A modern industrial society is used to the qualities that advanced technologies bring to everyday items and these advances naturally influence the crafts made in these societies. Crafts in Europe or North America use technologies and processes found in current industrial production (as well as old technologies). Oaxacan craftsmen and women operate within the original methodologies of production. Nothing much has changed. Advancement, even in simple tools, is irrelevant. However, the paints used now are usually industrially produced acrylics rather than traditional natural dyes from plants (indigo) or insects (cochineal). A painter will buy brushes rather than make them but they still use cactus spines to make fine marks. The working methods used in Oaxacan woodcarvings might lead, by making comparisons with ‘Western’ crafts, to questions of quality and craftsmanship especially if you are unfamiliar with them. But that is for reasons other than tools and materials. There is a rawness in some the work with which we in Europe are not familiar. Or, sophistication that comes from a source we do not know. To better understand woodcarvings it would be useful to study the masks that are used in street festivities and the world of street and religious festivals with all their characters in play - a way of life distant from ours and out of which woodcarvings appear.
A modern household very often does not contain objects that are handmade other than, perhaps, a children’s drawing. In the villages of Oaxaca a household is, in the most part, handmade and often made from the same hand or family of hands. But it is not the ‘handmade’ of the court of a Japanese Emperor or of Regency England, of early timepieces or Faberge eggs. It is not the 'handmade' of the now nearly extinct middle class and Aristocracy. In western societies artisans have been replaced by industrial production or by craftspeople that resurrect or maintain past skills out of choice. It is the 'handmade' of an indigenous people. Rather, the remnants of an indigenous people that have not experienced the tide of industrial progress that has been normal elsewhere. Of a people still linked directly with the land for survival. They are a people whose mystification is not constructed in the frontiers of deep space or science but in the daily life around them.
In a Europe of the past painters such as Maria Jimenez Ojeda, Rubi Martinez Fabian, Edilma Prudencio and Bertha Cruz would have been recognised as Master craftswomen except that the Guilds were exclusively male. Carvers like Agustin Cruz Tinoco, his son Manuel and Gabino Reyes Lopez would have been recognised as Master craftsmen but neither they nor the painters mentioned would have been allowed to practice as they do. They would have to conform to their trade. A work of Francisco Santiago Cruz cannot be appreciated for the attributes that these artisans display. He does not elaborate an object with ‘fine’ carving or 'fine' painting. He presents to us voice of Oaxacan daily life whilst Gabino Reyes presents us poetic mediations. After a stroke leaving him with the use of one arm, after being knocked down by a car and at the age of 87 years it is still hard to accept that Fransisco's carving days are declining. He is the quiet master of Oaxacan wood carving. But in all cases, in the first instant, there might be some degree of shock that these works, that these carvers and painters, exist at all.
San Martin Tilcajete is a quite village. It lives at the pace of an agricultural way of life where crops are hand planted, hand tended and hand harvested - where oxen pull wooden carts and donkeys carry wood and where old superstitions about life and death still engage some of the community. Four hundred meters from the village, cars speed past along the highway taking tourist from California's Silicon Valley, from New York and Chicago to the Oaxacan Pacific coast.