Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | Features

Wooden Wonders

By Tina Owen

The machete slices down and wood chips ricochet through the air. In the calm center of this furious energy, a small armadillo with a sweet hopeful expression tilts its head inquisitively.

The armadillo is newborn. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, the wooden creature waits patiently for licks of vibrant paint to cover its nakedness. At this UI Museum of Art event, Mexican woodcarvers are demonstrating the talents that have enraptured art-lovers and collectors worldwide. While the snow piles up outside, visitors bask in the warmth and energy radiating from the museum's latest exhibition: "Crafting Tradition: Oaxacan Wood Carvings."

Decked out in riotous hues and combinations—lime green, vivid pink, sea blue, scarlet, orange—more than 50 figures flaunt dazzling patterns of floral and geometric motifs. Saints and devils, rabbits and lizards, mermaids and monsters—a motley crew of lively and sometimes bizarre carvings reflects these master carvers' creativity and their cultural and environmental influences.

Although some pieces have links to ancient Mexican traditions and other art forms, the Oaxacan carving industry is a modern phenomenon that began in the 1960s. Thanks to the burgeoning demand for their craft, many carvers have abandoned traditional lifestyles such as farming. Carving has become a cottage industry that often involves entire families.
Most carvings are made from wood of the copal tree, which is easily harvested and shaped. Some carvers believe that figures already lie concealed in the curved branches; their job is to liberate them.

Whimsy and folklore blend harmoniously and humorously in many Oaxacan carvings, such as a giraffe taxi and band of animal musicians. With an eye on the tourist trade, carvers create figures that are likely to appeal to American and international buyers.
"The carvings are part of a growing worldwide trade in ethnic and tourists arts," says UI anthropology professor Michael Chibnik, who curated the UI Museum of Art exhibit. "Oaxacan wood carvings show how this international market can result in new artistic forms that straddle the border between popular craft and art."

"Crafting Tradition: Oaxacan Wood Carvings" runs at the UI Museum of Art until March 12.