Wood from paper

Sosa Medina
Sosa Medina working at his shop

Emilio Sosa Medina has developed his craft both physically and culturally distant from other cartonería/paper mache artists, and therefore “breaks” a number of rules related to this craft.

First of all, Sosa was born and raised in the very rural Yucatán town of Yobain in 1955. This region of the country does not have a cartonería tradition, nor does Sosa family have an artistic background. Indeed, they were extremely poor campesinos, a situation which caused Sosa to drop out of school after the third grade in order to work. By age 13, he became politically active, working against the local cacique (strongman) and eventually even trying to form a political party. However, he became disillusioned with politics and corruption, but says he still wanted to do something to make an impact.

In 1974, he had an opportunity to move to Isla Mujeres (Quintana Roo) and work in the tourism industry there as a bartender. Eventually, he opened a small shop to sell handcrafts, which he still owns. In 1986, he took a class in working with paper and paste at a local community center with a teacher from Mexico City. However, he states that he learned only the most basic techniques, as said teacher could not even guide him on how to paint the simple vase he had made.

Alebrije figure dominating a view of the shop

Sosa’s specialities are masks, imaginary animals and decorative figures with fairly typical Mexican motifs. One thing that does distinguish Sosa’s work from the rest of the country is that nothing he makes has any connection to the festival calendar. All of his pieces have developed in relation to the tourist market. Another distinguishing characteristic is that these works are very finely crafted. Surfaces are either extremely smooth, with no evidence of seams. The painting is exceptional, not only with fine details, but also with very smooth edges of the designs. With their high gloss, the pieces look more like ceramics than paper. He considers his work to be finer than even that of the Linares family, the only cartonería work he is familiar with, an then only from the Internet. His American clientle seems to agree, as his work is featured in a number of U.S. newspapers and in an upcoming book on the “Best of Mexico.”


Masks in progress

Despite Sosa’s claim that everything he makes is purely from his imagination, some influences are evident in his work. Imaginary animals are either alebrijes (even using dream stories echoing those of Pedro Linares) or lizards, sea monsters, dragons, etc, and a number reminicent of the work of U.S. paper mache artist Dan (the monster man) Reeder. Another common motif are sun/moon wall hangings, with faces, based off similar items made with clay and other materials in various parts of Mexico. That is not to say that there is no originality in Sosa’s pieces. He definitely has his own style form and painting style is quite distinctive.

Sun figure and other wall hangings

Sosa calls his word paper mache and not cartoneria as he uses pure newspaper, about 150 kilos per year, nor does he identify with the cartoneria traditions of the country.. He creates between thirty to forty pieces a year from trinkets to pieces up to two meters long. Despite the base of newspaper and wire, his works are extremely strong. Some pieces are solid paper entirely, and those which are hollow have at least 20 layers of paper. On YouTube, the artisan has a promotional video where he takes a small mask and proceeds to step on it, putting his entire weight on it. For the solid pieces, Sosa states that he makes “wood from paper.”

Sosa’s work is only available at his small handcraft shop in Isla Mujeres as he shuns wholesalers, preferring his clientle of American visitors, who pay anywhere from $50 to $13,000 – that’s US dollars- for a single item. Many are repeat customers, who buy some something new every time they return to the island.

All photos courtesy of the artist.


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