Los Leñateros, Maya Women Printers in Chiapas

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Kari, a bookbinder, took time from her work to give a tour of Taller Leñateros.  Kari’s mother tongue is Tzotzil, but she spoke better Spanish than I as she shared the story of Leñateros. This women’s papermaking and printmaking collective was founded in 1975 by poet Ambar Past. Born in North Carolina, Past is now a naturalized citizen of Mexico.

Today the collective boasts nine members, mostly Maya women. Visitors are welcome at the taller (studio) during working hours. The Leñateros’ building looks much like others in this picturesque colonial mountain town. A mural by the Spanish street artist, Liqen decorates the outer wall. Inside, whitewashed stucco over adobe walls enclose a few small rooms topped by terra-cotta tiles. Prints hang everywhere. Two busy interior courtyards are filled with tropical trees and artisans hard at work.

The back patio is where the paper is made. The women create fine art papers from recycled scrap cardboard and natural fibers including banana, tillandsia, yucca, cocoa hulls, and palm. It is worth remembering that paper and books were made by the Maya long before Europeans arrived in the New World. Unfortunately, the Spanish destroyed all but a handful of the Maya codices.

The Leñateros have acquired some industrial-strength blenders to chomp up the leaves and bark. Kari showed us their vintage pedal-powered device (below) built from an old bicycle. It is still sometimes used to chop wildflower petals for dying and decorating paper. Their handcrafted paper is sold by the sheet; some is bound into sketchbooks, and the rest is used for their own printing.

The presses naturally can’t be situated in the open-air patios. A narrow pressroom houses a silkscreen press, an electric offset litho press, and an antique Thayer and Chandler letterpress. The offset press prints a free tourist map of historic San Cristóbal featuring footprints leading to Taller Leñateros at #54 Flavio Paniagua. The hand-cranked Thayer and Chandler press (seen below) is set up to score the maps for folding into little houses. The house-shaped maps of San Cristóbal by Leñateros prove great graphic design need not cost a fortune.

I was told 2013 was not a good year for the Leñateros. Sales are down. They do have one retail outlet in the big city of Puebla, Mexico, but most of their artwork is hand sold in tiny San Cristóbal. Today, San Cristóbal attracts a younger crowd. European backpackers fill the hostels and cafes, but few of them buy prints. Admittedly, it is hard to carry a print around in a backpack. At 15 pesos ($1.20 U.S.) the Leñateros’ individually silkscreened postcards may be the least expensive fine art in the world. However, as fewer people use snail mail, even the sale of postcards has dropped.

The Leñateros keep working away, printing woodblock prints on their handmade papers. A woodblock print of a masked Zapatista playing the marimba costs 250 pesos, under $20. They also have a series of 100-peso posters silkscreened on brown kraft paper. The posters for their occasional journal, Jicara, are especially fine. I purchased a dozen posters to exhibit back in the U.S. to help spread the word about their work. My total investment was under $100, and they threw in a sturdy cardboard tube.

If you get to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, drop in and visit the Leñateros. You will be welcomed warmly. If the studio happens to be closed for the weekend, a number of San Cristóbal’s fine bookstores, including Soluna, stock their wonderful prints.

Note: In modern usage “Maya” is the preferred adjective referring to the indigenous people and “Mayan” is used only to describe their language. Tzotzil is one of the Mayan languages spoken in the highlands of Chiapas.

Kari and the recycled bicycle used to shred plants.

Paper samples on the adobe courtyard wall.

The Thayer and Chandler Letterpress, made in Cleveland, Ohio.

Silkscreened posters cover the walls.

Poster for journal La Jicara, designed by Carlos Jurado. Silkscreened, black and white on kraft paper.

Tlacuache (opossum) copied from a Maya vase. Solar developed silkscreen, postcard.

Masked Zapatista at marimba, woodblock on hibiscus colored paper.

Woman with corn, woodblock on handmade paper.

Maya Lord. Detail, woodblock on handmade paper.

Kari at the bookbinding station.

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Categories: Studio Visit


11 Responses to “Los Leñateros, Maya Women Printers in Chiapas”

  1. Luther says:

    Wow, just wow. What a great post. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thanks so much, Luther. I also blog about Mexican printmaking sometimes at:
    http://illustrationconcentration.com/
    Recently ran into another Thayer and Chandler letterpress there.

  3. Rona Macias says:

    Another peek into the heart of printmaking Mexico, thank you so very much Kevin! you are like the Dr. Livingston of hidden art colonies…..what will you uncover next?

  4. Vincent Rossi says:

    Fantastic inventive ideas and a array of beautifully created art !

  5. Jasmine Delgado says:

    What a great story! Printmaking has such an interesting history, especially in Mexico. It’s so wonderful to see this beautiful shop holding on to that rich tradition. Is there a way to support them online? I would love some of these prints!

  6. Kevin McCloskey says:

    Jasmine, good question.
    Seems they had an online store in the past, but not now as far as I can see. I just now wrote to them to ask.
    Their current working email is:
    tallerlenateros@gmail.com

  7. Courtney says:

    Fabulous post! We visited them also and I was astounded by their products, super super beautiful. Cheers from Chiapas.

  8. Sean K. Sweeney says:

    Maestro Kevin McCloskey goes out of his way to bring the Print Making Community such wonderful insights, he truly goes to great lengths to get the inside information on the Print Making communites in Mexico. It took a twelve hour bus ride to get to San Cristobal de Las Casas.

  9. Lisa says:

    This is so interesting! Native plants AND handmade paper. Plus that beautiful printing press! *swoon* We’ll have to make sure we get there next time.

  10. […] These are some samples of their handmade paper. You can read more about their papermaking and printing techniques here. […]