Mexican Wood Carvings: Wild Oaxacan Wonders

Brightly colored objects are a staple in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Whether it’s brilliant Talavera pottery decorating the gardens and interiors of households or intensely blue turquoise jewelry, we don’t mute our colors in this region. No doubt in your travels across Arizona and the Southwest, you’ve been in a gift shop, art gallery, or trading post and noticed, amongst all the color, an array of intricately painted wood carvings. It’s hard to miss purple frogs, blue cats, or geometrically-patterned pink giraffes, so you may have asked yourself: what are these fantastic creatures? Well, they are known internationally as Alebrijes (al-ay-bree-shi) or Oaxacan (pronounced wa-haw-ken) wood carvings.

The creation of these brightly colored carvings began in the early 1900s with a man named Pedro Linares who, when seriously ill, experienced hallucinations of chimera-type animals: lions with bird heads, horses with wings, and the like. He began crafting these visions into figurines using paper mache. Years later, Manuel Jimenez Ramirez started carving these figurines out of copal wood in San Antonio Arrazola, Oaxaca, in south central Mexico, which is also home to the Zapotec indigenous people.

A smiling Oaxacan carved giraffe in bright colors.

Ramirez introduced the concept of the Nahual in the carvings. In Mexican culture, nahuals are animals which protect you and define your personality. Tonas were the figurines the Zapotec carved; there were twenty tonas in the Zapotec calendar. Locals in Mexico call the present day carvings tonas and nahuals, but worldwide they are known as alebrijes. They range from everyday animals with fantastic colors and designs to mythical creatures decorated with dazzling designs. These carvings can fit in the palm of your hand or be huge, statue-like creations.

As you can imagine, carving these figurines takes quite a bit of skill and the right materials. Artisans use copal wood, native to the tropical forests of central Mexico, to make their brilliant carvings. Using machetes and knives, the wood is carved into the figure of the animal the artist wants to portray. This is a laborious process, since once the carving has been completed, it is sanded to smoothness and intricate details and lifelike aspects are added to the animal. The figure is then dried and oiled monthly for up to a year to ensure the humidity in the wood has dissipated.

After the figure has been dried and sanded, the real work begins. Artists spend weeks painting the pieces, using pigments which are naturally sourced. Because these ideas originated from hallucinations, the wilder the design, the better. Some figures are of mythological creatures, a combination of two different animals, or real life animals; all are painted in bright colors with vibrant designs. Geometric and/or nature patterns, swirls, or Zapotec patterns cover the carvings. It’s quite normal to find two or three different patterns and colors within one animal. In the world of alebrijes, one is encouraged to mix your polka dots with stripes.

Mexican Oaxacan carved animals are known for their bright colors and amusing poses.

Alebrije carving has become a satisfying source of income for the artisans of the Oaxaca. Their blending of tradition and culture with the fantastical and fun has created a whole new field of collecting. At the Pickle Barrel Trading Post, you’ll find a variety of alebrijes from Oaxaca on display. Each are signed by the artists and will leave you in awe of how much time and effort went into creating these carvings. Whether you’re looking for a blue and pink chihuahua or a green and orange monkey, you’re sure to find an animal that fits your personality and budget.

—Cameron Vines