Leonardo Linares prefers the term “artisan,” shunning the word “artist,” which has been applied to him by entities such as the British Museum. The reason is that he believes that as an artisan he has more creative freedom.
Leonardo Linares is a fifth generation “cartonero” or maker of paper mache folk art, which is called “cartonería” in Mexico. He comes from Mexico’s most famous cartonería family, that of Pedro Linares.
Pedro’s father and grandfather also did cartonería but only on seasonal basis, making traditional objects, piñatas, nativity scenes, masks for Carnival, Judas figures for Holy Saturday and various decorative items for Day of the Dead. Pedro changed this for the family with the creation of “alebrijes,” brightly painted monsters, which could be made and sold year-round as they are not associated with any particular holiday.
Since then the family has been able to make cartonería a true profession, to the benefit of various members such as Leonardo. Leonardo and his father, Felipe, have continued with Pedro’s work, but have modified it somewhat. The most important is that the figures are more fluid and detailed, giving them a more artistic feel than those of Pedro.
Leonardo began his career when he was ten years old, watching his father and grandfather working in the patio of the family home, which served at the workshop for some time even before that. He began as an apprenticeship, learning to mix paste and paints from plant and mineral pigments. However, he was not obligated to do this. Leonardo initially did this as a game. Only later did it become a way of life.
Leonardo’s work is strongly tied to his father’s workshop, one of the two Linares family workshops in Mexico City. (The other is headed by Felipe’s brother Miguel.) The work is shared among four family members, Felipe (Sr.) and three sons, Leonardo, Felipe (Jr.) and David. However, of the sons, Leonardo is the most involved and the best known, giving talks and workshops on cartonería in central Mexico, the United States and Canada. The workshop strictly does pieces by order, with most of the work alternated between Leonardo and his father. For large commissions and exhibitions for museums, all the members work together.
Leonardo’s work is not significantly different in style from that of his father, just some minor differences in details and the sizes of same. Much of the reason for this is that he has always worked with his father by apprenticing with him. He has no preference in types of items to make (alebrijes, skeletal figures, Judas, etc) as he believes that a cartonero should be able to master all forms. The workshop does not specialize either and what they do can vary greatly year to year, depending on what is being ordered. Orders are generally worked on individually, with a 30cm alebrije taking from 20 to 25 days to make, start to finish. Almost all of their work comes to them now because of the family’s fame. Clients are generally those who are knowledgeable of their work such as museum gift shops and collectors. Almost all are foreign buyers, noting that in general foreigners are more knowledgeable and appreciative of the tradition. New clients generally come by way of learning about them in books and magazines, but except for Facebook and email, Leonardo generally shuns the Internet. There is no web site. One reason for this is that Leonardo does not want to put images of pieces online because he fears copying and poor copying of his work.
Leonardo has worked various major commissions such as those for several museums in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States and the Museum of Modern Art in Japan. One particular piece was originally commissioned by the then Museo de Artes y Industriales in Mexico City. It was meant as an “ofrenda” (altar set up with offerings for Day of the Dead) with the name of Atomic Apocalypse. This was done in the 1980s, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were represented with images from that time period: Hunger with images of the famine in Africa, Disease with images related to AIDS and leprosy, War with images of the Sandinista movement, Khomeni and more and for Death, and exploding atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction. The work caught the attention of the British Museum, who bought and has had it in their collection since. It is one of many Linares pieces in the institution, which call Leonardo and the rest of the family “contemporary artists.” However, relatively few of their works are in permanent collections in Mexico, with exceptions being the Fomento Cultural Banamex with 80+ works, the Dolores Olmedo Museum and a couple of pieces in the Museo de Arte Popular.
Leonardo and the rest of the family held on to the cartonería tradition and promoted the alebrije innovation from the 1950s to the 1990s, when the craft was waning. However, since the 1990s, the popularity of cartonería has risen again, with many young people taking it up. Most have learned either through classes at schools or museums, but Leonardo believes that this leaves these young artisans without a sense of tradition, “trunco común” (lit. common trunk), or basis to understand and appreciate the history of cartonería or its relevance to Mexican culture.
For example, alebrijes are now widely made by many artisans and not only using traditional materials and methods. While Leonardo has papers indicating that the term belongs with the family, this idea has not been enforced legally or socially. Leonardo does not have problems with others making them, or using new materials or techniques, but the term should be reserved for their work, out of respect for the form’s origins.
For the most part, Leonardo is a traditionalist, strongly attached to traditional materials, construction techniques and in particular the apprenticeship system that molded him and his work. All of his creations are still made with wire (sometimes reed or cane) frames, with mixtures of newspaper, craft and other papers. Paper is meticulously layered over the frame (no scrunching for volume) and no molds are used. The paste is only flour and water, no glue or preservatives used. Every piece is hand painted.
As for classes, Leonardo strongly believes that to be a true cartonero, one must work one’s way up, from simple pieces like masks to more complicated pieces such as alebrijes. As he put it “ You cannot build the fifth floor of a building until you have built the first, second, third….” He says that most learning cartonería are only learning techniques, from teachers who do not truly understand what they are teaching, with students only copying items instead of truly creating. The problem with this is that students then think they go on to innovate, but really wind up reinventing the wheel, not knowing that it was done before.
That does not mean that Leonardo does not innovate. The family used to make their pieces almost exclusively with recycled materials, but Leonard uses mostly new, principally to have expenses for tax purposes. He does use commercial paint as it adheres better, and poor weather does not inhibit their use. He does make a kind of varnish by chemically breaking down Styrofoam, continuing the “alchemist” tradition of the family that used to be applied to making paints. He also makes his own tools when there is nothing available commericially to do what he needs. However, he does not back pieces with plastic as some young cartoneros do, or use decorative elements such as glass, plastic, buttons or other items, nor does he create pieces with movable parts.
Leonardo does not like to be called an “artist.” He prefers “artisan,” believing that being such gives him more freedom to create, as artisans generally are not university trained as to what creativity is supposed to be, nor has to be concerned about his/her work being accepted by an “authority.” His main inspirations continue to be life in his section of Mexico City, where his family has lived since it was rural farmland, and before urban sprawl took it over. He considers the local markets as a kind of “living museum, “ with its sights, sounds and smells. However, he also finds inspiration from his foreign contacts and trips abroad. However, his inspiration is mostly applied to the details and themes of his works, rather than to the basic figures.
(All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise indicated)