Archive for September, 2006

September 24, 2006

Amate Papermaking

The art of papermaking in Mexico dates back to pre-columbian times. In the early 1900’s it was thought that papermaking had died out. In fact, no one outside of Mexico had recorded seeing amate made since the 1600’s until Frederick Starr, an anthropologist, while searching for traditional Indians in east-central Mexico found evidence of papermaking & its uses.


The Tepehua, Nahuas & Otomi Indians made and used paper in their religious rituals, and as a means of recording information. Starr was shown paper which was made from the inner bark of local trees (ficus/mulberry) & witnessed the women pounding the bark fibers into paper. He also discovered that there were small statuettes made of this paper which he was told were used in cultural & religious rites by village Shaman.

Hundreds of paper figure designs, as well as paper dolls made by the village shamans representing every type of spirit, person, animal, plant were being created for these rituals. The concepts represented by these paper cuttings have existed since & been used in rituals since pre-columbian times. The word amate means ‘paper’ in the Nahuatl language.

Amate use during the 16th Century & Spanish Conquest:

During the time of Cortez & Spanish conquest, paper was respected as a sacred substance & used for commerce and recording of information, much the way we use paper today.

P8110067.JPGThe Codex Mendoza an ancient amate document which is still in existence, shows there were 42 towns or villages where the 480,000 pieces of amate paper was made during a one year period – an enormous amount, considering the time. Celebrations, dreams & spirit matter, genealogy, wars, disease, divination, cures, rulers, plants/animals & details of cultural life were recorded on this paper.

Besides being used to keep records & information, amate was used in Codices (books made of long sheets in accordian fold, with figures & characters to represent data & information). Due to the nature of its organic matter, very few of these documents & ritual pieces exist today.

The elders & spiritual leaders were responsible for the safekeeping of this information & knew how to read them. According to Alan Sandstrom in his book Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico “Virtually every Aztec rite included the adorning of statues of sacred objects with paper…..these paper adornments were cut to proper shape & often dyed & decorated to correspond to symbolic colors of a particular deity.”

Now, as in early times, amate paper is commercially traded and is a main income source for the Otomí people. This paper has been sold mainly to artists in the state of Guerrero, who paint the colorful paintings that are sold throughout outdoor markets in Mexico.

For the last 30 years

artists have been painting historias of village life in colorful images representing spiritual & cultural village life. The scenes depict births, deaths, marriages, planting & harvest, fiestas, celebrations, as well as simple everyday chores such as washing laundry in the river, carrying water, wars & skirmishes.

Early amate paintings were painted in simple, natural colors & dyes, using animal hair & plant fiber brushes. As modern paints & materials have become available, artists began using the wide array of acrylic & neon colors currently available.

Machine stamping is quite common these days in the amates that you see in outdoor markets throughout Mexico. They are sold to vendors who then hand paint in the pre-stamped design, much the way we use paint by number kits. It is unusual in these marketplaces to find unique hand drawn & painted Amates.

Amate Paper used in Religious Rituals -Spirit Figures

The Otomí people create elaborate & artful designs from the bark paper they create. These cut out paper figures are used in elaborate rituals performed by the village shaman. Being animistic in nature, they attribute these spiritual (god-like) energies, to village & world events, health, fertility, weather, harvest etc..

The designs of these spirit representations include gods, saints, animal companion spirits, malevolent spirits, human, animal & plant spirits. These spirits inhabit the sky, earth, and the underworld. Each spirit realm is important and is recognized fully in ritual events.

Three day rituals are held to cleanse & align the spirit world in households & communities of the Otomí. On day one, the malevolent spirits have center stage. Although these spirits represent negative energies, disease, ill will etc. they are considered as important as the good spirits & are recognized, fed & honored in the initial phase of a 3 day ritual, as well as in daily life. After the spirits are nourished,the shaman gathers the paper spirit representations & gives them to a runner who runs miles out of the village to bury the spirits beneath the soil, appeased.

The Shaman then cuts a new set of spirits representing the gods, saints, animals & plants. There could be over 25 or more of these, each hand cut & placed on the altar (usually a dirt floor). Singing, dancing, food, flowers, water and other offerings are made to these living spirits to ensure the desired outcome of the ritual.

To this day, there is an annual community ritual at the end of each year to cleanse the community & bring good energy for the coming year. There are also rituals throughout the year for rain, health, crop production & harvest, as well as other life events & activities.

Otomi Amate Spirit Art

While the colorful amate paintings are common throughout Mexico, the spirit figure amate by the Otomí as seen in our store are less common & are rarely found outside of the Otomí villages.

Each figure represents an aspect of life and energy that must be respected in order to live a life rich in spirituality & ritual. In the villages, entire families are involved in papermaking, as well as using the paper in artistic ways to bring life to the unseen energies around us.

What makes these Otomí pieces unique for your Mexican Folk Art Collection, are the ritual & sacred practices that are still being practiced in its indiginous, traditional forms.

We’ve yet to see, as the modern world encroaches into the lives of these people, how it will change the ritual and artistic aspects of the culture.


Village members work in outdoor courtyards.The strips of bark are

criss-crossed over sheets of plywood, then gently pressed with a porous

stone to mash the strands together to make paper .

The bark is peeled in strips, boiled with lye & ash to soften the bark. Natural or synthetic dyes are addedto this process

Brother, sister and entire families workside by side, pounding the wet strips into paper, creating an artistic piece.


Along with papermaking, the women of the village also embroider and bead intricate designs on their clothing which represents the village & family story.




© All rights reserved, August, 2002, Dos Mujeres Mexican Folk Art

September 23, 2006

Trees of Life, Izucar de Matamoros

To get there you pass through farmlands, agave fields and eventually into the sleepy town of Izucar de Matamoros, south- west of the city of Puebla. Like many Mexican towns, it centers around a main plaza or zocolo that features a church, government buildings, merchants and restaurants. It is not a pretty town, like the colonial or beach towns, and it is made up of typical barrios with low square concrete houses and is home to some of the most outstanding folk artists of Mexico whose roots go back to the 1800’s.

Izucar de Matamoros is one of three main towns that are renowned for the trees of life that come out of Mexico. It is not a shopping town, and you won’t find the work in the few shops that surround the zocolo, nor will you find them in the surrounding streets. You would not travel to Izucar for the romantic Mexican Vacation, the great hotels the food or the beauty, but if you collect trees of life, it is a town you will want to visit.  

The artists from Izucar create trees of life candelabras, incense burners, tree of life figures, ornaments and a wide variety of work that relates to traditional holidays, birthdays, el dia de los muertos and some just for fun.

The Flores and Castillo families are the main families that are continuing the work which has it’s roots in the tradition since the 1800’s. Francisco Flores told us that his father’s trees were originally used as a gift from the godparents to a bride and groom at the wedding. The tree symbolized prosperity, health, fertility and hope and blessing for the new couple.

Still using the molds and paints that were used by his father in the early 1900’s, he continues the family tradition, started by his father Aurelio, by using the old style molds and painting with aniline dyes which creates an effect of a wash over white. His repertoire includes trees with religious figures dia de los muertos pieces, candelabras and incense burners. More than any other artist of this area, he continues to work keeping the very traditinal styles alive.

Isabel, Heriberto and Alfonso Castillo are renowned throughout the Mexican folk art world, and are all widely collected. These artists began working with their mother as young children. The work of Isabel and Heriberto is bright, imaginative and painted in acrylic/polychromatic style. They use a combination of old molds and their own creations. Alfonso, who has won many awards, and is celebrated as one of the ‘great masters’ in the Banamex Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art book. His work is unique and earthy and intricately painted in natural dyes. He commands collectors pricing, which is well deserved, for the beauty and intricacy of his work.

Isabel has traveled widely, including to the USA for shows, exhibitions and to teach. She tells us that her grandmother began making arbol de vidas 125 years ago. She says her mother began the tradition in Izucar, but we have heard from Francisco Flores that his father was the first. Whatever the case, there is long standing community pride in the history of the tree of life tradition in Izucar de Matamoros.  

Like many Mexican Folk Artists we know, the whole house & courtyard are utilized in the making of their craft. On our last visit, her children had taken over the molding, firing and dipping process. Isabel and her husband Gustavo were painting, selling and constructing new living space. Isabel is a very straightforward, no-nonsense person with a great sense of humor and great pride in the century-old tradition that she carries on.

The photos below follow the process that Isabel uses to make her creations.

The ‘clay’ is dried in chunks and is stored in large baskets in the upstairs of the studio. They are moistened by soaking, then kneading the clay into shape on her concrete work table.

Isabel works with the television going in the background, alongside rubber dinosaurs, toys of her grandchildren and her materials.  

This little bird is molded into shape very quickly.

With her thumbnail, she shapes the bird’s wing feathers and bill.  

The pieces are placed deep into the oven and the sheet metal cover is lowered when firing the pieces. They are then cooled off in the kiln, then taken to the baby bathtub, which is full of white house paint and dipped. They are given three dips, then dried outside under the tin roof.

The final step, is the painting of the pieces with acrylic paints, then they are sealed with lacquer. At the time of our first visit in the mid 1990’s, Isabel and her husband Gustavo, were no longer forming and working with the clay. They were painting together in the living room. Her sons and daughters are now doing much of the work, and ushering the next generation into the tradition.  

Trees and molds, hanging on the wall.

Why We Are Drawn to Folk Art

We live in a world where whatever we need is ready made, packaged and ready to take away. Most of what we purchase, whether it be food, household items or art, has been made in a factory somewhere in the world and brought to our doorstep. DSCN2265.JPG

It is rare to find work that is made by hand, piece by piece, with great attention and care to detail. Some of the world’s most exciting and creative folk art is made by common untrained people of Mexico, using whatever materials are at hand.

The work is steeped in tradition and is a place in the world where whole families still work together to bring income into the family, where family members work simply, with their hands, together, for a lifetime. The work includes utilitarian, ceremonial, decorative and historic objects that are vessels for local history, tradition and design mixed with modern and new techniques. It enjoys a history of over 2000 years and the people of Mexico are continuing to create art that reflects the roots and tradition of the culture. It is not a static thing and is ever changing as new ideas, materials and processes find their ways into the work, and old methods are rediscovered.

The world recognizes the inherent Mexican character which carries sense of national identity that the world relates to and understands, giving the work of regular people world wide recognition.

Trees of life from Izucar de Matamoros

Heriberto Castillo Orta has followed in the footsteps of his mother, Catarina Orta de Castillo, working in clay and color since he was young. Now in his late 70’s he still maintains a small studio where he lives and works. He has a bed, a cook top, small shelf for his clothing, a few dishes. The bed is always smoothly made, with a few clothing items laid out. There are chickens and dogs running the yard. His workspace includes a slab table, chair, a few rows of shelves that hold his finished pieces, jars of paints and brushes, and a collection of pinup calendars and pictures of tigers and other animals that muses. I always go away thinking that the living studio space has a packed dirt floor, but in reality, I believe it is a concrete slab


Heriberto is a gentle man, always happy to see you coming down the street to visit him. He seems to have a sixth sense when you are leaving the home of his sister Isabel, and greets you at the gate and takes you in to see his current work. Heriberto’s work follows traditional lines, such as the trees of life that his parents and grandparents made, animal candle figures, suertes and pyramid animal figures. Along with these, he creates ‘sahumarias’ or copal incense burners that are fashioned as the religious figures of San Rafael, San Miguel, the Anima sola & the Virgin of Guadalupe. One time you will find traditional dancers, another time mariachi figures or birthday candles. He works with traditional molds, but also creates new figures by hand. He paints with modern paints, acrylic, but does not finish them in the super glossy lacquer like Isabel’s work.

His painting style reflects that of Alfonso, but not so finely tuned, more of a rough look to it. These days, he rarely works in the family workshop, preferring the quite of his small studio.

Alfonso Castillo Orta

One cannot talk about Alfonso Castillo Orta without acknowledging his fantastic contribution to his craft and family legacy. During the farming depression of the 1970’s Alfonso quit farming and decided to take up the family craft of working in clay, making trees of life. Over the years he has developed his unique style and brought back into the craft the use of natural earth dyes.

His creative genius, years of hard work, and willingness to break from the traditional family designs, has won him recognition throughout the world for his work. Choosing not to follow the family tradition in design, coupled with the decision to bring the use of natural dyes, which his grandfather used in the early part of the century, back into the work was what set his work aside from the others in his village as well as the ceramic works of other artists in Mexico. The work took on other dimensions, embracing el dia de los muertos and other traditional and historic events, creating new markets and attracting collectors.

They entered their work in various concoursos (juried shows) and won many awards throughout Mexico and the great honor of being included in the Banamex, ‘Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art’ book, which gave world- wide recognition to his work, and cemented his role as Master folk artist ‘Don Alfonso’.

Part 3 of this article, featuring Francisco Flores will be in a future newsletter
© All rights reserved, April 2006, Dos Mujeres Mexican Folk Art

September 23, 2006

Alebrijes, Oaxaca 2006

Alebrijes are the fantastic mythological carved and paper mache figures you find in Mexico’s market- places, villages and regions of Mexico. The name was conceived by the paper mache artist, Pedro Linares (1906-1992) of Mexico city. The word came to him in a dream, many years ago, when he was ill with fever and delirium. In the dream he was being chased by beastly dragon like creatures that were screaming ‘alebrije, alebrije’. When he awoke from the dream, he began creating these figures out of paper mache, wire, reed and glue and painted them with bright clashing colors. They became wildly popular and the movement has spawned generations of artists who mimicked Pedro’s work.

Around this same time, over 50 years ago, a farmer from Arrazola, Oaxaca, Manuel Jimenez, began carving simple animals from wood and selling them, unpainted, in the local markets. Little by little, his unpainted figures were purchased by tourists in the Oaxaca markets, and his little business grew. As his carving business grew, he began painting his figures with simple, beautiful style and color. The public loved it and soon his neighbors saw that he was able to supplement his farmer’s income with the art he was making and they began carving too.

Over time, villagers in Arrazola, San Martin Tilcajete and other villages were making and selling carved figures in the markets around Oaxaca. The craze really took off during the late 1960’s and 1970’s and is still going strong today with literally hundreds of artists working in this medium of carved and paper mache animals, saints, angels, mythological beasts and dragon figures. In March of l2005, Manuel Jimenez, considered the “Great Master” and grandfather of Alebrije carving passed away. His work is honored in the beautiful Banamex book, “The Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art”

His sons Angelico and Isaiah, and his grandsons Moises and Armando still carry on the family tradition, carving in the style of their father and grandfather. In honor of their father, Isaiah and Angelico still sign Manuel’s name along with theirs, to honor the work, creativity and gift that their father passed on to them.

Armando, also the Alcade/Mayor of Arrazola, began carving when he was about 15 years old. He worked side by side with his father and grandfather and brother Moises learning the techniques of carving with machetes, knives and developing his own style of creating the life like animals that he makes. He is a skilled carver who works with Copalillo wood that it is still wet and alive. The main body is carved separately from the smaller parts, the ears, tails and sometimes arms and legs which are carved, puttied and glued.The entire piece is then carefully dried in the shade sanded to a smooth finish then painted. Each piece is a unique creation with a strong presence, good humor and likeness to the animal it represents.

Moises Jimenez with Frog and wood pile