Priscilla Kibbee

I love to travel all over the globe shopping for textiles to add to my wearable art. I have taught quilting to school children in Nepal, seminole patchwork to seamstresses in Thailand, and jackets and embellishment to quilters in Turkey where I also served as a judge at 2 of their International Quilt Shows. I have created garments for 5 Fairfield and Bernina Fashion Shows and teach classes on embellishment and wearable art. Lately I have been leaning more toward making art quilts.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What to Buy in Oaxaca? Alebrijes for One Thing

A devils band.......
a tiger.......
a dog with an attitude.......

– who would have thought these curious and colorful animals which prowl on street corners and in markets had been inspired by a nightmare? Named alebrijes, (gypsy slang for “a difficult tangled thing, shaped in confusing or fantastic figures”) were invented by Pedro Linares in Mexico City as a result of fever dreams. He dreamt of being in a strange and foreign world populated by bizarre and unfamiliar creatures with wild colors and designs. When he recovered, Linares wanted to share these animals with his family, so he began molding them in paper. Manuel Jiménez, a talented carver of Arrazola, was inspired by Linares’ creations and began carving alebrijes in wood. He experimented with different kinds of wood and found that Copalito was best because it has a small heart and no layers, so the animals can be carved in one piece without splitting. At first he was the only person in Oaxaca carving alebrijes. Later, he was discovered by an American patron, and soon his pieces were famous all over Mexico. Other carvers in Arrozola followed suit, and soon there was a boom in the little animal industry. After 1985, many other artisans joined the trend. Today, the villages of Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete are famous for the magical alebrijes.

Zapotecs have always been carvers, making toys and masks, and alebrijes open up a world for the imagination. Artisans began creating all kinds of fantastic beings: devils, angels, aliens, naguals, mermaids, and every kind of animal, real and imaginary, decorating them in all varieties of color and design. Motifs tend to change monthly depending on demand as well as the restless inspiration of the artists. What you see in an artisan´s workshop one month may not be repeated the next, though there are standard favorites, such as the iguanas and armadillos. Quality varies greatly, not only among the artisans but in the work of individuals. With some artisans, each piece is unique. Others hire staff to reproduce a popular design. They are found everywhere from sophisticated art galleries to cheap markets.

It is fascinating to watch the artists at work. All the carving is done with machetes and kitchen or pocket knives, which must be sharpened several times a day. A dull knife is more likely to cause cuts—a definite hazard of the job .Most carvers use wood from the Copal tree. Copal is found primarily within the warm regions of Oaxaca The wood from the female trees has few knots and is soft and easy to carve when it is first cut. Once dried, it becomes light, hard, and easy to sand smooth. One drawback, however, is that it can harbor the Powderpost beetle. The wood is often treated with chemicals before being painted and finished pieces can be frozen for 1–2 weeks to kill any eggs or larvae that might be present. Some artists now use other woods such as imported cedar or hardwood. Most alebrijes take one to five days to carve, and a week to a month to paint, depending on the design. Little ones cost less because tourists expect that, however, in some cases they are more difficult to make than larger ones.

Most of the people in Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete are involved in making alebrijes; it is a family affair. Generally, the men carve and the women paint, but both jobs are equally important. Knock on almost any door in these villages and you will find artisans at work.

From Oaxaca I can take a Collectivo from the main market (a shared taxi) to these villages for less than a dollar and wander around. My main problem will be in finding a spot for my purchases in my collection. One big advantage is that the paint doesn't show the dust.

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