But in Oaxaca color comes from nature, not Crayola. Tropical hues literally grow on trees, in bougainvillea and trumpet vines lounging over walls, in jacaranda blooming purple overhead, in papayas and pomegranates and oranges picked for sale in the marketplace. Even the earth and mountains range their own striking palette, mineral gray to pale sand. Oaxaqueños take these colors, the hues of sky and flower and leaf and earth, and spread them on the things they make, whether buildings or household items or clothing - or their art.
"Oaxaca has everything: climate, ruins, colonial art, beautiful churches," says Graciela Cervantes, director of Galería Quetzalli, the city's first fine-art gallery. "The market is full of so many colors, the sky is so blue - people here are surrounded by this beauty from childhood, by everything that makes art. It gets into their eyes."
The valley and mountains circling Oaxaca City are full of villages sustained by the art and handicraft produced there. In San Antonio Arrazola and San Martin Tílcajete, for instance, the villagers create folk-art alebríjes, fantastical creatures of wood and shocking paint that capture the fancy of collectors north of the border. In Teotitlán del Valle, the craft is weaving, transforming hand-dyed wool into rugs and tapestries. In San Bartolo Coyótepec, artisans shape indigenous black clay into pottery. Parents, children, grandparents sit carving, painting, dyeing, weaving day after day, rather than scraping their living from the fields or abandoning their hometowns for Mexico City.
In these villages some artisans work in collaboratives, others under a family umbrella, others under the signature of one person, typically a man. Some of the showrooms are bright, polished, air-conditioned, with sales staff and price lists. Others aren't showrooms at all, but the courtyard of a family dwelling or an open-air shelter on the street side of a residence. Floors are dirt and wares laid on folding tables, and we have to interrupt the artisans at work to ask for prices. They eagerly demonstrate their talents, and here the slick shops seem one step divorced from the act of creation.