Adalberto Alvarez Marines, born 1952, grew up in a typical rural Michoacan family. Unfortunately, one tradition, especially at that time, was to scare children into behaving with stories of “El Coco” (like the monster in the closet) or “La Llorona,” the weeping woman who might grab those who were naughty.
Being a more sensitive and artistic type, these stories gave the young Adalberto nightmares and terrors, but adults were not sympathetic. Naturally, he turned to artistic pursuits to exorcise his demons, along with engaging in his fantasies. By the time he was in his mid twenties, he had had some sucess selling illustrations for books as well as fantasy stories.
Alvarez’s family moved to Mexico City when he was about eight years old, with the hope that their children would study and become professionals. This was not Adalberto’s fate. Instead, he worked cleaning and manufacturing jobs for most of his younger years in order to have time for his arts.
His artistic focus changed radically when he discovered cartoneria in 1974. A couple of guys his age were experimenting with paper, paste and wire with the aim of making alebrijes and other objects to sell. Alvarez was fascinated by the possibilities the medium held, and felt he could do much better than making the throwaway decorations cartoneria is mostly used for.
From then to the present, Alvarez has continuously worked to push the envelope of what can be done with paper and paste. At first it was a hobby, done on his free time and even during down times at work at a wood hanger factory with his employer’s blessing. The maestro is completely self taught through constant experimentation. This has brought him to create different kinds of objects with forms and fluidity rarely, if ever, seen in cartoneria.
Alvarez’s main inspirations are still the dreams and nightmares of his youth. For this reason and the need to try new things, the artisan generally shuns the making of traditional items such as Judas Iscariot figures, saying they do not challenge them. Two exceptions to this are alebrijes and skeletal figures imitating the world of the living. Another nod to his Mexican heritage is the making of items with pre Hispanic themes. But the majority of his best work is reserved for non-traditional imagery, such as demons, dragons, fairies, Greek gods, mermaids and other human figures with fantastic aspects.
Although he protests out of modesty, these figures are truly sculpures. All are one-of-a-kind pieces, with no molds used. Some are life sized. Faces, proportions and musculature are all realistic, with attention to details such as the folds of fabric. The overall effect is that of classical sculpture, even with many of the skeletal figures, rather than handcraft. Only alebrijes are painted in the typically gaudy colors associated with cartoneria. The rest use realistic or metalic coloring, as the pieces are so smooth there is no need for wild colors and designs to hide the seams of the layered paper.
Alvarez has been working full time on his sculpting (also making furniture and household decorative items) since 1994. Despite the amazing quality of his work, and recognition since about 2002, he has had relatively few exhbitions of his work, mostly local cultural institutions, with two important shows: 2004 at the Cultural Institute of Mexico in Washington DC and an exhibition at the Museo de Arte Popular in 2014, when he was named a “grand master” by the museum and the Mexican Secretary of Culture.
The reason for this is that Alvarez feels that exhibiting and promoting his work takes too much time away from his workshop, feeling his remaining time on Earth is best spent creating as much as he can of all the ideas he has in his head.
Perhaps somewhat eccentrically, Alvarez has decided to open his own Cartoneria Museum. Building a second story onto his house in Santa Catarina Ayotzingo, Chalco, State of Mexico, the museum’s purpose is to permanently exhibit over fifty of his best pieces, many life or nearly life-sized. In reality, his work can be seen all over the house, with cartoneria furniture inside and outside, with partially completed work as well. What makes the museum idea somewhat odd is the location. Ayotzingo is just outside of the city limits of Mexico City in the municipality of Chalco; however, it is difficult to get to as traffic in the southeast of the Valley of Mexico is very bad and public transport is minimal. The effort is worth it, not only because of the impressive display, but also because the maestro and his wife are gracious hosts.
Unlike most cartoneros, and likely because of his age, Alvarez has no presence on the Internet, except for a video uploaded by the municipality of Chalco (below) and a Wikipedia page (recently written by this author). However, he can be reached through the Chalco cultural center (55 5975 3253) and the Fábrica de Arte y Oficios Tlahuac, where he teaches classes.