept aloft by the heat generated from a burning cup of paraffin held inside. The fire in this one is casting a red glow on the globe slowly ascending against the stars that are out clearly over the mountains to the south. From a line of clouds above their peaks lightning is flashing too far away for us to hear its sound.

Our Regata de Globos started mid-afternoon in the soccer field at the edge of town. A number of beautiful creations were successfully launched at this big event, but we saw half a dozen balloons that were barely airborne before they burst into flames and plummeted to the crowded field. The burning remains of one crashed into the stands not more than twenty feet away from us amid shouts of alarm and laughter that interrupted a mariachi band.

The flimsy paper globo burns away quickly and no one is more than superficially hurt; the price pay.

The bomberos--which is a great name for firefighters--are around somewhere. On the field self-appointed Junior Bomberos race after every falling corpse of a globo, grab its wiry frame and stomp out its flames. The many adults milling about chatting, eating, drinking among the globo handlers' work "pits" are mostly oblivious to the earthbound missiles en fuego.

Ahh, beauty and lax safety here in Mexico. Fortunately we saw no one fall to the ground with flaming hair or clothing and a concussion.

Here is a description of the regatta's celebration two years ago, accompanied by a number of pictures.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

CIII. Subiendo Chupinaya

Going Up Chupinaya


From our rooftop Chupinaya is the peak top center.
We live near the center of Mexico in the village of Ajijic which stretches for several kilometers along the northwest shore of the country's largest lake—Lago de Chapala. In ten minutes you can stroll from Ajijic’s waterfront, or malecón, up any of a dozen streets to road’s end at the foothills of the Sierra de San Juan Cosalá, a short and narrow range whose highest peaks are scattered along an undulating ridge, parallel to and rising from the lake, and looking down on our village and several others strung out along its shore.

The rumpled topography of the range, now brilliant green in the rainy season, invites longing looks that ultimately seek out the highest spot—Chupinaya—which is about two miles from our house as the turkey vulture flies. At just under 8000 feet, it rises almost exactly 3000 feet from the elevation of our rooftop. Those mornings up there when I can get it together to do my “daily” exercises, it is a solid, familiar presence behind the nearer cerros that are partitioned by arroyos which at this time of year bring lots of water down to the lake.

Our first stop was at "The Saddle" where we were joined by a
half dozen vacas, or cows.
I hiked up to Chupinaya for the very first time last Friday, one of a party of eight. Except for the altitude gain it’s not at all a difficult trek. I think I was the oldest in our group although there were a guy and two gals just a year or two younger than me. Two Canadians, a German, Italian, and the rest were Americans from the west half of the country. Three women, five men.

Almost exactly a year ago I had ventured a climb to Chupinaya but had to give it up about two-thirds of the way to the top; my legs felt okay but my wind was shot. The pace was too quick for me. I encouraged Jim B, the incredible mensch who organizes these adventures, to schedule a hike to the summit at a more relaxed pace. He obliged—twice—but each time I had previously made other plans I didn’t want to change. Last week was my chance.

We've reached the ridge and are relaxing at "Three Crosses".
Jim, our leader, is at left.
It took us four and a half hours to reach the summit, two to return to our base at the coffee shop called “Donas Donuts” (the first word of which until recently I thought was the possessive of a woman’s name—‘Donna’s’—but instead simply means ‘donuts’ in Spanish, so “Donuts Donuts”), where the hiking group gathers every Tuesday and Friday morning to split roughly into thirds based on difficulty of the planned outing, and leave for las montañas. This informal group is composed almost exclusively of ex-pats, their visitors, and others putting their toe in to see what life here has to offer. Among us all, there’s a definite cachet to climbing the highest point on the ridge.
The picnic spot at the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe has
been a gathering spot for ages. A trail leads down the back
side of the ridge to another village, Las Trojes.

For people who like to walk and climb through more or less unsullied nature, this is a great place to live. You walk for a few minutes from the lakefront up to the end of one of the score of cobblestone streets that cross the highway at a perpendicular angle from the lake to the mountains and you’re there. You enter the outback by following a trail crisscrossing some arroyo, hike up to where it switchbacks to a ridge that winds its way to the crest. Jim B has this idea of a two-day jaunt following the skyline from San Antonio Tlayacapan to Jocotopec, about fifteen kilometers; we would camp overnight at the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, pictured left and below, located in an oak-shaded saddle before the final ascent. 

Pivoting from the previous shot, I took this
picture of the shrine itself.
The word Chupinaya can be translated as “stone to be worked”, perhaps referring to the shale near the peak which has incidentally been used to make a barbecue at the shrine. Mi amigo Dionicio is one of the leaders of the local indigenous community; he, Jim B and I have been talking about locating and annotating the traditional locales in these parts. I was visiting Dionicio a few days ago and he told me that a particular high point on the crest trail is known to the native people around here as “mesa del ocote", for the name of a tree popular for kindling that used to grow on that small, high plateau. In pre-hispanic times it had a different-meaning Nahuatl name that I wrote down but can’t remember right now. 

To those revisionists in the hiking group, however, that point is named in honor of a Canadian retiree who—not too long ago—was the first gringo to popularize hiking in these mountains. 

The view from the top was socked in when we arrived, but on the way down the clouds lifted enough to allow this shot about 500 feet below the peak. Our village center is located along the shoreline, at the left.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

CII. El Techo de Vidrio

The Glass Roof


That's Franciso, all 6'3" and 210 lbs of him, laying the first pieces of vitral--
stained glass. He did an outstanding job from cutting precisely to finishing
completely and carefully.
June 28. Rainy all day here in Ajijic. Got back home from Guadalajara just after noon. Tons of traffic on the city streets, the industrial zone, bumps, holes in the asphalt, trucks stuck in traffic. Chose the stained glass—vitral—out of a limited selection, but good colors. Just outside the city, I check our load. "El vitral es un poco roto—broken.” We pull over to the side of the pereferico just before the airport. Now twice as many pieces of glass as before. F offers to make good on the loss, but I figure out a new design where he won't need to go back to the big city, one that also takes into account both the fragility of the vitral and the sizes of the remaining pieces by using it mostly to fill smaller rectangles of the framework.

The plans I drew up from which work followed.
Areas that are not colored were filled with a
lightly tinted glass.
Early July. For the past week I've been waking up every couple of nights at 3 AM imagining scapel-sharp shards of glass falling to embed in the unsuspecting skulls of household guests--I guess members of the immediate family are exempt in my bloody fantasies. No matter what the odds are against it happening at any particular moment, sometime in the next quarter century or so it’s bound to occur, no? After much tossing, turning, and getting up to roam the darkened premises, I’m finally able to picture a solution: two layers of thicker glass sandwiching the fragile vitral. Sharing this idea with Juan, I am relieved that he seems to agree.

Julio 12. Two weeks to the day after the Saga of the Broken Glass, I've received assurances anew about both the security of the redesign and that the work may actually have an end date soon. This morning Francisco called to say he was ready to come over with his crew. I'll be out of the house then, I told him, but back by mid-afternoon. We settled on a las tres--three o'clock. We'll see how that goes. Over the past two weeks I've been told two or three different times that someone will come by our casa to work right nowahorito. The visits seldom came to pass at the appointed hora or even día

July 13. Whoa! All of a sudden, in a matter of hours, the work is complete. Juan, Francisco and a helper have carefully laid a protective overlay of three 80-pound pieces of 6mm clear glass on a layer of the 2mm stained, or lightly tinted, glass all sealed and cushioned by silicone. They did a fine job. And the bonus is that they're also neighbors; I'll see them several times a week, at least, probably for the rest of my life, sharing the memory of this creation into which we all put our best effort.

Looking through the completed techo de vidrio. The protective overlay layer  is over twice as thick as the colored layer, and very heavy--more than 200 lbs. Fortunately it's in three pieces, but even so, watching the trio of workers lay it was a little nerve-wracking.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

CI. La Empieza de la Temporada de Lluvia y de Mi Taller

The Beginning of the Rainy Season and of My Workshop

Our short, but long-anticipated trip to visit daughters and friends in Seattle, shop and wander among old haunts, ended two days ago. Yesterday, on my first outing back home here in a week, I saw that the vegetation has finally begun to green on the cerros and the montañas that rise behind our lakeside village in central México. 

Alebrijes are a popular Mexican folk art form. They are brightly painted
fantastical creatures. This is a clay model for a much larger version that
will be my first project in the new workshop, or taller.
I hope and believe that the rainy season, after a fitful start, has finally begun. The past two months since Pascua—Easter—have been hot and dry, and I haven’t felt a bit like writing. Frankly, neither have I much wanted to be around people, although I usually managed to keep to my volunteer schedule at the garden and food bank. But during that time I only went hiking once with my group—usually a touchstone.

Waking up late in the still cool morning, I'd waste hours following the obsessively provocative soap opera revolving around that chump Comrade Cheeto's latest outrage. It seemed like it was not until the sweltering mid-afternoons that I would make the daily round of shops, switching sides of the cobblestone streets to stay in the usually scant shade of casas and tiendas  crowding the narrow sidewalks. My strongest memories of this period, though, involve lying on a couch under the dome in our sala, reading through the complete works of David Rosenfelt and Ann Cleves, about 20 lightweight mysteries, probably more. That activity would inevitably segue into a beer slumber until time to mix margaritas. In the few hours before and after, on a good day I’d be drawn back to comedians poking fun (Meyers, Colbert, Bee) at that loco, muy mal hombre referenced earlier. And in the middle of the night I’d plan and worry over Javier’s seemingly interminable renovations to turn our cochera—garage—into mi taller—workshop. 

Javier put the frames from two double beds one on top of the
other, with space for tools and supplies in between. This table
has lockable wheels and can be taken apart for bench seating.
He also made a framework for four adjustable lights on the
ceiling. Saul and JJ painted the walls to maximize brightness. 
Now, stage one of the workshop is complete. My first project there will be to fabricate Al the Alebrije. He is a large and friendly looking monstruo, inspired by smaller versions we saw recently in Mexico City's folk art museum. Al will loom three to four feet over our flat roof's cornice and wave at passersby on the street below. The current plan is to make him of styrofoam with wood and wire supports, cover with plaster cloth or celluclay, and paint him T-Bird turquoise with big black, red and yellow dots. I’ll weather-proof him as much as possible; I read that rooftop sculptures recently displayed at MoMA are finished with automotive paints, so may try that. I’ve already made a clay model of Al, so just need to proportionally increase his size about 10-12 times. The big challenge will be gathering materials. It looks like trips to Guadalajara will be necessary. I hope I can work something out with an amiable acquaintance who drives there nearly weekly to visit flea markets, looking to add to his art collection of hidden masterpieces. 

The proscenium frame hangs on a lightweight wall that shields
the laundry area. Its curtain opens to a small stage or scrim.
The screened wall to the right would let in rain during heavy
storms; rather than glass it in, Tony built an iron framework
over the breezeway that will be covered with glass panels.
There are still a couple of shelves to be painted and hung for the tallerhousekeeping goods to be bought: more tubs to hold supplies under the big table, broom and dustpan, a whiteboard for the wall. I’d like to have a wheel-able caddy to hold the tools I’m using as I work on Al. And soon I’ll need a small desk. 

Four of those heavy rocks I’d intended to carve (when that was to be my métier) are now balanced one on top of the other in a corner of the taller; handling rocks is grounding when I'm at loose ends. The proscenium frame originally from the traveling theater I had years ago is now hung on a wall as a reminder and a prompt; it's still useable—I can open the curtains onto a small stage or scrim. The works that are inspiring me right now are old black and white comedies from the golden age of Mexican Cinema, and William Kentridge’s fantastic “Shadow Procession”. That—whatever it becomes—is for the future though; I'm working on Al first…and then maybe his sister. That's an occupation I can see continuing for a long time. 

Here's Tony putting the final touches on installation of what
will be the framework for a glass roof. Panels of colored glass
will be interspersed in the rectangles among smoked glass to
temper the bright sun.  
Finally, there’s the glass roof, or techo de vidrio, to shield the open screened wall of the taller from heavy blowing rain. That still needs to be finished. Tony did a great job of putting together the iron framework from my design and installing it over our breezeway. Juan has agreed to work with me on choosing and buying the colored glass for the different-sized rectangular panels—another trip to the big city. If we can do that next week it should take Juan and Francisco only a day our two for the installation. Things are moving along. I'm getting off the dime.

Update: Next day, yesterday. I just stopped by Juan and Francisco's vidrieria, which is what we call a glass workshop here in Mexico. I made sure we were talking about one of them driving since I don't have a car. We arranged with Francisco to take me to Guadalajara tomorrow a las ocho.  I'll pay for gas, lo que es más igual. Back home I figure I'll need seven 2'X4' pieces of stained glasstonalidades de azul y verde, del mar—and six pieces of what I've always called "smoked" glass. There'll be cuts left over of course. Today I affirmed with F that he can haul back 13 pieces. Unbroken. It should be an adventure.