Carving in Oaxaca

April 7, 2010

In recent years, the phenomenon known as Oaxacan woodcarving has captivated the global folk art community and stimulated an impoverished region of Mexico. With delicate lines and elaborate coloring, these playful collectables demonstrate raw imagination and a unique vision of nature. Inspired by Manuel Jimenez, the celebrated father of the craft, Oaxacan woodcarvings exhibit expert craftsmanship and limitless variety. But in order to truly appreciate the carvings, first it is important to understand the process by which they are made.

Once the artisan settles on an idea, the first step is selecting the wood. Oaxacan woodcarvings are made from copal—a light hardwood that's easy to cut when wet but hard and strong when dry. In the past, copal was easy to find and cut from the forests surrounding the villages, but due to the carving boom, is increasingly transported from greater distances by mule or truck. When fresh wood arrives, the artisan will select a branch large enough to carve the majority of the piece, strip the bark and, with a machete, roughly cut it into shape.

Once the wood has been roughly shaped, it's important to take advantage of the malleability of fresh (green) copal and begin the carving process immediately. Some carvers outline the intended form with pencil; others see no need for this step, trusting their artistic instincts instead. Often the mark of a technically skilled artisan is measured by his ability to complete the figure using a single piece of wood, or by details of the attachments such as ears, wings or tails. Either way, when a carving is completed, the wooden form is set out to dry and then sanded thoroughly. Now it's almost ready to be painted.

A little known step takes place between sanding and painting. Due to the freshness of the wood, it was discovered that weevils and tiny wood beetles can remain hidden inside the carvings. Buyers take the pieces home only to discover tiny holes and small piles of sawdust around the figures. Left unchecked, these pests can ruin an entire carving. To combat this, most artisans soak the carvings in gasoline to kill the insects before painting. The other option is to place the carvings in a freezer overnight, but since freezers are scarce in rural Oaxaca, the use of gasoline is a much more popular option.

Now that the woodcarving has been shaped, dried, sanded and treated for pests, the painting can finally begin. Originally, Oaxacan woodcarvings were painted with a powder and water mixture known as aniline, but this paint had a tendency to run and fade over time. Thankfully, Mexico was introduced to acrylic paint in the 1980s, and the Oaxacan carvers subsequently adopted it. Before the acrylic paint is applied, the carving is base-coated with white paint using a wide brush or sponge. Typically, this process is repeated 2-3 times to insure that nothing is missed, and to hide any knots or other imperfections in the wood. After the final base coat is dry, it's time to finish the piece with brightly colored, highly detailed designs. The most common patterns are waves, lines and diamonds, but with Oaxacan woodcarvings almost anything goes and styles are unlimited. After the paint dries, the carving is finally ready to be sold.

From selecting the wood to the final touches of paint, the process of creating a Oaxacan woodcarving reflects the imagination of a skilled artisan and an undeniable connection to the surrounding beauty of Oaxaca. For a dazzling selection of authentic Oaxacan woodcarvings, we invite you to visit our extensive selection at La Fuente Imports. To bring the beauty of Mexico into your home we also have other handcrafted Mexican folk art.

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