Woodcarving in Oaxaca is a means of income and the center of the activity is the home. At home woodcarving has become a means to sustain the family and the family often embraces the activity with each family member engaged in some part of the production. The father or grandfather carve, the children sand the carved wood smooth ready for painting by the wife. Boys will learn to carve and daughters will learn to paint. It is a cottage industry that has risen with the tourist trade but suffers when it declines as it has in recent years because of political and social problems. If tourist numbers decline most artisans just have to sit it out. But often the family splits up as some seek work elsewhere. Many risk an illegal boarder crossing to the US. The more successful carvers drive as far New Mexico and attend the Santa Fe Crafts Fair. Some are helped by giving carving demonstration at schools in America and sell their work at the same time. There is also a section of American ‘tourists’ that understand the plight of the artisans well and go to great lengths to help them. And, FOFA, based in New York, encourages young artisans as part of their program.
A family will often inherit land and a house that have been in the family for generations and without that there would be no continuity. Maria Jimenez and her brothers, Margarito Melchor, Coindo Melchor and Gabino Reyes all work their land and keep animals. They need to and want to because they are farmers as much as carvers and painters – they enjoy their land. Agustin Cruz Tinoco left the land and settled in the outskirts of Oaxaca to start carving. He started from scratch. Now, with his family, he represents a small band of professionals that exist solely by carving.
Most carvers use a tree stump to carve on. They use a machete, as used in the fields, along with a few kitchen knives sharpened beyond recognition. Agustin and his son Manuel continue to use a tree stump for a bench and the machete. It is a potent symbol of their traditional occupation but Agustin and Manuel have professional workbenches and power tools beyond the dreams of most carvers or those that would not know what they are useful for. His tools are the new symbols, like Agustin's truck or Manuel's motorbike, of the progress they have made. But as much as these tools are useful to help make work they are necessary for all the other work that has to be done to build and maintain their homes.
Maximino Santiago has a small box of tools, a collection of knives, gouges, bradle and compass. He carefully measures and cuts out the sides walls of a church with a saw and then inscribes a doorway in front of which a wedding group will stand. This work would be quickly finished with a jigsaw but the line of the doorway is chiselled down and then some wood removed up to this line. He repeats this process from the other side until finally the wood that ‘filled’ the doorway drops out. When the construction and carving are finished the work will be passed to his wife Jolanda for painting.
Miguel Santiago is not a farmer but a hairdresser. His house is part home, part workshop and part salon. Other artisans also have part time jobs. Others stop carving altogether to become a truck driver or policeman.
Woodcarvings are made in the villages of San Antonio Arrazola, San Martin Tilcajete and La Union Tejalapam. Perhaps, Arrazola is the most famous because of Manuel Jimenez, who raised the possibilities of woodcarving beyond that of a farmer’s hobby and who had seen the success of Pedro Linares. The enthusiasm for Oaxacan woodcarving started with the works Manuel Jimenez and the collector Nelson Rockefeller Jr. This gave Oaxacan woodcarving an international standing. Bertha Cruz Morales lives and works in Arrazola.
The concentration of woodcarving is seen most in Arrazola. Its success, over time, has provided it the many paved streets and a well-built nursery and primary school. San Martin is similar in size to Arrazola but the presence of woodcarving is somewhat less visible. It has the appearance of a village more closely linked to the land.
It is difficult to understand La Union as a typical village. Its center is marked by a police station and medical facilities but the people live scattered around on or close to their land. (Arrazola and San Martin are built on a grind system.) Here there are not any hand-painted signs on the houses to proclaim that this is the home of a carver or that there is anything for sale. It is by far the smallest and poorest of the woodcarving villages. At present the tradition is in the hands of a few older artisans and so the future of woodcarving here is far more fragile than anywhere else. Gabino Reyes Lopez and Francisco Sanitago Cruz live here. They carve and paint their work. Making woodcarvings is not always a family activity. The work of Gabino and Francisco cannot be passed amongst other hands.
In the past woodcarvings would be lightly painted but now the carvings are known for their intricate painting as much as by the carving. But it is still the case that the work will be known by the name of the carver. It is rarer that the painter signs a work.
It is clearly not satisfactory that a work might be understood to be by one person when it is the result of two independent skills. To this extent the list of artisans below, that we represent, accredits the work of the carver and painter. The signing of a work does not always mean that a signature is applied. This is because the name of the carver is often added by the painter of the piece. Sometimes the painter applies the carvers name and then the carver additionally signs the piece. Where possible we are now asking both carver and painter to sign the work but traditions are broken slowly.
Agustin Cruz Tinoco - Carver (Father)
Edilma Cruz Prudencio - Painter (daughter)
Manuel Cruz Prudencio - Carver (Husband)
Rubi Martinez Fabian - Painter (Wife)
Bertha Cruz Morales - Painter (Wife)
Alfonso Castellanos Ibanez - Carver (Husband)
Maria Jimenez Ojeda - Painter (Sister)
Alberto Jimenez Ojeda - Carver (Brother)
Candido Jimenez Ojeda - Carver (Brother)
Both Alberto and Candido paint in a style derived from Maria.
The intricacy of Maria's painting is too time consuming to be used for all the
carving that is produced.
Margarito Melchor Fuentes - Carver (Husband)
Margarita Perez Ruiz -Painter (Wife)
Martin Melchor Angeles - Carver (Husband)
Hermelinda Portega Ramirez - Painter (Wife)
Coindo Melchor Gomez - Carver (Previously painted all works)
Maura Ramos - Painter (Daughter-in-law)
Ventura Fabian Martinez - Carver (Previously painted all works)
Blanca Melchor - Painter (Daughter-in-law)
Gabino Reyes Lopez - Carver and painter
Francisco Santiago Cruz - Carver and painter
Maximino Santigo Garcia - Carver (Husband)
Jolanda Lopez Perez - Painter (Wife)
Luis Arturo Pablo Mendoza - Carver and painter
Photograph: Martin Melchor Angeles and Hermelinda Portega Ramirez © Oaxacaoriginal 2015