The Drawings Were the Words


When redesigning a friend’s house in Merida, Mexico nearly two years ago, I discovered that even with my beginner’s Spanish, the workers at the job site and I established a language, even a fluency of sorts, with the use of endless sketches. I drew details on paper, painted diagrams on the walls, and counted off distances in the dirt. The directness of a simple drawing can sometimes trump verbal proficiency, especially when you are dealing with people who work with their hands.

I first met Paulino in a small town south of Merida. I was introduced to him by Louise Vogel, a mutual friend and weaver, who has lived in Mexico for the past 30 years and works with other local weavers in the small surrounding towns. Paulino is a self-taught Mayan basket weaver, who learned to weave by carefully studying the illustrations and photographs of a book about American Indian basketry techniques given to him by Louise.

During one of my visits to Merida, I watched Paulino work and I appreciated his natural flair for weaving. I observed how he spun shapes and forms from local bajuco root. While the root was still moist and flexible, he removed the skin and wove it before it dried and stiffened. Paulino left the woven piece to cure just as he made it — leaving it in its natural, undyed and untreated state.

I returned a week later with some sketches for an earlier, unbuilt lighting scheme of mine.  Could he build one? Six feet long? Over the following weeks, we worked on a half-dozen large pieces, constantly revising and experimenting. Sometimes during the process I saw an expected “mistake,” but we learned to examine these, change details of the design, and revise.

Then one week, after looking at a straight piece of dried and rigid root, I returned with a copy of a Pacific island rebellib, or stick chart, first glimpsed in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I asked whether he could copy one.

Stick charts were 18th and 19th century navigational charts used in the Marshall Islands. They were woven, abstract constructions of coconut fronds, documenting ocean swells, counter swells, currents, and even (some say) clouds, bird paths, flotsam, and the navigator’s particular requirements. In essence, it is a map of the maker’s known world.

Used as memory aids, they would be left onshore, private and protected, while the navigator guided the canoes by his sense of touch, feeling the motion in the boat. The map was understood only by its maker – who would pass his knowledge on to his son.

After the success of creating the first stick chart–a fairly straight-forward copy–we quickly wandered off into other original designs.  We sat together during my visits, I sketched, with some occasional poor Spanish thrown in, and Paulino silently studied the rough drawings. Paulino was, and still is, a quiet man to begin with; he would ask a few questions about dimensions and colors, or suggest a detail, before he would start a new piece from the sketch.

We laughed about my bad language skills, but in fact, the drawings were the words, the language between us. And since I could not verbally explain all the details, he improvised, and came up with his own. This was how he taught himself his trade, by studying pictures—pure observation and craftsmanship—not by copying.

In the beginning when I would leave, I would feel nervous about all the unresolved design issues…only to return to find several ingenious and creative solutions. When something was especially good, I’d point to it, smile, and encourage more from Paulino.  In the end, we became collaborators, observing, and learning from each other.

Timothy Koelle is an architect in New York and in Mexico. Paulino’s work will be exhibited in April at MC&Co, 57 North 6 Street Brooklyn, NY 11211. See for more information.