Our Tales From The Road
Trees of Life Part 1
Posted on Sep 23rd, 2006
To get there you pass through farmlands, agave fields and eventually into the sleepy town of Izucar de Matamoros, south- west of the city of Puebla. Like many Mexican towns, it centers around a main plaza or zocolo that features a church, government buildings, merchants and restaurants. It is not a pretty town, like the colonial or beach towns, and it is made up of typical barrios with low square concrete houses and is home to some of the most outstanding folk artists of Mexico whose roots go back to the 1800's.
Izucar de Matamoros is one of three main towns that are renowned for the trees of life that come out of Mexico. It is not a shopping town, and you won't find the work in the few shops that surround the zocolo, nor will you find them in the surrounding streets. You would not travel to Izucar for the romantic Mexican Vacation, the great hotels the food or the beauty, but if you collect trees of life, it is a town you will want to visit.
The artists from Izucar create trees of life candelabras, incense burners, tree of life figures, ornaments and a wide variety of work that relates to traditional holidays, birthdays, el dia de los muertos and some just for fun.
The Flores and Castillo families are the main families that are continuing the work which has it's roots in the tradition since the 1800's. Francisco Flores told us that his father's trees were originally used as a gift from the godparents to a bride and groom at the wedding. The tree symbolized prosperity, health, fertility and hope and blessing for the new couple.
Still using the molds and paints that were used by his father in the early 1900's, he continues the family tradition, started by his father Aurelio, by using the old style molds and painting with aniline dyes which creates an effect of a wash over white. His repertoire includes trees with religious figures dia de los muertos pieces, candelabras and incense burners. More than any other artist of this area, he continues to work keeping the very traditinal styles alive.
Isabel, Heriberto and Alfonso Castillo are renowned throughout the Mexican folk art world, and are all widely collected. These artists began working with their mother as young children. The work of Isabel and Heriberto is bright, imaginative and painted in acrylic/polychromatic style. They use a combination of old molds and their own creations. Alfonso, who has won many awards, and is celebrated as one of the 'great masters' in the Banamex Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art book. His work is unique and earthy and intricately painted in natural dyes. He commands collectors pricing, which is well deserved, for the beauty and intricacy of his work.
Isabel has traveled widely, including to the USA for shows, exhibitions and to teach. She tells us that her grandmother began making arbol de vidas 125 years ago. She says her mother began the tradition in Izucar, but we have heard from Francisco Flores that his father was the first. Whatever the case, there is long standing community pride in the history of the tree of life tradition in Izucar de Matamoros.
Like many Mexican Folk Artists we know, the whole house & courtyard are utilized in the making of their craft. On our last visit, her children had taken over the molding, firing and dipping process. Isabel and her husband Gustavo were painting, selling and constructing new living space. Isabel is a very straightforward, no-nonsense person with a great sense of humor and great pride in the century-old tradition that she carries on.
The photos below follow the process that Isabel uses to make her creations.
The 'clay' is dried in chunks and is stored in large baskets in the upstairs of the studio. They are moistened by soaking, then kneading the clay into shape on her concrete work table.
Isabel works with the television going in the background, alongside rubber dinosaurs, toys of her grandchildren and her materials.
This little bird is molded into shape very quickly.
With her thumbnail, she shapes the bird's wing feathers and bill.
The pieces are placed deep into the oven and the sheet metal cover is lowered when firing the pieces. They are then cooled off in the kiln, then taken to the baby bathtub, which is full of white house paint and dipped. They are given three dips, then dried outside under the tin roof.
The final step, is the painting of the pieces with acrylic paints, then they are sealed with lacquer. At the time of our first visit in the mid 1990's, Isabel and her husband Gustavo, were no longer forming and working with the clay. They were painting together in the living room. Her sons and daughters are now doing much of the work, and ushering the next generation into the tradition.
Trees and molds, hanging on the wall.
© Dos Mujeres Mexican Folk Art 2006