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Woodcarver in Oaxaca Transitions to Mezcal and Agave
San Martin Tilcajete is one of three villages in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico known for carving and painting fantasy figures, popularly known as alebrijes; mythical dragons and other animals, pieces with cultural or religious imagery and more. Typically, men carve figures from soft wood, copal, and women paint. But Efrain Fuentes Santiago and family are atypical. Since the second decade of this century, much of Efrain’s work has carved images of agave, the succulent used to distill mezcal, into hardwood. Rather than finishing them with paint, he leaves the wood natural. And recently he has been producing various scenes representing the various stages of mezcal production.
The 1980s saw the rapid growth of the alebrije industry. Over time, virtually every family in San Martin Tilcajete began to earn most, if not all, of their carving and painting for the tourism industry. The Fuentes Santiago family was no different. At the turn of the century, as the production of alebrije increased, so did the distillation of mezcal. And every year since about 2010, the production of agave distillate has skyrocketed. Along with the phenomenon came mezcal tourism. This means that visitors to Oaxaca arriving in the state capital of Oaxaca de Juárez travel to nearby villages in and around the central valleys where agave is primarily distilled. They come to learn about mezcal production, start their own brands for export, shop at their favorite distilleries, and shoot documentaries and photographs for exhibitions.
Efrain noticed a change in the nature of tourism. Attached to Oaxaca’s appeal to tourists who want to experience its world-renowned cuisine, visit its archaeological sites and artisan villages, and soak up its colonial charm, he began to carve depictions of mezcal production and agave motifs, primarily in cedar and walnut. than copal. While hardwood is more difficult to split, Efrain sees it this way:
“Ever since I was a little boy, I have loved carving walnut, cedar and to a lesser extent cypress, keeping my creations natural rather than painting them. Each piece of wood I use, sourced from these types of trees, has a unique character, color and grain. “
Efrain learned from his father and grandfather. In fact, his uncle, the late Isidoro Cruz, pioneered the alebrija tradition in the village. In his youth, Isidoro became famous as a carpenter making chariots, and perhaps more importantly ceremonial masks and amulets for village celebrations and rites of passage. Efrain reflects the spirit of innovation.
Efrain still earns most of his living making alebrijes, along with his wife Silvia Gomez and their four children between the ages of 14 and 20. Increasingly, however, there is a market for unpainted pieces with only a light coating of varnish or shellac, representing different types of agave in various stages of development and illustrating the harvesting of agave and its transformation into mezcal.
I have known the family for about 15 years. Back then, virtually none of Efrain’s art involved agave. But especially in the last few years, with the explosion of mezcal, has come increased creativity. I saw a bench that Efrain was finishing in his workshop with agave carved on both ends. I asked if he could make me a solid wood bar stool, not only with agave, but with a flower stem or quiote that ran the length of the back panel. I drew what I wanted. After Efrain acquired a single piece of wood for the project, there it was. It now graces my bar area.
Efrain began carving mezcal bottle boxes and napkin holders, each with an agave carved into the wood. I recently asked him to carve a long plaque on the theme of the various stages of the mezcal-making process: a jimador cutting agave in the field, a distiller or palenquero working on horseback to crush the baked sweet succulent and ancestral clay. pot still operation.
The sight of these delicate pieces inspired one of the owners of Melate agave distillate to have Efrain carve agaves and the Melate logo into a series of promotional wooden boxes. For the next batch of boxes, Efrain was given carte blanche to carve them as he wished. So much confidence in his skills and ingenuity.
Efrain is occasionally asked to travel to the US to promote his craft as well as participate in museum exhibitions. These projects focus on the development of the more common art of alebrija for the benefit of the family, the village, and Oaxacan folk art more generally. But Efrain’s real passion is his other work, which inspires him to think outside the village box, rather atypical for San Martín Tilcajete.
While the children of Efrain Fuentes Santiago and Silvia Gomez are an integral part of the family’s carving and painting tradition, it is to their parents’ credit that all four remain in school today. This is somewhat unusual in Oaxacan craft villages. Whether they leave the nest to pursue individual careers or continue to work with wood throughout their adult lives, each will benefit from both their formal education and the development of the tradition instilled by previous generations of their family. As long as the star of mezcal continues to rise, the economic fortunes of this family are expected to follow, with the carving of the agave and its distillation processes.
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#Woodcarver #Oaxaca #Transitions #Mezcal #Agave