Mexican Paper Mache Figures
Paper mache sculptures are one of Mexico’s most traditional art forms, originating back in the Spanish colonial days of the 1600s. It was, at first, a means of making inexpensive yet durable objects for use in various ceremonies of the Catholic church. The craft was most developed in central Mexico. In cities such as Mexico City and Celaya, particular families took up the trade, adapting and developing it for new uses, down through the generations. Like other forms of Mexican Folk Art, the raw materials are plentiful and inexpensive. Paper mache artwork is generated with scrap paper and cardboard – old newspapers and boxes, discarded manilla wrapping paper. What is of most value is priceless: the artist’s talent, drive and creativity.
Many of Mexico’s paper mache artists work with a simple, age-old recipe of torn strips of discarded paper, soaked in a soup of flour and water. The recipe is simply two parts water to one part flour, whisked until it is the consistency of pancake batter. Artists soak the bits of paper in this goopy paste until the paper is droopy and wet. Depending on the object to be made, a mask for example, the artist uses a ceramic mold and presses multiple small, saturated strips of paper into the greased mold. The strips are applied over-lapping each other and smoothed down to form a packed layer. The usual process is three layers of pressed paper, allowing 24 hours of drying time between each.
When it’s completely dry, the artist removes the paper mache mask from the mold. Now it is ready for painting. First step is to paint the exterior with a white primer. Then, using colorful acrylic paints, the paper mache artist applies the creative details and facial expression to the mask. The last step is to apply a transparent, protective coat of varnish or to spray it with a glossy coat of polyurethane.
How strong is paper mache? The finished sculpture is tough, rigid and lightweight, as if it were made of a durable plastic.
Paper Mache Mexican Folk Art
In Mexico, makers of paper mache figures are also known as cartonería craftsmen. Over many generations, these artisans have produced a wide variety of items important in the country’s cultural and religious celebrations. These include figures of Judas Iscariot, as large as 35 feet tall, which are paraded through the streets and then burned on Holy Saturday. This tradition continues in places like Mexico City, Celaya and Toluca. Another form of giant, popular figures are the mojigangas, towering papier-mâché human forms created over a hollow, wicker frame. They are worn on the head and shoulders of a dancer hidden inside.
A Day of the Dead celebration is not complete without the addition of colorfully-painted paper mache skulls, dangly skeletons with moveable arms and legs and little cardboard coffins with a skull that peeks out when a string is pulled. And on any day of the year, no Mexican birthday party is complete without a paper mache piñata. Shaped like an animal, clown or a big star, the hollow figures are decorated with colorful crepe paper and filled with candy, fruit and other prizes for the blindfolded children who compete at breaking open the piñata.
Famous Paper Mache Artists
Perhaps the most celebrated Mexican paper mache artists are members of the Linares family in Mexico City. Pedro Linares began the family business in the 1930s, making piñatas and other figures. A turning point in his career came later that decade when, at the age of 30, he became sick and had a hallucinatory dream filled with strange, threatening animals who came after him shouting the word, “alebrije.” After he recovered, he molded and painted the figures he remembered, calling them alebrijes. His mythical creatures painted in bright colors, soon attracted the attention of other artists in Mexico, including the woodcarvers in Oaxaca, who began making their own versions of alebrijes with copal wood. His skeletal figures commissioned for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and a 1975 documentary film, “Pedro Linares: Artisano de Cartón brought him international fame. In 1990, the Mexican government awarded him its distinguished National Prize for Arts and Sciences. His family continues to produce their art from workshops close to the Sonora Market in Mexico City.
Among the acclaimed paper mache artists of modern Mexico are:
” Betzabe Orozco Segoviano, working from the Belfina Art Studio in Leon. Her sister, Edith, and their mother Delfina are also makers of imaginative paper mache sculptures. Betzabe’s lifelike figures, such as the skeleton grandmother seated on a chair on our website, are made with a paper mache body, dressed in woven fabric clothing.
” Pedro Hernandez Cruz in San Miguel de Allende has a long-established workshop producing a wide array of day of the dead and alebrije figures, rattles, hearts with wings, children’s toys, and those beautifully hand-painted skull masks that you see here on our webpage.
” Francisco de Jesús Juárez Mújica and his wife Lourdes Alhondiga from Guanajuato city make the most beautiful, detailed and colorful paper mache Catrina dolls I’ve yet to see. We have several of them on our website, along with Francisco’s skulls, coffin boxes and an amazing Alebrije creature.