Posts tagged ‘Isabel Castillo’

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

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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 www.mexicanfolkart.com

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