Originally they were inexpensive children’s baubles, poor toys for poor people.
Today they are coveted ornaments — some costing thousands of dollars — that brighten the shelves of expensive East Valley homes.
Oaxacan wood carvings, or alebrijes, while relatively new to consumers here, have been made for hundreds of years in Mexico’s subtropical state of Oaxaca. Ninety percent of the carvings come from three tiny towns — San Martin, Arrazola and La Union Tejalapan.
Oaxacans historically relied on agriculture. Only recently — many of today’s carvers started after 1985 — has exported folk art proved more lucrative than corn and beans.
Jacob and Maria Angeles are two Oaxacans who now make a living from their carvings. Five years ago, they brought their figures to Sam King at Leona King Gallery in Scottsdale. One of those carvings, a large dragon, had been featured on the cover of Artes de Mexico magazine. King bought the beast and put it on the gallery’s Web site. That evening it sold — with five other offers stacked up behind it. Now the Angeleses bring their carvings to the gallery when they are in town, often for regional art fairs and shows.
"I just sold one to someone in New York City," King reported. But that isn’t unusual. The carvings’ popularity is ever-increasing, with buyers around the world placing orders. Prices vary: Small carvings start at $25, and cost increases with size and craftsmanship. Some of the better-known carvers — including the Angeleses, Eliazar Mo ra les, Justo Xuana, Damian and Eleazar Morales, and Mario Castellanos Gonzales — can command thousands of dollars for their work.
King said larger carvings are becoming harder to come by as big hunks of copal wood (also copilla) are becoming rare.
"What you are seeing are more smaller pieces," King said.
While no two carvings are alike, the method used to create them is consistent. After carving, each piece is handsanded and painted in bright colors. Images vary from nightmarish to whimsical. There is great competition among the 200 or so carvers in Oaxaca, and current works are guarded to foil would-be copiers.
Today’s style can be traced to one man: Manuel Jimenez of Arrazola, who discovered the wood that carvers now use.
According to Shepard Barbash, author of "Oaxacan Woodcarving: The Magic in the Trees," Jimenez moved beyond the popular tradition of miniature toy making and gave the carvings their larger scale, finer execution and more ambitious subject matter. And it was through Jimenez that the international market was established. From pauper to the prince of carvers, Jimenez has experienced the greatest prosperity among Oaxaca folk artists.
Marilyn Zeitlin, director and chief curator of Arizona State University Art Museum, said Oaxacan wood carvings possess one of the major qualifiers of folk art as opposed to fine art. Folk art, she said, tends to emerge from the lower class. It’s usually anonymous — but not in this case, as the Oaxacan wood carvings are signed on the underbelly.
"Folk artists are generally not educated in Western culture," Zeitlin said. But these artists are educated in nature, religion and the political forces that have shaped their lives. That indigenous education is communicated in the multifaceted figures — dancing chickens, flowerprint cats, burros with wings.
"Mexican folk art is unbelievably rich in imagination, Catholicism and pre-Columbian imagery," Zeitlin said. "They come out of indigenous iconography. The idea pool is unbelievable — a bottomless well."
That well is also linked to incredible talent.
Mexican crafters "respect the hand," Zeitlin said. She would not hesitate putting the talents of the Oaxacans against those of the folk artists of India and Japan.
"In folk art there is no measurement of mastery, as there is in fine art," Zeitlin said. Images either work or they don’t.
In the Oaxacans’ case, they work "delightfully," she said.