Oaxacan Wood Carving

As we explained to you before, the original Alebrijes come from Mexico City and are made of paper mache.
However in the 1970, the film director Judith Bronowski organized a demonstration workshop, which took place in the United States. She invited some Mexican artisans to participate to the event, among them Pedro Linares and Manuel Jimenez.

Thanks to the event, oaxacan artisans, who have been working the techniques of wood carving from generation, were introduced to the Alebrijes of Linares. This is how they began to adopt their carvings to Linares’ ideas and call their crafts Alebrije. If Manuel Jimenez was the pioneer in this field, the Alebrijes then became a massive form of folk art as fellow artisans started imitating Linares’ work.

That is why nowadays we can identify both types of Alebrijes:
– The traditional ones made out of paper maché which are predominant in Mexico City and the center portion of the country.
– The Alebrijes from Oaxaca (southern Mexico) also known as Oaxacan wood carvings. They are carved wooden sculptures created by families of artisans. Most of these families live in San Martin Tilcajete and San Antoñio Arrazola; both located a few kilometers from Oaxaca City. These two small cities represent the cradle of Oaxacan wood carvings.

Most of the alebrijes represent real or imaginary creatures painted with colorful tones and splendid patterns. To be more accurate, the artisans will call “Animalitos” the most real figures and “Alebrijes” the most fantastic creatures. The process of creation of these figures is completely handmade and unique. After imagining and choosing which figures they will give life to, the artisan must elect the raw material; which tree, branches or wooden pieces will be better to represent his figure. The figures are usually hand carved in copal wood; The Copalillo tree grows in the hills close to Tilcajete and Arrazola: this regional woodcarving art reflects a lot the resources of Oaxaca. Even if woodcarvers privileged Copal wood in their artwork, they may also use Grapefuit, Cedar or Pine.

The copal tree is mostly chosen as the raw material for these creations because as the Copallilo tree is cut down the wood is very flexible, soft and easy to work with. Within two weeks the copal wood hardens. So taking advantage of the softness of the recent cut wood, the artisan will start sculpt the desired alebrije and will methodically chisel the wooden piece using different types of rudimentary tools such as machetes, pockets knives and kitchen knives.

The artisan spends a lot of his time in the carving process, which can take up to one month for the biggest figures. After the carving, the figure must be let outside to dry: some artisan set the pieces to dry in the sun, which allows a faster drying; others prefer to lay their figures in the shade to avoid a harsh exposure to the sunlight. The time of the drying process will also depend on the size of the alebrijes, varying from one day up to one month. The purpose of the drying process is fundamental because it fosters the desyhidrating and the crackling of the wood. If the artisan misses this step, the crackling could occur when the piece has been hand-painted and alter the esthetic of the figure.

The artisan will sand and smooth out the wood and coat it with some bug repellant textures or gasoline. The artisan will then cover the imperfections born during the drying process, filling all the crackling with a special mixture made of wood shavings and glue. The wooden piece is now ready to receive its first coat of acrylic paint as simple base. The final step will be the painting, in which each artisan will give life to the alebrije, thanks to his unlimited imagination! The painting phase will allow the artist to give his own, unique style and personality to the alebrije. Besides the brights colors and the very detalled patterns and shapes which show an exceptional level of skills and abilities, you will communly observe zapotecas symbols.

Generally, the making of each oaxacan wood carving is not an individual process but it involves the whole household. The husband is the one who usually carves the base and gives the elegant shape to the wood. Then the wife, sometimes helped by the children does all the painting part. The women play a key role in completing the alebrijes.

The making of the alebrije inspires a lot of pride for each family and most homes have a small area where they display the finished figures. It is also important to underline that wood carvings savoir faire and techniques have been passed on generation to generation: children learn since an early age about the distinct techniques of carving and painting and are quickly involved in the process of creation.

Each Alebrije brings together art, tradition, imagination and symbolism to deliver a little bit of Mexico in every piece.