Woodcarvings, large or small, will start to take form using a machete with a 50 cm blade. It is the same machete that the woodcarver uses in the fields to cut maize or sugar cane and cut back growth. The woodcarver was originally a farmer and often still is, so when he picked up a piece of wood to carve an animal for his child it was the machete that came to hand as the tool he knew best. The machete is now symbolic of being an artisan; of being a Oaxacan woodcarver as much as it is the everyday tool of a farmer.
Additionally, the woodcarver has a number of kitchen knives to work with, which after years of sharpening form different shapes that become useful for one task or another. He might have a hacksaw and this will be locally made. The frame, in which the blade is set, is bent out of a concrete reinforcement rod as used in house building. The artisan is not only a woodcarver, he is a farmer growing crops and keeping animals but he also builds the family home; at least he adds to it and repairs it. Beyond this merger assortment, he might not use any other tools.
He (the woodcarver is usually a man) will work in the courtyard of his home using a sawn-off piece of tree trunk as a workbench. He will move this to a porch when it becomes too hot or tie a large waterproof sheet between the house and a tree to shade his workplace. Summer is hot but there is a rainy season to work through. For finer work he will support the carving on his lap with, perhaps, a piece of leather over his thigh to protect himself.
Manuel Cruz Prudencio (25) represents the younger generation of woodcarvers. He started by sitting at his father’s side as a boy and watching him work. He sees his future as an artisan. His father left the land to become a woodcarver so his son has no means to return to it. He uses typical methods to prepare the wood for carving. The wood, traditionally Copal, is carved into rudimentary form whilst it is soft or green. The piece is then immersed in diesel oil to kill off any insects. He then ‘bakes’ the wood at a distance from an open fire to continue this process but also to dry out the wood and drive-off the diesel fumes. After this, cracks will appear, which he fills and the piece is then left in the sun to continue drying. If small cracks still appear they will be filled until the wood has stabilized ready for the final carving and sanding before painting. The carver tries to store wood for future use. Wood that has been stored will be dry enough to by-pass some of the laborious preparation but is harder to carve.
The tradition of Oaxacan woodcarving, in its present form as a family business, has existed since 50 years. Very few artisans carve and paint their works without the help of the family. If it has been for good reason that men have carved, they are used to handling a machete, then for good reason their daughters or wives have painted. They have darned, mended or embroidered clothes; they are practiced in fine work.
Rubi Martinez Fabian has taken over the painting of Manuel’s carvings since they married. Previously, his sister Edilma painted them and today she continues to paint her father’s work (Agustin Cruz Tinoco). Edilma is important because she has created a style of painting that has helped establish her father’s reputation and originally that of her brothers Manuel and Agustin. A piece of her father’s carving cannot be appreciated without her painting and the two have become inseparable. If Manuel’s ability to carve stems from his father’s work, then Rubi has to some extent inherited the style of Edilma. However, for some time Rubi worked in the studio of Jacobo and Maria Angeles where she had to adopt the painting style of Maria. This meant achieving a flawless repetition of small patterns based on Zapotec hieroglyphs that cover a carving, usually an animal. Manuel has inherited an eclectic range of subject matter from his father to which he adds his own and this variety drives the development of Rubi’s painting.
The painting of Maria Angeles, of Rubi and Edmila and that of Maria Jimenez Ojeda is based on fine detail that covers most of the carving. It might take weeks to paint one large work. The finest work is sometimes painted using a cactus spine. One wonders how long such hand/eye coordination can last. When talking enthusiastically to Maria Jimenez about a large work she replied,‘ Well I’ll simply paint larger’. Of course she will not paint larger but her reply is a symptom that many fine crafts are painfully laborious.
It is a fact of life that with many things one is not there at the beginning to see it start, watch it grow or even be there when it fades away. Sometimes one becomes older only to discover things that happened long ago that you would have liked to know about. To be contemporary with the history of Oaxacan woodcarving one’s interest would have had to start about 50 years ago. Amy Mulvihill came to Oaxaca from New York to attend summer school at a small private institution. It was located where there is now the guesthouse of Casa Panchita. Amy knows a generation of artisans since she was a teenager and who are now in there seventies. To have an extensive collection of Oaxacan woodcarvings it would have been necessary to start collecting at least 25 years old. Understandably, it is now difficult to obtain work from this generation. Isidoro Cruz Hernandez recently died whilst on a visit to Florida.
Coindo Melchor Gomez is one of this first generation of artisans. He continues to carve but can only apply ground colours to his works. He is losing the sight of one eye and his hands are no longer steady enough to finish the painting. His daughter–in-law now helps him. Coindo is like a farmer that long ago made carvings in his spare time and for whom the word artisan was unknown. His son might consider himself an artisan or a tradesman whilst his grandson might consider himself an artist or poet. Coindo probably thinks of himself as a goat keeper if he bothers to think of such things at all. But it is his work that is on the cover of Nelson Rockefeller, Jnr’s. ‘Mexican Folk Treasures’. The piece depicted is a cart pulled by oxen. The cart is beyond the authenticity of a model maker - it is used and near the end of its useful life. His ‘Ilusions’ are a theme based on a naked woman wearing a hood representing a colourfully crested bird. She has wings and holds a large flower. His Mermaid has a woman’s head with large eyes and red painted lips. She carries a child Mermaid not unlike herself. They are magic out of thin air as are the boys covered in black oil, with painted faces and hair that come at you brandishing spears and ringing cowbells. And, as are the tall stilted figures that walk across your path or the giants that roam the streets during festivals. Coindo lives on the out skirts of San Martin Tilcajete as if he did not live there at all.
There is no real center to La Union, just places where one or two families live closer together than others. The best land is down close to a shallow stream, above that the land quickly becomes dry, wind blown and depends on scarce rainfall. Close to the river in the shade of trees and near green fields is the home of Francisco Santiago Cruz. Francisco is 87 years old. He carves, assembles and paints everyday subject matter. A Schoolmaster carrying a computer, a farmer and his wife following their loaded donkey home, two men catching a snake, Zapatista liberation fighters or a man and woman cutting down cactus fruit. The ‘everyday’ also includes the Devil dancing with a woman or the story of Adam and Eve. It is a society where beliefs can still be facts. But the everyday cannot be carved, assembled and painted and still remain everyday. It is transformed intentionally or not. Francisco does no more than make his pieces as he can without distorting their purpose but in the process he makes something that is humorous, charming, moving or matter of fact without seeming to do anything. For some years, he only has the full use of one arm. He had a stroke. A few years later he was knocked down by a car. His painting, in the past, has been more precise and detailed than it is now. He continues to make things as he can. His pieces have a used look about them, as if they were made sometime ago - it is hard to be sure.
Photograph: Jolanda Lopez Perez and Maximino Santiago Garcia © Oaxacaoriginal 2015