Artisan Spotlight: Nicolas and Dina of La Cueva Leather
Meet our artisan partners from la Cueva Leather, Nicolas and Dina!
Their quaint family workshop is located in San Juan la Laguna, across Lake Atitlan from Panajachel.
Husband and wife Nicolas and Dina are dedicated to preserving their indigenous culture and staying creative. Nicolas comes from a family of indigenous farmers but he’s an artist to the core. He was heavily influenced by the way he grew up, with a father who hunted and traded for a living. His father would go up into the forest to hunt and then say a prayer to the mountains, giving thanks to the Maya gods for what they had given them. Traditionally, the Maya people are very connected to Mother Earth--in their creation story, humans are made out of white and yellow maiz, or corn. Growing up with this mentality and an appreciation for natural resources, Nicolas and Dina got the idea that the leftover animal hides could be worked into something beautiful and functional.
Now, Nicolás has 17 years of experience working in the art of leather making. He says he’s always loved art and even attended a few years of art school. He proudly told us that he designs all the products, often taking inspiration from other indigenous groups around the globe. Dina supported Nicolas' dreams and passion and now their family-run leather cooperative is 11 years old and employs 12 people from their community: 7 men and 5 women.
The couple emphasized that they’re a team and work as such: the men do the more physically-intensive labor while the women specialize in intricate beadwork, stitching and welcoming visitors.
Together, Nicolás and Dina have three boys: Enselmo, Juanito, and Nicolas Jr. They clearly inherited their parents’ artistic gene: each one plays an instrument. Nicolás and the boys even broke out the guitar during our visit and played us a few songs.
We were thrilled to have the chance to watch these beautiful pieces being made right in front of our eyes. The leather is cut to size to construct each bag--even the thick leather string used for stitching is hand-cut from larger cloths. The majority of the leatherwork is done by the male members of the cooperative, while women take over the more meticulous tasks, like assembling beaded, tight stitching and detailed button accents.
Dina says each of these beaded medallions takes 8 hours to make
This type of hand-beaded artwork is called mostacilla in Guatemala. The work done here at the leather shop is similar to our artisan partners who make our beaded products but the difference is that these designs are sewn right into the leather. Juana and her cooperative members use a bead loom to create their designs. Here’s yet another example of artisans adapting traditional practices to create new, innovative products to appeal to a global audience.
Nicolas and Dina, introduced us to another kind of embroidered art made with porcupine spines! It’s a very old technique that they learned from a friend who worked with natives on reservations in North America. They use natural dyes to color the spines and then flatten them and use them as the “thread” in the embroidery. We were fascinated by this technique and we’re excited to see how they incorporate these beautifully hand-crafted details into new leather bags.
Nicolas says he’s constantly coming up with new ideas and testing out the designs. He likes to sketch them out with pen and paper, sometimes drawing inspiration from other artisans from near and far. He has a particular taste for North American Indian motifs--his friend who’s traveled there has shared designs and techniques with him. He says he also watches what artisans around the lake are doing to stay on top of trends.
When the inspiration doesn’t run quite so freely, Nicolas says he loves to go back to his roots in the forest and the farmland. He finds it therapeutic to cultivate crops like banana, coffee, and maiz on their small plot of land; it rejuvenates his creativity. “When I get tired of work, I go to the forest. Once I’m tired of the forest, I go back to work with new energy,” he told us.
We are so excited about this new partnership with Nicolas and Dina--stay tuned for the launch of their gorgeous leather bags!
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