Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

The Folk Art of Oaxaca, Mexico

           Mexican folk art has roots that stretch as far back into history as do its people. Arts such as potter and weaving existed thousands of years before the advent of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, and, what we see today of Mexican folk art even much of what is preserved from the past, is like Mexico itself, a mixture of indigenous Indian and European cultures and styles.1

            Mexican folk art has been recognized as a serious subject of study since the time of Gerardo Murillo, a man of wide-ranging artistic and political interests who, along artists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, championed the aesthetics and traditions of indigenous cultures over those of the Spanish. Known as Dr. Atl (a name adopted to proclaim his native roots), Murillo published a two-volume book, Las artes populares en Mexico, in 1922 which included photographs and detailed writings on popular arts of his beloved culture.

            Murillo believed that the Mexican people are endowed with great artistic feeling and a genius for fantasy, decorative work, and individual expression. To him, the popular arts were those that rose from daily life, both religious and secular. To subject these arts to commercial or consciously artistic influences, Murillo believed, was to transform them and alter their status as popular arts.

            Modern folk art’s debt to ancient Indian culture is illustrated by the fact that it is those regions where the great Pre-Hispanic cultures flourished that maintain the most active folk art centers today. One of those areas is Oaxaca, the southern Mexico state that is still among the most “Indian” regions in Mexico. What is found there, however, can only be called-to the chagrin of purists- a mélange of objects made for a variety of purposes and customers. Many Indians still weave and create pottery for daily use, yet the impact of tourism and the international art market have encouraged changed in centuries-old forms and techniques.

            In its variety and quality, Oaxacan folk art is quite possibly the best Mexico has to offer. Weavers, woodcarvers, potters, and tin crafters exist in profusion, either eking out a living as full- or part-time artesanos, or supplementing a farming income with a family art business. An elite few, such as woodcarver Manuel Jimenez of Arrazola, have won international acclaim for their work and have been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. But a large portion of Oaxaca’s folk artists exist within the tradition of the anonymous craftperson, turning out work that exude a rough-edged charm.

            Among the many pottery centers within the state of Oaxaca, the pueblo of San Bartolo Coyotepec is the most renowned. Located about 9 ½ miles south of Oaxaca City, San Bartolo is famous for its black pottery, Doña Rosa, a Zapotec Indian woman, was the most famous maker of this pottery and is credited with the discovery of the metallic finish of the barro nergro. Doña Rosa is now dead, but her family, the Nieto Reals, still make and sell black pottery in the pueblo’s potters, where, in a village of approximately three hundred families, more than half of those produce pottery.

            According to tradition, the men of San Bartolo Coyotepec travel to the base of the nearby mountains and bring the clay back by burro. At the Doña Rosa studio, the pottery is shaped by hand, with the aid of a simple wheel made of two saucers stacked bottom to bottom. After a drying period of several days, the pots are scraped, left to dry again, and then burnished with a lump of quartz or a hardened reed before being fired.

            The clay itself is not black; the color is the result of a reduction firing process. The pots are placed in a hole 6 to 7 feet deep, on a grate about 2 feet from the bottom. During the firing process, cool mud is used to seal off all air channels from the subterranean kiln, thus reducing the amount of oxygen allowed to circulate. The resultant reduction of oxygen and the impregnation of charcoal dust imparts the black color.

            Like the practice of many of the arts in Mexico, this one is a family affair. Seven members of the Nieto Real family help make pottery, and children are taught the rudiments at an early age. They start by making small pieces such as birds or beads, and then advance to the large globe-shaped water jugs that are balanced on rings made of woven reed.  

            Valente Nieto Real, Doña Rosa’s son, notes that many imitations of Doña Rosa’s pottery exist, some even using graphite or shoe polish to obtain the black finish. Other potters sometimes use molds for the popular animal or bird-shaped whistles, he adds, instead of shaping them by hand.

            Like San Bartolo Coyotepec, the Oaxacan village of Atzompa gained fame through a distinctive woman potter. Teodora Blanco created clay figures- Madonnas, dolls, and fanciful creatures – studded with paste appliqué, and like Doña Rosa, she is survived by family members who still create work in her style. Blanco is also an example of a breed of artisans who, departing from traditional forms, have created a new genre of art and achieved worldwide recognition.

            Atzompa, located northeast of Oaxaca on Route 190, is also known for its green-glazed cooking pots, baking dishes, bowls, and miniatures, some of which are only partially glazed. As in San Bartolo Coyotepec, children play an important part in the production of pottery here, often fashioning the miniature pots or animal musicians.

            About 20 miles south of Oaxaca City and 11 miles south of San Bartolo Coyotepex, on Route 175, lies the dusty pueblo of Ocotlán de Morelos. Here, a number of arts flourish, including woodcarving. A foreigner walking through Ocotlán de Morelos might think that it is little more than a farming village whose principal crops are corn and garbanzo beans. Goats, chicken, pigs, and hulking Brahma bulls stroll about or loll in the shade, and women and children gather at doorways to stare at strangers. But pass through the gates of any of the handful of woodcarvers who live in the village, and you will find an impressive array of folk arts.

            In Abad Xuana’s barn, a huge pile of dried corn shares the floor with a fleet of wooden giraffes, which Xuana has done on commission for a Mexico City patron. They are carved from white wood of the copal tree. Like most of the woodcarvers in Mexico, Xuana uses inexpensive aniline paints, in vibrant colors ranging from yellows and greens to blues and magentas. The synthetic powders are mixed with alcohol and brushed onto the figures, a process in which Xuana is aided by his three bothers, Justo, Adrian, and Antonio. Xuana learned his art from his uncle, who made wooden masks and says he began carving animals for his children as an alternative to buying them plastic toys.

            Epifanio Fuentes is another Ocatlán’s successful woodcarvers. In a room that serves as both bedroom and studio, half of the floor is covered with antelopes, tigers, lizards, dogs, elephants, and other animals, each intricately painted in several different colors and decorated with thin stripe or dots. One animal takes about three days to complete, Fuentes says, and sometimes even longer for the more difficult imagen, the religious figure that are so popular in Mexican folk art.

            Three generations of Fuenteses help out with the manufacture of animals, including Epifanio, his 64-year-old father Zenen, and his 13-year-old son. His wife, Laura Santiago, paints the animals. They do so well that they do not sell their work in Oaxaca or anywhere else in Mexico; all of their business is in the united States and other countries.

            Although Ocotlán de Morelos has emerged as an important woodcarving center, the artists there acknowledge that the maestro of them all is Manuel Jimenez, the 66-year-old artist credited with popularizing the wooden figures. Although his work has been exhibited worldwide, he still prefers to live in his home village of Arrazola, about 8 miles southwest of Oaxaca.

            Too small to appear on most maps, Arrazola is a sleepy pueblo that sits in the shadow of the Prehispanic site of Monte Alban. With its wrought iron gate and modern construction, Jimenez’s house stands outs as the dwelling of someone of wealth. When unexpected visitors drop by, he is glad to show them his work and reminisce about his career.

            After working as a sheep and goat herder in Arrazola, studying for the priesthood, and cutting sugar cane in Veracruz, Jimenez returned to Oaxaca to help with the excavation of the Monte Alban ruins that were then underway. He also began sculpting wooden masks. No one taught him, he says, adding, “God said it was my destiny to become a sculptor.” No one bought his work for many years, either, until the 1960s, when foreigners began flocking to Monte Alban to view the treasures that had been excavated. They noticed Jimenez’s work, and his international reputation was on its way to being made.

            Jimenez is hardly modest about his place in history. “I have risen to where I operate on an international level only,” he says. “People throughout the world can take advantage of my talent – that is my purpose in life.” Instead of seeing himself as the latest in a long line of Oaxacan folk art masters, he believes that he stands above and apart from that tradition. When he began carving wooden figures, he explains, “people in Oaxaca were making curiosities, but there were no maestros.”

            David Villafanes is more typical of the artists who struggle for a livelihood in the city of Oaxaca. The father of eight, he holds down a government job during the day and, in his spare time, creates beautiful religious tableaux with carved wooden figure. Survival is still a struggle, and the Villafanes family scrapes by, living in a shantytown of corrugated metal dwellings on the outskirts of Oaxaca.

            Others, like tin crafter Aaron Velasco, make tourist-oriented folk art items for their livelihood and devote the rest of their time to creating a wider range of more serious art. Velasco is a thin, shy man and a fourth-generation tin crafter. His great-grandparents and grandparents were the only tin carvers in Oaxaca, he says, humble people who started making utilitarian items such a tin buckets, watering cans, and lamps. They also made more decorative items, he adds, noting that tin lanterns and religious medallions fashioned by his grandparents still hang in many of Oaxaca’s churches.

            His parents began making more ornamental works, and Velasco himself can deftly turn out as many as five tin ornaments in an hour. They are all original designs: birds, fish, fruits, mirrors and butterflies, which he draws freehand on a sheet of tin and then cuts out with a deceptively clumsy looking pair of shears. He scored designs into the tin, hammering back flaps against a thick chunk of lead. After welding joints together, he uses brightly colored anilines to complete the pieces.

            These tin wares are what Velasco created to feed his wife and five sons; but after hours, he returns to his cramped studio, and to the accompaniment of roaring traffic from a nearby thoroughfare, works on the exquisite metal cutouts that are his real interest. Using various combinations of brass, copper, and tin, Velasco cute out the forms of cacti, owls, hummingbirds, trees, and fruit, and places them within a frames or several frames of contrasting metal. All of his designs- even an elaborate, three-dimensional Medusa- are cut out from a single sheet of metal, Velasco notes proudly. “It’s my style,” he says. Despite his family’s long tradition as tin crafters, Velasco fears that his own sons will not continue in his footsteps. “It’s a shame,” he says, “but they want to earn more money.”

            In contrast to the Velasco family, the Martínez family of Teotitlán del Valle has expanded its weaving business as the family has grown. Luis Martínez says that all twelve Martínez family members involved in the business chose to stay in Teotitlán del Valle. “Sometimes we were offered jobs [in Oaxaca City] for better wages and benefits, but we’d rather spend our time making rugs, even though it’s hard work,” Martínez says.

            Located about 12 ½ miles east of Oaxaca on the road to Mitla, Teotitlán del Valle is known for its woolen rugs and sarapes. Ata Casa Martínez, the family makes rugs of traditional Zapotex Indian design as well as replicas of modern masters such as Miró, Matisse, and Picasso. Eliseo Martínez, Luis’s father, began weaving the art replicas, and today they are a familiar sight in the markets of Oaxaca.

            Luis Martínez and his family raise their own sheep and color the wool with dyes made of tree bark, walnut shells, pomegranate seeds, and the cochinilla or wood louse. According to tradition, Teotitlán del Valle weavers dissolve cocinilla in lemon or use sea snails from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to create varying shades of red. Different shades of blues are created with fermented añil leaves, and browns and yellows with moss. And, according to Zapotec custom, the Martínezes still fix the colors with a mordant made of horse urine, lemon juice and salt.  Looms are most often pedal looms or theancient backstrap loom, which employs a strap that wraps around the kneeling weaver’s back to keep the warp taut.

            The Martínezes have turned one of the oldest art forms of Mexico into a profitable business. While they have preserved and taken some inspiration from traditional Zapotec designs, they also strive to manufacture whatever will sell to passing tourists, whether that means adapting European or American designs or inventing new patterns of their own.

            The Martínezes are an example of Zapotec family that has made lucrative business out of a traditional folk art. Luis has studied English in the United States and, to him business cards and modern marketing techniques are a part of life. That the market has to some extent affected the makers of folk art is indisputable, and perhaps inevitable. Those artists who have flourished are, like the Martínezes, shrewd businesspeople who have oriented their work toward filling consumer demand, rather than simply perpetuating tradition. The result, as many scholars have pointed out, is the rapid disappearance of many traditional forms of folk art.

            The disappearance of quality folk art is directly related to the constellation of obstacles that face modern folk artisan: ridiculously low wages that force compromise in quality, the disappearance of certain important materials, and the use of poor quality substitutions. As Carlos Espejel, one of the best-known scholars of Mexican folk art, points out, government assistance is one methods of preserving the important arts, but he admits that such attempts “result in the loss of freshness, originality and spontaneity of the original product.”

            J. Michael Walker, a Los Angeles artist and folk art collector, asserts that in some instances, government assistance can actually be harmful to folk art. One government program, he notes, buys folk art without regard to quality, which does not encourage fine work. Still, Walker adds, government support is valuable in many ways. “It exposes people to a wider range of Mexican folk art, and since it buys in quantity, it ensures a modicum of income for the artisans. And because it is an ongoing program, it encourages the flourishing of folk art,” Walker points out.

            Finding work quality is essential in a country where millions earn part or all of their living by making and selling handicrafts, and where the conditions under which they are made are so harsh. Espejel and many other scholars believe in quality pieces – although thy may have been intended for relatively short, utilitarian lives- should be preserved in museums. Otherwise, Espejel says, “they are bound to disappear soon.”

            As the folk art collector Alexander Girard says in the introduction to his book, The Magic of a People:

            In most of us there is the tendency to try to halt time, to relive the past through the accumulation of souvenirs, to which we cling as a child might cling to an old doll…The “handicraft” civilization is rapidly disappearing, and we delude ourselves if we think that artificial means can keep this highly individual form of expression alive as an organic part of our present society. Technology constantly changes our way of life and forms of expression. Yet we can, and I firmly believe we should, preserve evidence of the past, not as a pattern for sentimental imitation, but as nourishment for the creative spirit of the present, so that we too may evolve customs and shape objects of equivalent value in our own way, in our own time, taking advantage of the many new methods and materials at our disposal. In this way we will neither ignore nor forget the spirit of individuals who have died, the spirit of a people. We will remember them by their unique voices, which echo still out of their creations, and we will be inspired by them.

            What Girard recognized is that folk art is a living art, in which change should be welcomed, while care is taken to preserve examples of old forms. As modern Mexican folk art increasingly reflects the concerns and sensibilities of an industrialized, urban people, we can only hope that it will continue to be animated by the magical and life affirming qualities that have distinguished it to this time.



1Although the exact definition of “folk art: has been debated vigorously throughout Latin America and the world, the term is used here to describe and art of the people, created by artists who, although untrained in any formal sense, produce work of extraordinary vitality and quality.




Mexican Folk Crafts by Carlos Espejel, photographs by F. Catala Roca. Barcelona: Editorial Blume, 1978.

Mexican Folk Ceramics by Carlos Espejel, photographs by F. Catala Roca. Barcelona: Editorial Blume, 1975. 

The Magic of a People (El encanto de un pueblo): Folk Art and Toys from the Collection of the Girard Foundation by Alexander Girard, photographs by Charles and Ray Eames. Ney York: The Viking Press, 1968.

Las artes populares en Mexico by Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl). Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1922.

Folk Art of the Americas edited by August Panyella. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1981.

Mexican Folk Toys by Florence H. Pettit, photographs by Robert M. Pettit. New York: Hastings House, 1978.

Crafts of Mexico by Chloë Say

Having Some Dim Sum for the New Year