Tag Archives: Arrazola

In Search of Bertha Cruz, Arrazola, Oaxaca: Poinsettias on the Dragon

Bertha Cruz is a young, talented painter of alebrijes.  She has been a featured artist in Jacobo Angeles’ gallery in San Martin Tilcajete and the prices on her larger pieces (if you can find them) can command up to $500 USD or even more!  Bertha’s husband does the carving of the the copal wood and she does the very fine and detailed painting using miniscule brushes dipped carefully into tiny paint pots.  My sister and I found her home a few years ago because we wanted to support her directly.

Portrait of Bertha Cruz

Bertha became a mother almost two years ago and with her small daughter tugging at her skirts it’s been harder to consistently produce a large body of work.  Bertha tells me that she no longer exhibits at galleries in Oaxaca city because she prefers to be paid directly and avoid the commissions.  People know her work now and make the 30 minute trip to Arrazola (usually by taxi) to see her.  Directions are sketchy and you just have to follow your nose.  She has no telephone number and the street address is illusive.  If you know a little Spanish that doesn’t hurt, since once you are in town you can ask anyone where is the house of Bertha Cruz and they will tell you.

El Dragon by Bertha Cruz, Arrazola, Oaxaca

How on earth did I get this dragon home? you might ask.  Yes, I succumbed and bought it!  That body is carved from one entire piece of copal wood and then intricately painted.  I wrapped and wrapped with bubble and foam, and then wrapped again, then tucked it between the folds and layers of clothing in my suitcase.

Dragon Wings Detail -- Bertha Cruz, Arrazola, Oaxaca

You can see some of the Zapotec design detailing on the leg in the foreground and on the tail.  Bertha was seeing Noche Buena flowers in bloom during this season and replicated them on the tail.  We know this flower as poinsettia.

A Bertha Cruz Bear Eating Watermelon

You can catch a taxi close to the Zocalo (I usually hail it at the corner of Fiallo and Hidalgo).  The cost is usually 100 to 120 pesos per hour.  The round trip will take about an hour, so you can figure the total cost by how much time you want to spend in Arrazola.

Directions:  Go into Arrazola and at the Community Collective Gallery turn right.  Turn left at the first street.  Go up the hill and turn left at the first (next) street.  Bertha’s house will be the first one on the left past the corner.  The gate is bamboo and there is a wagon wheel decorating the front fence.  (Sorry I can’t give you better directions.)  You will have to take your chances that she will be home.  When we arrived she wasn’t there.  Disappointment set in.  We wandered a few other shops (as soon as they saw us coming, the prices shot up. I should have removed my silver bracelet.)  Then we returned about 30 minutes later to discover that Bertha had returned.

Unpainted lizards, Bertha Cruz, Arrazola, Oaxaca

The work room is piled with semi-completed pieces.  Ears, tongues, tails are unattached to their animalitos.  If you see a body you want, Bertha knows which parts belong to whom.  Lizards, bears, armadillos, skulls, and dragons peer down at you from shelves and up at you from the floor.  The table is covered with larger pieces.  The workshop is part of Bertha’s home, so don’t be surprised to see the bedroom door ajar.  Most importantly, don’t bargain!  When you buy directly from her, the prices are incredibly reasonable for what you are taking home.  I have written another article about how to pack and carry alebrijes yourself if you don’t want to pay for shipping.  Disfruta mucho.

Bertha's Vision: Bear and Goat

Alebrijes: In Search of the Masters

The three great wood carving villages are San Martin Tilcajete, Arrazola and La Union.  I’ve written about finding La Union in another post.   And, of course, you can find wonderful alebrijes in excellent galleries along Alcala, such as La Mano Magica, or  tucked around the corner and across the street from Santo Domingo, at Tally (5 de Mayo 409).  There is no limit to what you can find at every price range, from $8-10 USD up to thousands of dollars.  Some people like shopping on the street at the Tlacalula or Ocotlan market.  It’s important to note that the vendors here are usually not the artists.  They may be from a village; they may be a relative representing the craftsman and earning a commission.  Their offerings are usually smaller, more primitive and are not finely finished or painted.  But, these fancifuls can be a bargain and great sources for gifts. 

For collectors, the most accessible sources and the best range of choice could be found in the finest Oaxaca shops or in the Jacobo Angeles gallery “La Azucena,” on the highway at the crossroads to San Martin, where excellent examples from throughout the region are displayed.  But the highlight and most fun for any thrill of the hunt is going out to the villages in search of the masters.

For me, the search for a master does not necessarily mean finding the most famous (or most expensive) carver.  My process is to go to a village with a short list of carvers whose work I really like and stay open to discovering others.   I gauge the quality of their work by size, difficulty of carving execution, finish work (how well is it sanded and are there rough spots), painting detail, use of and variety of color, general artistry and movement, and use of  natural pigments.  Do the pieces have many removeable parts or are there discernable glued joints?  Carvings from one piece of copal is more highly valued, for example.  

Here are a few of my favorite carvers.  but, understand that you can arrive at their home studio/workshop and there will not be much there that is for sale at the moment.  It varies.  The best carvers are constantly producing their work and shipping immediately upon completion to galleries in Oaxaca or the U.S.   Sometimes I have gone to find  the person is not there.  If you can get a phone number and make an appointment in advance, that is preferable.  Now, I have a list of many carvers and am able to do this to ensure a connection. 

A few of my favorite San Martin Tilcajete carvers:  Jacobo Angeles, Justo Xuana,  Maria Jimenez Ojeda, Pablo Mendez Sosa

A few of my favorite Arrazola carvers:  Hector Martinez, Bertha Cruz

A few of my favorite La Union carvers:  Gabino Reyes, Sergio Santos, Calixto Santiago

Arrazola has a central artisans market that is quite good.  We always make a stop there to see the work.  On the last visit there was a great big Skeleton Couple, he bedecked in top hat, she outfitted in a dazzling dancing dress.  Ask around town, go in and out of workshops and you will likely find something wonderful to take home.  (See my post “Packing Tips” for how to get these home without paying an arm and a leg for shipping.)  

I also have a few fine pieces from my collection  for sale in my Gallery Shop:  www.oaxacaculture.com