Cows, Pigs, Calaveras: Carved Wood Figures of Placido Santiago Cruz

This week I was in Oaxaca city for two days visiting with silversmiths Brigitte Huet and Ivan Campant!  I went with them to present their work at Susanna Trilling’s Seasons of My Heart Cooking School in San Lorenzo Cacaotepec.  This mecca of the culinary arts is located about 40 minutes from the city in the lush countryside where farmers continue to plow their fields with wood plows harnessed to hefty oxen.  (This is also the same village where Irma Paula Garcia Blanco from Atzompa gets her black clay.)

Here I met Placido Santiago Cruz who was also invited to show his work to the class participants.  It is a blessing to independent local artists and artisans to be able to do this because there are limited opportunities to meet a group of visitors who may be interested in collecting their work.

Señor Santiago Cruz is one of the earliest and original folk artists from the village of La Union Tejalapam. There is joy, color and humor in his copal wood figures that capture the essential commentary of pueblo life.  His style is indicative of alebrijes as they were first carved, much different from the highly stylized and ornamental figures of most carvers today.  His repertoire includes barnyard animals such as cows, pigs, horses and goats, as well as Nativity scenes, and the Virgin of Guadalupe praying over a fallen angel. Señor Santiago Cruz does the carving and his wife, Señora Alfonsa Cruz López, finishes each piece by sanding it smooth and then painting it. This is a team effort between husband and wife that is typical in small, independent carving families in this village as well as in Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete.

Señor Santiago Cruz has carved for 40 years.  He began carving at the side of an older brother who taught him how to work with the machete, knife, and the copal wood that had been softened in water to make it more malleable.  Over the years, he has gained recognition as one of the outstanding carvers of the region.   His work is featured in Arden Rothstein’s bible, Oaxaca Folk Art. He is in collected by Henry Wegeman and Rosa Blum, owners of Amate Books on Macedonio Alcala, and his work is offered for sale in El Nahual Gallery on Av. 5 de Mayo in Oaxaca City.

Prices are incredibly reasonable for these lovely pieces that are quintessentially Oaxaca. Owls are 100 pesos. The small animal heads, perfect for wall adornment, are 150 pesos. Animal musicians are 200 pesos. The Virgin of Guadalupe is 350 pesos as is the Calavera (whimsical skeleton) with pineapple head-dress. The entire nativity scene is 2,000 pesos and it includes 10 pieces. As of this writing, the exchange rate is about 13.5 pesos to the dollar.  Great folk art is still a bargain in Oaxaca!

If you want to ride out to La Union to visit el maestro (about a 50 minute taxi ride from the city), call ahead and make an appointment. Connecting with the artist directly is an extraordinary experience.  And the artisans here depend upon selling their carved wood figures as their primary source of cash income, since La Union is not a farming community. Placido Santiago Cruz, La Union Tejalapam, Etla, Oaxaca, cellular 044 951 106 0983.

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