Tag Archives: Carved Figures

Saving Copal Trees in Oaxaca — Palo Que Habla Bioconservation Project

Copal is the tree used to carve the wooden figures we call alebrijes in Oaxaca. It is a disappearing resource. Thanks to Jacobo and Maria Angeles in San Martin Tilcajete, where many of the region’s alebrijes are made, there is a bioconservation project called Palo Que Habla to replant copal trees for the next generation of carvers. On land near their home and studio, a vivero (nursery) is planted with young copal trees, as well as other native Oaxaca seeds such as corn, beans, squash and garbanzo.

Palo Que Habla nursery (vivero) where copal seedlings are started

Palo Que Habla means wood that speaks.

It is open to the public and there is no cost to enter. It is designed as an education center and families are encouraged to bring their children to see how important sustainability and biodiversity is now and for future generations. Please call ahead to arrange your visit.

Young copal trees, planted and growing

It takes 30 years for a copal tree to mature before it can be harvested. But that doesn’t stop many from cutting trees when they are 15 years old or younger. Only the white copal wood is used for alebrijes. It is carved when it is fresh and soft, then dries and ages for up to a year before it is painted. The need to sell can take priority over ecological issues here and in many places around the world.

Potted succulent starters are also available for sale

Jacobo Angeles became president of the San Martin Tilcajete committee to establish a community effort to plant copal seedlings and nurture them. He served as leader of this effort for the first six years of the program. The village committee oversaw 40 hectares (almost 100 acres) of land. But, as the trees grew, people became impatient and didn’t want to wait for them to mature. Jacobo and Maria decided to start their own project 10 years ago.

Jacobo y Maria Angeles alebrije from copal wood

Now, the copal tree resources in the Ocotlan Valley of Oaxaca are depleted and Jacobo says he and other carvers are sourcing their wood from Yautepec, Xochitstlan and Yanhuitlan in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, at least two-hours from the city. Angeles says that hundreds of pueblo artisans were cutting wood for alebrijes.

A shady place to relax and refresh in the Vivero

(By the way, it is the sap of the copal that is used for ceremonial incense in Oaxaca.)

Five thousand trees are planted three times a year in various locations, on a total of 140 hectares of land, or 346 acres. The biggest challenge, of course, is water. Young trees need tender care. Palo Que Habla nurserymen and women capture rain water and also use well water. Thirty years ago, they could depend on rain alone. Today, it is not enough.

Leaky aluminum bucket becomes recycled planter

The copal nursery project was started in 1994 when Maestro Rodolfo Morales saw that cutting copal was not sustainable without a plan to put new trees in place to replenish those that were being used for the folk art. Since then, the Rodolfo Morales foundation has donated saplings to the program to ensure a continuous supply of copal.

Alebrijes come in all shapes, sizes, and figures

The Vivero/nursery project is expansive. It aims to create a pollinator garden for butterflies and bees, and will produce local honey from the hives. Lavender fields have been planted. Stately and sacred ceiba trees line the avenue bordering the seedling cultivation area. There is a space for resting and relaxation, as well as well-equipped toilets and a guest house.

I’m in awe of and admire the dedication of Jacobo and Maria Angeles to preserve their culture through commitment to agricultural sustainability via Palo Que Habla. More than this, their vision is to create a teaching and learning environment to sustain diverse regional craft traditions of Oaxaca and the Ocotlan valley.

Hand-made Mogote Ceramica wall plaque at Palo Que Habla

A recent addition to the portfolio of studio craft is Mogote Ceramica. This is a high-fire clay workshop where functional and decorative pieces are made from local clay, native to San Martin Tilcajete. They are fired in gas kilns at 2246 degrees Fahrenheit and are lead-free. Potters from the region make beautiful glazed pieces that are reminiscent of pre-Hispanic and contemporary design. When I was there, I met visiting artists from Korea, Japan and Mexico City, some of whom are in residence.

The ceramics studio is across the street from the alebrijes workshop, beyond the parking area. Don’t miss it. Take a peek into the sales gallery, too, to see if there is anything there that appeals. My dad was a potter, so I have a special affinity for this craft. I left with eight pieces of pottery! Years ago, I stretched to buy alebrijes made by Jacobo and Maria. They are in North Carolina. They are beyond my capacity now!

Remember, you are welcome to look and admire and there is no charge to visit any of the workshops or the nursery. Enjoy!

Shop Mexico–The Artisan Sisters: Oaxaca Carved & Painted Wood Alebrijes

Now that I’m back in North Carolina, I am looking at my Oaxaca folk art collection of whimsical, carved wood and hand-painted alebrijes.  Wow, there are a lot of beautiful alebrijes from San Martin Tilcajete and San Antonio Arrazola, including some by famed Jacobo Angeles and his wife Maria.  It’s now time to sell as I prepare to spend more months each year in Mexico in smaller space.  I brought them here carefully, one by one, over the years with no damage.  I don’t want to risk it going the other way! So, here they are up for sale.  I will definitely consider all good offers, too.

If I don’t sell these here this week, I will list them on eBay.  So don’t hesitate!

1.  From master wood carvers Jacobo and Maria Angeles in San Martin Tilcajete, a carved and painted jaguar mask, $165.

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This is a stunning addition to any mask collection!

Jacobo and Maria Angeles are the most famed woodcarvers of San Martin Tilcajete.  They have exhibited worldwide, are in private collections and their work is impeccable.  They also operate Azucenas Zapoteca Restaurant and have a gallery on Macedonio Alcala in the historic center of Oaxaca.

2.  Flying Hummingbird #1 by Jacobo and Maria Angeles, San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca.  This one is hand-painted with all natural dyes — cochineal, nuts, moss. wing span 6″ and from beak to tail, 5″ long. $85 USD.

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3.  Flying Hummingbird #2 (below) by Jacobo and Maria Angeles, San Martin Tilcajete.  Magenta with blue and yellow accents.  Wing span 5″ and beak to tail 5-1/2″.  $60 USD.

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4.  Exquisite Lizard by Rocio Ramirez, Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca. Just look at that tail! This is one entire piece of copal wood, carefully carved and beautifully painted in perfect condition. 18″ long and 10″ wide, from tail to end of left claw!  Impressive.  $295 USD.

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5. Hector Lopez carved this rhinoceros in his home village of Arrazola about seven years ago.  I have had it as a prominent part of my collection ever since.  The painting detail is incredible and it is carved from a single piece of copal wood, except for the detachable tail and ears.  From tail to end of front horn, 17″ long.  Stands 8″ high.  $325 USD.

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6. And, finally, a wonderful Black and White Bear by famed Maria and Candida Jimenez Ojeda, San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca. 8″ long x 4″ high x 3″ wide.  Small and mighty.  The detail painting is stunningly Maria! $125 USD.

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Send me an email and please refer to item number and description when inquiring.  Price does not include shipping or insurance.  Please tell me if you want this, along with your mailing address and I will send you an invoice that includes shipping and insurance based on your location.


Shop Mexico: The Artisan Sisters Week 11–Bertha Cruz Alebrijes

Whimsical carved copal wood and hand painted, these Oaxaca treasures from the studio workshop of artisan Bertha Cruz can be yours. Send me an email to let me know which one you want and I will send you a PayPal invoice. all prices include shipping and handling for the continental U.S.A.

First: SOLD. Do the Funky Chicken. Great barnyard friend to add whimsy to any cockadoodledoo kitchen. About 4″ high and 3″ wide. Incredible paint job. One piece of wood. Signed.

Second: Armadillo. SOLD. This small figure has big personality. Stands about 2″ high and 4″ long. Removable tail. Signed.

Third: La Paloma Box. SOLD.I goofed and forgot to look at the bottom when I bought this treasure-keeper from Bertha. It is not signed. My mistake brings you a big discount for this gorgeous, perfectly painted piece.









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.

Chris Hugo Recommends Ephraim Fuentes — Alebrijes, Animalitos and Carved Wood Figures

Ephraim Fuentes is a talented wood carver from San Martin Tilcajete. Chris Hugo, from Washington State, wrote me to recommend Ephraim and tell about the great experience he and his group had visiting the workshop. I asked Chris to send photos to share with you, and he says, “These may be foxes or something mythical from the dog kingdom. The “male” is about 24″ tall.” He also gave me permission to share his impressions of their recent Oaxaca visit (below).

“Our group of six loved Oaxaca. We attended two Guelaguetza performances in the Cerro del Fortin, spent a 12+ hour day with Susana Trilling at her cooking school (our final day), and saw as much of the area as we could in a shortened week. We rented a house in San Felipe, and although the accommodations were great, the steep road to the house was severely torn up to put sewer lines in — so we had to walk several blocks (sometimes in mud) to get to a bus / taxi street. At least it didn’t rain until our last night (after graduation from cooking class). Overall, we were very lucky to mostly avoid rain during the rainy season, both in Mexico City (3 days coming and going) and in Oaxaca.

“I’m 61 and have been visiting Mexico regularly since 1959 — next year will be my 50th anniversary! I’ve visited over 20 major cities from Juarez and Nogales to Acapulco and Cancun and have never had a bad experience (other than the normal travel illnesses) — although my brother nearly died of typhoid fever in Mexico in 1957. In the past couple of years, we’ve enjoyed similar great adventures with welcoming cultures in Guatemala and Panama.

“Although some elements of the greatly segregated economy of Oaxaca benefit by tourism revenues, it was special to be there when so few tourists were out and about. I don’t think we saw a handful of tourists among the thousands of locals at the Tlacolula market.

“Oaxaca street scapes remind us of a much bigger San Miguel de Allende. The colonial charm of both cities puts a good face to the “real” Mexico.

“Thanks for helping to orient new visitors to Oaxaca — since there are no
sunny beaches with jet skis and 24-hour beer parties, we can only hope that
“Ugly Americans” won’t ever find their way there.”

Chris Hugo

“P.S. The travel guides for Oaxaca suggest using second class buses to get to
the surrounding villages. The day we tried to get to Ocotlan, the bus seats
were sold out, yet we wasted an hour to find that out (although, we enjoyed
watching the chaotic loading, unloading, and reloading the bus as the
station personnel tried to figure out who could go and who could not —
chickens, bails of ropes, and all). We suggest taking a taxi on the outbound
trip to villages and then grabbing any bus heading back into Oaxaca. Time is
just too precious to fiddle around at the big station across from the
Abastos Market and then not be assured of travel. Best to just get a taxi.
That raises another subject, taxi rates. We found them to be all over the
board — we got a taxi back from San Martin Tilcajete for 40 pesos, yet paid
twice that to get from our rental house to the First Class bus station a few
miles away. Generally, we could get anywhere around town for 40 pesos and
out to nearby places like Monte Alban for 60=80. Like all buying in Mexico
towns, you have to be willing to pass on the first taxi if the driver
doesn’t take your offer. You probably have good experience with this, and it
is worth sharing with new visitors.

“Of note, our air travel was to Mexico City where my family has been friends
with the owners of a boutique hotel (Casa Gonzalez) since my second trip to
Mexico in 1963. Our travel party of three couples stayed at the Casa,
enjoyed a night out with our hosts, and spent a rushed two days seeing
Teotihuacan, the Zocalo / Templo Mayor, and the Museo Nat de Antropologia. We
took the ADO line First Class bus to Oaxaca and the ADO GL Luxury Class bus
back to Mexico City. We couldn’t distinguish between the two, although the
GL cost about 20% more. Although the schedules say the GL is 30 minutes
faster, for our trips it was actually longer. Maybe it was partly due to the
spontaneous stop for a security check of all passengers and luggage by
soldiers along the highway.”