Rich Woodcarving Tradition Spotlight on Jacobo Ángeles
symbolism on coyote
One would be hard-pressed to search the Americas and find
creators of folk art with more form, symbolism and importance
to the development and sustenance of their culture, than those
of Zapotec ancestry in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.
Many writers, including so-called experts in folk art, have
mistakenly written that the origins of the tradition date
back fifty or sixty years, to a small number of wood carvers
residing in one of the central valleys of Oaxaca, a few miles
from the state capital of the same name. The error has consistently
been equating the recent commercialization of the art-form
with its origins, and ignoring its pre-Hispanic roots and
Carver Jacobo Ángeles lives with his wife María
and two children in San Martín Tilcajete, one of three
main Zapotec villages, most of the residents of which earn
a living from carving and / or painting colorful figures,
often generically referred to as alebrijes, from the
branches of the copal tree. The others are Arrazola and La
At age 12 Jacobo began learning to carve from his father.
Later on he was mentored by elders in his own and other villages.
Over the past few decades our craft has without a doubt
changed dramatically, Jacobo explains, with the
use of more synthetic paints, a tremendous increase in the
range of figures being carved, and with domestic and international
demand for our carvings growing exponentially and affecting
how and what we produce. But remember, my ancestors were carving
animals right here in this region before the Spanish arrived
in Mexico in the 1500s. And we were using only natural
paint colors which we derived from fruits and vegetables,
plants and tree bark, clay, and even insects. In my family
we still use what we find around us to make paints for our
San Martín Tilcajete is located about a 40 minute drive
from the city of Oaxaca, along a highway leading to the states
Pacific resort towns, including one of the oldest ports, Puerto
Escondido. Puerto Escondido was a hub for the export of coffee
and other cash crops during colonial times, but is now a popular
beach destination for Mexican and international vacationers
alike. Many travelers combine their sun and sand vacation
with a visit to Oaxaca, searching out unique pieces of folk
art including dance masks, pottery and painted clay figures,
rugs and tapestries, and antiques from the colonial period
forward. And of course there are the pre-Hispanic ruins, galleries,
museums and renowned Oaxacan cuisine.
My ancestors used a 20-day calendar, Jacobo continues,
and each day was represented by a different creature.
So every Zapotec person had an animal with whom he had a connection,
and each animal had certain characteristics which carried
over to the individual, as personality traits. For example,
the jaguar represents power and ultimate strength, the frog
is characterized by honesty and openness, the coyote watchful
observation, the turtle always a troublemaker prone to breaking
the rules, the eagle technical and strategic power, and so
on. My people used to carve figures of just these 20 animals.
They started out as small whittlings for good luck that people
would keep in a revered place in the home, or wear around
the neck as amulets. They also carved larger figures for their
children to use as toys.
After much probing, an almost forgotten story emerges of the
use of decoys of wood and other materials. Jacobo reveals:
My people used a variety of methods to attract different
kinds of game, but for hunting eagles and other birds of prey,
rabbits, and deer, yes they used decoys. A painted wooden
snake would be placed on the ground in an area where ants
had trampled the grasses so the snake decoy would easily be
seen by eagles. To hunt rabbit, my ancestors would attach
a rabbit tail to one end of a straw hat, and at the other
end another tail with a face painted on it. For deer, a crude
wooden deer torso with real antlers would be placed in the
tall brush. So carving was historically important to our people
for not only totemic and related reasons, but it was directly
related to our subsistence. All the written records from the
period of the conquest, and not just local legend, confirm
the importance of woodcarving.
But look at what we now carve, Jacobo continues.
While in my family we still use natural paints, and
still carve our 20 totems, weve transformed a simple
yet important and symbolic tradition into something very different.
In our villages we now carve many more than those 20 animals
because of collector demand. More importantly, were
able to make our heritage better understood and appreciated
by the world. In our own workshop, our painting depicts designs
and representations of our culture
friezes from the
ancient ruin at Mitla, symbols representing waves, mountains
and fertility, the totems, and other metaphors for our culture
today, and from the past.
Indeed the world has taken notice
not only hobbyists,
carvers from other countries, and folk art aficionados. Jacobos
work is prominently displayed in The Smithsonian Institute,
Chicagos National Museum of Mexican Art, and elsewhere
throughout the continent and further abroad, in museums, art
colleges and galleries. Throughout the year Jacobo traverses
the U.S. promoting Oaxacan folk art and his Zapotec heritage,
teaching in a diversity of educational venues ranging from
junior schools to university departments of fine art, and
as honored speaker at art exhibition openings.
A visit to the Ángeles workshop adjoining their home,
accessed by a heavily pot-holed narrow dirt road towards one
end of the village, affords an opportunity to learn about
this extraordinary skill-set, from Jacobo, Maria --- an excellent
painter in her own right --- and some two dozen other members
of their family who produce some of the finest quality wood
carvings found anywhere on the continent. The men do most
of the carving, while women do most of the painting, but the
tasks are definitely not exclusively based on gender lines.
Carving is done with non mechanical hand-tools such
as machetes, chisels and knives. The only time a more sophisticated
tool is used is when a chain saw is employed to cut off a
branch and level a base for the proposed figure.
Except when a special order is received, the woodworkers in
the family are given artistic license to carve whatever figure
they wish. A trozo of tree trunk will speak
to one of these specialists, and thats the inspiration
for beginning to create a particular animal: the shape, thickness,
and bends and twists in the piece come alive. A detailed outline
is drawn on the bark, defining the image with greater clarity
and detail. The sculpting in earnest then begins.
From the female copal tree we are able to make figures
out of one piece of wood, often very large and intricate.
This wood is soft and easy to work with. The male tree is
harder, and branches tend to be smaller and somewhat delicate,
so we use it to make animals which we assemble in the process.
The carving alone takes up to a month. The figure is then
left to dry for up to 10 months, depending on its overall
size and thickness. Because of the properties of the copal,
and Oaxacas semi-tropical climate, the wood is susceptible
to termite infestation. Accordingly, during the drying process
the piece is treated. Its soaked in a gasoline / insecticide
mixture for several hours. As an added assurance, its
then placed in an oven, just in case eggs have evaded extermination.
All of our pieces are guaranteed to never have a termite
problem, Jacobo assures.
Since the figures are fashioned while the wood is green and
more easily workable, the wood separates during the drying
process. There are a couple of members of my family
whose main job is to fill the cracks before the painting begins.
They use shims, small pieces of wood which are otherwise waste
from the carving process, to do part of the remedial work,
as well as a sawdust-glue mixture. But even these slivers
of wood and the sawdust have been cured. Were
proud of our work, and never want to have any problems with
any of our buyers, whether someone is spending $20 or $2,000.
In the Ángeles workshop, in almost all cases one person
carves and another paints. Once a figure has left the hands
of the carver, all proprietary rights are released, and another
member of the family is entrusted with the painting. Nephew
Magdaleno explains: Occasionally one of my cousins will
come up to me and say what do you think about these
colors or this kind of design concept for this coyote,
and Ill give my feedback, but it doesnt happen
very often, and in the end Im almost always pleased
with the result. For me its the form thats most
important, and for whoevers painting, its the
imagery it captures.
One cannot help but gasp at the creative sculpting genius
which goes into each piece: A starving dog scratching fleas,
a bear with its paw in a honey pot, a snake constricting a
wincing jaguar, a winged horse on its hinds, a woman with
long braided locks and the body of an armadillo, or a deer,
life-size by Mexican standards. Theres something particularly
arresting about each creation: the ever-so-flowing and realistic
movement, a fanciful stance, or a familiar pose striking a
chord with our popular characterization. However the painting
is anything but familiar. No color of the rainbow goes untested
and the intricacy of and variation in design is remarkable.
Theories abound regarding the beginning of the modern-day
manifestation of the art-form. Some say that because hallucinogenic
mushrooms are native to this part of Mexico, drug induced
revelations caused the imaginations of some to wander, ultimately
becoming expressed in their carvings. The better explanation
appears to be that knowledge of colorful, large, papier maché
alebrijes or dragon-like forms which originated in
the State of Mexico, eventually filtered down to Oaxaca, and
were the inspiration for the fathers of contemporary painted
wooden carvings. You know, its not accurate to
refer to what we create as alebrijes, because to the
older generations of Mexicans, and to true folk art collectors,
alebrijes were developed near D.F. (Distrito Federal,
or Mexico City, the nations capital), and what we do
is completely different.
Jacobo demonstrates how his ancestors created natural paints,
historically used for dying clothing, painting buildings,
and ceremonially as face and body decoration used for rites
of passage, fiestas, prayer and other important occasions.
Today their primary use, at least in these few villages, is
for painting the wood carvings. He explains with the assistance
of his machete and a tree trunk how he cuts away the reddish
inside part of the bark of the male copal, allows it to dry,
then toasts and grinds it. This is a primary base that
we use, which allows us to create a range of colors, tones
and shades. Just watch.
Using his hands as palettes, Jacobo begins by placing a small
amount of the powdered bark in one hand, squeezes juice from
a lime, creating a brown, which he then places on an unpainted
wooden owl. Yes the owl is also one of our sacred creatures,
the great healer, quiet and humble. He reveals: Now
over time, and in the sun, this color will change or fade
and be absorbed into the wood. So what our ancestors learned
to do was take the dried sap from the copal tree and heat
it up with honey. The resulting liquid is then mixed with
the paint, changing the color a little; see, it becomes a
but most importantly it acts as a mordent
making the color permanent, and a little shiny. He adds
powdered limestone, and the color changes to black. With the
addition of baking soda and more lime juice it becomes a deep
yellow, and with more chemical it miraculously becomes magenta.
A new base is then started, with crushed pomegranate seeds.
Magically the pulverized pink is transformed into green with
the addition of limestone powder. Mixed with the magenta,
it becomes navy blue. With the addition of zinc it becomes
grey, and with more zinc, white. Blue from the añil
tree, indigo, the next color, is altered with the addition
of bicarbonate, zinc, lime juice or the powdered lime mineral.
Corn mold or huitlacoche, a black gooey culinary delicacy,
when fermented and then powdered, yields ochre. The red of
the dried and then crushed minute insect, the cochineal, which
feeds off its host nopal cactus, becomes orange with the addition
of the juice of any of a number of acidic fruits.
The demonstration terminates with Jacobo asking, what´s
your favorite animal, following which he finger paints
a rabbit from the rainbow of colors on his palms, as only
Alice could have imagined.
With approximately 150 families now producing painted wooden
figures in these and a couple of other smaller villages, the
questions left unanswered remain: What facilitated and drove
more carvers to adopt the papier maché style of using
brilliant color combinations, and how can everyone in these
villages make a living from this solitary art-form?
As with other crafts in the central valleys of Oaxaca, their
production wasnt always the primary means of sustenance
for the populace. Traditionally, making crafts was a hobby
or part-time trade, beginning with a paucity of items being
sold to the odd passerby, adventurer or traveler. In the case
of rugs or tapetes from nearby Teotitlán del
Valle, there were trade routes that producers followed in
order to effect more sales in other regions of the state,
and in some cases beyond. But the primary means of family
survival was working the land and small-scale ranching. In
the case of the carving villages, there never was a broader
market, although in San Martín Tilcajete embroidered
shirts, blouses and dresses were an extremely well-received
craft product throughout the 1960s and into the 80s.
Dramatic change in production and marketing of wooden carvings
had its genesis in the 1940s. The pan-American highway
cut through the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, reaching Oaxaca,
opening up the state to the north, in particular Mexico City
and the border states. Until then Oaxaca was relatively isolated
notwithstanding a rail connection. By the 1950s and
early 60s Americans and Canadians were prospering from
the post-war boom, credit cards had been mailed to virtually
everyone, and word spread of a new kind of vacation, in a
third world country called Mexico. Jet air travel facilitated
the transformation. The womens movement meant more two
income families, resulting in more disposable income for traveling.
Mexicana Airlines and Oaxacan travel agents partnered to begin
offering tour packages, which further facilitated tourism
to the region.
The hippie movement of the 1960s and early 70s
brought Oaxaca to the forefront of the alternative lifestyle,
with throngs of youth and their pop idols traveling to Huautla
de Jiménez, then a tiny Oaxacan village, to eat hallucinogenic
mushrooms with the now infamous healer María Sabina.
North American youth saw and purchased the first generation
of contemporary wood carvings.
By the 1980s, as a consequence of multiple factors,
Oaxacan alebrijes had become well-established
as folk art, with the market continuing to grow. The economic
implication was that farmers and ranchers were able to spend
more time carving and painting, and less time in the countryside
and in marketplaces vending their produce and animals. With
a new toll-road opening from Mexico City to Oaxaca in 1995,
access to the southern state became even quicker and easier,
and safe. In good conscience, travel writers were no longer
able to warn tourists about driving the switchbacks, back-road
banditos or cars overheating on secondary roads without service
The future market for the art-form? While the odd visitor
to a Oaxacan coastal resort such as Puerto Escondido, or the
more popular Huatulco, does visit the state capital and the
workshops of carvers like Jacobo, most do not. Within the
next four years a new highway to the coast will open, cutting
road travel time by a third or more. Even more sun worshipers
will visit Oaxaca, and marvel at the art of Jacobo and María
Since opening their family workshop in 1996, without a doubt
Jacobo and María have singularly raised the quality
bar for other villagers who aspire to mirror their success.
With Oaxacan wood carvings of superior quality now well established
on the world stage, and access no longer an impediment, the
challenge for others in San Martín Tilcajete will be
to achieve the success of the Ángeles family through
production of like quality, until now eluding most.
A challenge for all carvers in the region is to ensure a continuous
supply of copal to meet demand. A reforestation project commenced
about 15 years ago by the late master of contemporary Mexican
art, Rodolfo Morales, continues through his Foundation. The
Ángeles family and their friends and other villagers
spend the last Sunday of each July, in the midst of the rainy
season, planting, a part of the sustainable living concept
for them: ensuring an ongoing supply of raw product, cutting
only branches for making figures so that the tree continues
to grow, reducing waste by utilizing the slivers and sawdust
in repair work and any remaining twigs and branches as firewood
for cooking, and using the sap and bark in paint production.
And you know, Jacobo reminds, weve
also been using the hardened sap from the tree as incense,
mainly at religious cememonies, for generations. There are
even knifemakers down the road in Ocotlán, who engrave
their hand-forged blades using a special ink made with the
sap. Have you visited the cuchillería of Ángel
For high end collectors, we can only encourage the success
of all efforts and projects aimed at maintaining the growth
and development of the Oaxacan woodcarving tradition, since
it satisfies and advances our penchant for and obsession with
quality hand-fashioned craftsmanship. For the artisans in
the region, aside from the obvious economic importance, its
part of maintaining their Zapotec heritage and illustrating
the richness of the culture to the broader world.
The workshop of Jacobo and María Ángeles
is located at Calle Olvido #9, San Martín Tilcajete,
( t: 951-524-9047 ; w: http://www.tilcajete.org
; e: firstname.lastname@example.org
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
and Arlene Starkman are passionate about Oaxaca. They endeavor
to retain their reputation as proprietors of one of the best
Oaxaca bed and breakfasts, Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
). Casa Machaya, a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed and Breakfast
Association, combines the attributes of quality Oaxaca hotels,
with the characteristics of a more progressive and personalized
Oaxaca lodging style: owners are on site 24 / 7 (its
and our home), always available
to guests as their personal resources, and willing to go that
little bit extra to ensure value-added service.
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