By Deborah Van Hoewyk
How Do You Like Your Chicken Crafted?
Chickens haven’t changed the world, even if they’ve changed our diet—as of 2012, Americans ate more chicken than either beef or pork (those McNuggets aren’t necessarily better for you than beef) and KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken for those of you not up on the Colonel’s latest facelift) is the largest restaurant chain in China. However, according to Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel (a fascinating assessment of things that have changed history), chickens are just small domestic birds that have proved useful to mankind.
But they’re lovable, some cultures worship them, the Romans believed in their fortune-telling abilities, and we all know how nurturing a “mother hen” is. Chickens are an enduring theme in popular art. In Mexico, you can learn a fair amount about traditional crafts by seeking out chickens.
The Chicken Flowerpots of Amatenango
About an hour south by southeast of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, lies the village of Amatenango del Valle. Home to members of the Maya Teltzal culture, Amatenango is famous for its pottery. Pottery here is a woman’s craft, with skills passed down from mother to daughter. It begins with a group of women walking into the forest to dig the mud for clay; they can also walk for perhaps two hours to buy pre-dug clay. Either way, the potters then work the clay with sand and water, and fire them above ground—the whole process involves the four sacred elements of earth, water, fire, and air.
Perhaps the best-known design from Amatenango is the simple grey dove, which forms the base for the Amatenango chickens and peacocks. The large planters are almost three feet tall, but you can also get storage pots that have a base of the bottom of the chicken, while the wings and head form the top.
Huichol Beadwork Chickens
The Huichol people, who live in the Sierra Madre in Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango (West Central Mexico), were traditionally tobacco farmers, much to the detriment of their health due to heavy use of pesticides in growing tobacco for market. As the pesticides have been discontinued, the Huichol have come to depend on their crafts for income. Originally known for their embroidery, they have translated that into “yarn painting”; the yarn painting is done by pressing threads into a thin beeswax coating on a wood tablet. The beeswax technique has also been adapted to cover alebrije-like wood carvings—our friend the chicken is a frequent model. (Of course, artisans from Oaxaca do produce chicken alebrijes, although nowhere near as popular as fire-breathing dragons.)
Tinware doesn’t get enough notice, even though it’s made around Oaxaca (City), San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato), and Tonalá (Jalisco). Called hojalata (which could literally translate as “leaves of cans”), it’s been around since the Spanish arrived. It can be cut, shaped, punched, embossed, soldered, and painted with ease, and lends itself well to luminaria, star lanterns, ornaments, and light-weight containers. Tinware sold as craftwork is lacquered to preserve its shine, oxidized so it turns a dark gray, and/or painted with either transparent or opaque pigments. Chickens appear as freestanding figures (sometimes in the form of huge “yard art”) and as small hanging ornaments.
Majolica? In Mexico? Yes, indeed, when things European were at one or another high point of desire, there was certainly majolica. Artisans in Tlaquepaque (Jalisco) turned out majolica chicken casseroles in the 1940s, very popular in the U.S. gift market.
The current presence of majolica, including chickens, is almost entirely due to the efforts of one Gorky González Quiñones. Born in Morelia in 1939, the son of sculptor Rodolfo González, he was trained in classical painting and sculpture before moving on to study ceramics in San Miguel de Allende. One day, González came across a piece of antique European majolica and was so taken with it, he was determined to rescue this “forgotten craft.” After a sojourn in Japan, studying traditional ceramic techniques, he returned (with his Japanese wife, Tashiko Ono) to establish the Gorky González ceramics workshop in Guanjuato, working there until his death in January 2017. His son carries on the family business, and Gorky González majolicaware is still available through a number of outlets, including Novica, a fair trade artisan shop operated in association with National Geographic.
If you’re in search of chicken art, there are many choices, and most other craft centers set their hands to chickens as well. There are black pottery chickens from Oaxaca, Otomi embroidered chickens from Mexico’s central altiplano, and Talavera chickens from Puebla. Happy hunting!