Innovators of Traditions
The Inventive Lives of
Santa Fe de La Laguna, Michoacan

   Can a family fully dedicated to the traditions of their ancient culture also spearhead progressive change in their community?  Nicolas Fabian and Maria del Rosario Lucas say, "Yes!".  Not only did Nicolas completely reinvent his art, but Rosario rallied an entire community behind a groundbreaking project that will impact Santa Fe de La Laguna for generations to come.  Together, they are unstoppable.  Let's meet these unlikely trendsetters.

ABOVE:  Rosario and Nicolas married in 1987, and have two daughters.  The couple stands before a large oven where clay is fired in their home.

   This afternoon, we find Nicolas relaxed and eager to chat about his heritage, his family, and his dreams for the future.  The fiestas celebrating Navidad have just concluded, and pre-Lenten celebrations are only days away.  And there is great excitement about the fact that the new Governor of Michoacán has set a date for his official visit.  But today, there is time for friends and leisurely conversation.
   Nicolas Fabian Fermin was born into the art of clay on August 1, 1962.  Everyone on his mother's side made clay, and on his father's side, his grandfather made the jarras para chocalate (pitchers for chocolate) for more than 30 years.  Following in his family's footsteps, Nicolas also learned to make the traditional clay of Santa Fe de la Laguna.   And this is where many stories might conclude, yet this is where Nicolas Fabian's story begins.

ABOVE:  Nicolas proudly displays a treasured clay pot made by his mother more than 30 years ago.  This drip-style pottery is no longer made in Santa Fe de la Laguna.

   Working in the highly glazed black pottery style of his village, Nicolas began to consider the negative effects that daily use of glazes and chemicals could have over the course of decades.  How could he stay true to his art but eliminate these known occupational risks? 

ABOVE:  An example of his early glazed work.

ABOVE:  The first attempt at creating a new pottery style.

   He began the arduous task of reinventing his art by utilizing the clay construction with which he was raised.  That would not change.  Next he considered the pottery's traditional forms and themes.  Those also must endure, but how to create something decorative and beautiful without the brilliance of the glazes?  From nature the answers came.

ABOVE:  The family's flower-filled garden.

ABOVE:  A flower-adorned finished vase.

   Looking to the traditional themes of his racethe PurhépechasNicolas became inspired by the designs of flowers, fruits, and fish.  He began to experiment with imbedding the designs into the clay rather than the traditional method of applying the designs to the clay's surface.  With time, he created a method of lifting decorative patterns in complete bas-relief by carving away all negative space.  The results were natural, graceful and elegant yet completely grounded in his heritage.  The finishing touch was to coax a wonderful glow from the clay itself by burnishing.  He had created something in his pottery that was both indigenous and contemporary, and beautiful.  The innovative process is as follows.

   The earth for clay is mined in Santa Fe de la Laguna.  After the raw clay is dug up, it must thoroughly dry then be taken to the local molino (mill) to be ground.  The now powder-fine earth is then mixed with water into a masa (paste), then formed into balls.  The balls are mixed and mixed, adding water until the perfect consistency is achieved.  The prepared clay is next pounded into flat slabs of an equal and perfect thickness with no air holes.  The pounded clay is then pressed into molds made of plaster, or sometimes clay.  In molds, the clay rests for one full day.  Dry enough to remain intact, the clay is removed from the molds and cleaned with a water-dampened smoothing cloth with attention being paid to the rims and mouth of the piece.  After this cleaning, the piece now dries for another half day.

ABOVE:  Clay pieces with applied engobe, ready for carving.

   At this point, pieces are coated with a natural red clay slip called engobe.  The rich red earth for engobe is mined in Zirahuen or Taricuato.  Now, the clay pieces dry for an additional half day.

ABOVE:  Ever the innovator, Nicolas created his own special tools for burnishing.

   Now the piece is ready for burnishing (polishing).  Some use polishing stones and others use bone, but Nicolas discovered that making his own tools from plastic drums used for storing water worked the best.

ABOVE:  Burnishing a vase with his own created tools.

ABOVE:  Designs are drawn onto the polished surface and carving begins...


...until eventually, all negative space has been "removed" leaving the desired design in relief.

   Nicolas next sketches nature-inspired designs directly on to the burnished surface.  His freehand drawings of pomegranates, lake fish, blossoms, and branches filled with lemons and limes are graceful and elegant.  First engraving an outline of the forms, he next removes all space between revealing the designs in relief.

ABOVE:  A carved vase is now ready for the oven.

   The carved clay pieceswhich includes vases, bowls, plates and plattersare now ready for the horno (the firing oven).  Fueled by wood which is plentiful in this region, the firing lasts for 3 hours reaching temperatures of 600°-700° centigrade.  The surrounding pine-covered mountains also supports legal and regulated logging, and discarded trim wood from local lumber mills is ideal oven fuel.  In this region, the notion that wood-fueled clay ovens are a cause of deforestation is not accurate.

ABOVE:  Still warm from the horno, clay cools, ready for the next step in the process.

  At this stage, the hot clay may be rolled in sawdust resulting in a completely blackened surface.  Or it may cool, untouched, with the beautifully irregular marks of the fire coloring the pottery in earthy browns and reds.

ABOVE:  Fired pieces await the final cleaning and polishing in the home workshop.



ABOVE:  Nicolas applies the final finishing touches.

   After firing and cooling, the pieces receive a light coat of wax that is then polished to a warm sheen.  At last finished, all that remains is for Nicolas to sign each clay creation.

LEFT:  A tile made from an antique mold that will decorate the Fabian's remodeled, traditional home.  RIGHT:  A stone fish decorates a courtyard walkway.

   For the past several months, The Fabian home has been a whirl of construction.  New bathrooms, an upgraded kitchen, a gallery and guest room, and an enlarged workshop are all part of the vision Rosario had for her family and for her community.  Ten years ago, Rosario envisioned preserving and sharing her village traditions in a way that would provide employment for generations to come.  She met with other village women, and together they formed a plan for opening artisan workshops, indigenous restaurants, and traditionally built guest houses enabling visitors to comfortably experience aspects of the Purhépecha culture for the very first time.  The project is progressing rapidly with both the former and current governors of Michoacán delivering the official dedication on February 6, 2008 in Santa Fe de la Laguna.  And we will be there to share this proud moment.  I predict that much of the project, which currently encompasses eleven traditional homes, will be ready to welcome the first visitors in June of this year.  I marvel at Rosario's practical vision for her communityas inspiring as Don Vasco de Quiroga's Utopian plan for Santa Fe de la Laguna, verdad
RIGHT:  The nearly completed room that will serve as a gallery and guest room.
LEFT:  The spacious workshop where classes in traditional clay-making techniques will be held.  The original roof tiles are being placed as I write...all in preparation for the February 6th dedication ceremony.
  While a portion of the funds came from federal and state agencies, the majority was raised by the village itself.  Architects worked closely with villagers to maximize the potential of each home while utilizing traditional building methods and materials.  As an artist first, Nicolas strove to incorporate personal touches into the finishing details of his home and workshop.  A discovery of his grandfather's molds, once used to make nostalgic tiles depicting village scenes, resulted in Nicolas once again making the tiles to decorate his remodeled home.  Other artisan details include the branding of fish designs onto the workshop's wooden vigas, and the placing of stones in fish patterns to create garden walkways.  Yes.  This is the home of an artisan.
ABOVE:  A fiesta sombrero hangs beside a decorated dance staff, called a bucalo.
  It comes as no surprise that Nicolas and Rosario are extremely knowledgeable in village history, lore and traditions and are eager ambassadors for the Purhépecha culture.  Active in all fiestas, dances, observances and celebrations, our every visit results in new discoveries and adventures.  But as if this were not enough, Nicolas continues to express his desire in the rescate (the rescue) of lost traditions.  Take for instance the curious mask hanging on his workshop wall.
ABOVE:  A Xenchekicha dance mask of Santa Fe de la Laguna.
   The large grotesque mask is for the dance of the Xenchekichameaning the burro in Purhépecha.  Performed at the first of the year, the giant masks are donned by men who complete their hilarious costume by stuffing pillows into the rears of their pants.  The comedic dancers then wiggle through the streets to the delight of fellow villagers, but have not done so for several years now.  Understanding how quickly traditions can fade, Nicolas plans to resurrect the Burro Dance with his brothers next year.  We can't wait.
   So many talents and accomplishments; innovators, community leaders, staunch protectors of customs and traditions, and most of all, our dear, dear friends.  Can a family fully dedicated to the traditions of their ancient culture also spearhead progressive change in their community?  According to Nicolas Fabian and Maria del Rosario Lucas, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!".
Written January 28, 2008.
By Debra Hall
ZÓCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO

All photos by Deb Hall.
To learn more about Santa Fe de la Laguna's artisan workshops, guest inns, and indigenous restaurants that will soon be open to visitors, contact Deb Hall at  All inquiries will be translated and forwarded to village leaders in Santa Fe de la Laguna.
To read more about Don Vasco de Quiroga's utopian artisan vision for Santa Fe de la Laguna, go to
All rights reserved by Deb Hall, 2008.  No part may be used or reproduced without written permission from Deb Hall.