CHIAPA DE CORZO, Mexico – “A good piece of lacquer endures over time. That’s why I tell my students to make their pieces good,” Martha Vargas, an acknowledged master of pre-Columbian lacquering, told Efe at her studio in this town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
Vargas was just a child when her aunt decided to teach her the millennia-old technique.
“I’m 82 now. I began at 7 and I started with Miss Delfa in a house of crafts that was the biggest there was. There I went to work with Miss Delfa,” she recalls.
Decades later, Martha Vargas is widely known for the quality of her pieces, yet she continues to strive to improve the approach handed down over countless generations.
“That is the technique so the lacquer doesn’t fall off at the start,” she says. “That’s what I’ve been teaching for 40 years.”
In the pre-Columbian cultures of Chiapas and neighboring areas of southern Mexico, lacquer was commonly applied to fruits such as pumpkin, squash and gourds.
Vargas says that while she likes to decorate crosses and reliquaries with traditional designs featuring flowers, birds and ducks, her repertoire also includes images of pre-Columbian deities.
“This design is more than a thousand years old, because in that time they didn’t do flowers, it was the gods that existed then that they painted,” she explains, pointing to one of her creations. “This is a replica of a piece that was found and is in the possession of an anthropology institute. I copied it.”
The traditional method is to use the fingers to sketch out figures and apply paint, often derived from flowers and earth.
“Various flowers are used to bring out the color. The Aztec marigold yields a very pretty coffee color and we are experimenting with the seed of the naseberry,” Vargas tells EFE.
Martha says that among the several different crafts she learned as a child, she chose to pursue lacquering because it provided the opportunity to share her knowledge and keep the tradition alive.
One of her students, Segundo de Jesus, echoes that sentiment.
“What is being lost or transformed is the painting of the traditional flowers, which is done with the fingertips. We have a great variety of traditional flowers: roses, poppies, pansies and lilies, and now they only roses,” Segundo says.
Vargas is one of dozens of women artisans in Chiapa de Corzo who work with lacquer.
The pre-Columbian lacquering craft survives in only three of Mexico’s 32 states: Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacan.