by Leah Lewman
month of October at the Atrium Gallery, is an exhibition featuring Oaxacan
woodcarving—focusing specifically on the two artists Elvis and Arturo Castillo,
who will host demonstrations and talks about their art and culture. The
exhibition will open on October 3rd, and remain open for viewing
until October 26th. This wildly colorful and captivating art form
originates in Oaxaca, Mexico, and draws most of its inspiration from native
Indian culture and legend.
Generally the works
represent figures (animal, human or mythical creatures), in saturated color
schemes painted with fine detail. The realm of Oaxacan art is infused with a
sort of “magic realism,” which embodies a folkloric-type of surrealism in which
“people can fly and mysterious juxtapositions are the norm” . The carved
figures that will be on display are typically called “Alebrijes” by most Oaxacan
artisans. Copalillo, or copal wood is the most common medium for these
sculptures; however, cedar is often used for larger pieces as well. Copal trees
are typically found in the areas in and around Oaxaca, and they vary between two
distinct kinds of copal tree—male and female. The female tree is more ideal for
these carvings, as the wood is softer and easier to carve, as well as lacking in
some of the distortion and knotted texture that is often found in the male copal
After the figurine is
carved, it must be set outside to fully dry—some Oaxacan artists like to lay
their sculptures in the sun, to allow for quicker drying, while others prefer
the shade, which they see as more natural and less harsh than exposing the piece
directly to sunlight. Small pieces typically take a day or so to dry, while
large ones may need up to one month. When the wood is completely dry, it may be
sanded and coated with gasoline (or any other bug-repellant liquid). The wood is
then smoothed out, imperfections are covered, and the first layer of acrylic
paint may be applied as a base for further painting.
In the early
years of Oaxacan art, artists had great difficulty finding appropriate tools to
execute the detail and precision they desired. With time, however, methods and
tools began to evolve, creating a well-structured system for producing these
delicate carvings. Also, past artisans were more inclined to create multiple
carvings that could fit together to form a single sculpture. Contemporary
Oaxacan artists tend to create pieces with fewer detachable parts, most likely
because of the development of safer and more efficient methods of travel.
Materials and methods for the painting have also changed over the years; from
using cochineal (a red dye made from a Mexican insect that feeds on cacti) as
coloring, to using modern paints; and from using tools fashioned from Maguey
thorns, reed chips and toothpicks to using finely crafted paint brushes. Concept
and imagery have remained relatively constant, but more variations in color and
application have arisen accordingly with artistic vision from artisan to artisan
The exhibition in
the Atrium Gallery is focused on modern Oaxacan artists Elvis and Arturo
Castillo—who will be visiting and giving artist talks and demonstrations—but the
exhibitions also features artists such as Angelico and Isalas Jimenez, J. Luis
Soriano, and many others. The brothers’ work has been exhibited since the 1980s,
and has become well known on a global scale due to their impressive attention to
detail, perpetual progression of style, and their professional, high-quality
craftsmanship. Working out of their homes in San Martin Toxpalan, Oaxaca,
Mexico, they prefer to only export their work to galleries in the U.S., as
opposed to galleries within Mexico.
work ties into the tradition of Oaxacan carving in many ways, but their work has
evolved beyond tradition. They tend to use the conventional copal wood for
carving small sculptures, and cedar wood for larger works. After artfully
carving and perfecting the figures, they then paint them using acrylic paint in
a style similar to pointillism, using tiny, colorful dots. The amount of detail
that is put into the painting of these pieces is truly mesmerizing, and it is
hard to capture the full affect in a photograph. Most of the pieces on display
are surprisingly small, making the careful coloration and intricate grain of the
patterns even more impressive.
Arturo and Elvis
use cactus needles to make many of the smallest dot-marks, and for others they
use their own hand-made brushes. As many Oaxacan artists do, the Castillos love
both nature and animals, and they make substantial efforts to use as few copal
trees per year as possible, and to plant many more in their place. Carving is
also a time-consuming craft; small pieces take about two hours to carve and five
to paint, while large sculptures can take up to eight hours to carve, and
twenty-five to paint. Though brothers Arturo and Elvis perform the majority of
the carving and painting of these alebrijes, they do occasionally receive help
from their family members—namely their father Jaime, their brother Omar, and
Arturo's son, Marco.  Their wives also contribute to the process.
Oaxacan art, when seen
in person, is certainly an experience unlike any other. Personally, I found it
impossible to walk through the gallery space without cracking a smile more than
once or twice. The intoxicating combination of bright color, playful subject
matter, delicate pattern and design make it a matchless celebration of the
harmony and happiness that can be found in animals and nature.
"A Magic Reality:
Art from Oaxaca, Mexico." Indigo Arts: Tribal Art, Folk Art, Ethnographic Art.
Indigo Arts Gallery, 1998. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.
Art of Oaxacan Wood Carvings." Oaxacan Wood Carvings Gallery El Caracol
Zapoteca. El Caracol Zapoteca, 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.
"Oaxacan ‘Alebrijes’ by Elvis and Arturo Castillo." AlebrijeCastillo.com.
Elvis and Arturo Castillo. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.