For many in Mexico with artistic talent but no money, cartoneria paper mache has proved to be a godsend.
Raymundo Amezcua is one of those who have discovered it not only as an accesible material economically, but as a means to make a living.
Amezcua’s pieces are mostly traditional in theme; Catrinas and other skeletal figures, elements for monumental altars and occasional fleshed human representing some aspect of Mexico’s history and culture. What makes the maestro’s work stand out is his artistry.
Amezcua approaches the design and construction of a piece as carefully as any sculptor, but still respects basic cartoneria techniques such as the use only of paper, paste and reed or wire frames. The finish of the pieces is smooth, often confused with other materials such as clay or acrylic, achieved in part by the use of a final layer of mashed paper paste and sanding to hide all the lines from the layered strips. Another important aspect of his work is the use of fine detail. These include creating intricate hair styles, facial features and individual fingers so that hands can have realistic gestures, but the most most striking details have to do with the figures’ clothing. For example, Benito Juarez’s suit, hairstyle and shoes are all instantaneouly recognized as from 19th century Mexico, and one needs to look close to see that they are not fabric or leather.
The creation of realistic clothing as part of the figure means that Amezcua can also play a bit with the form of the figure itself. For example, his skeletal figures have realistic body shapes under the cartoneria clothes, in particular hips and derriere of females.
While he has experimented with various non-traditional forms with his cartoneria, including abstract pieces, the market is conservative and thus the vast majority of his work is in traditional themes, such as skeletons for Day of the Dead, Judas figures and the creation of large altars for various Mexican holidays. In these works, Amezcua says that innovation is important, but there must be a base in tradition.
Innovation comes with techniques, colors and making pieces more durable so that they can be appreciated more as art, rather than just a decoration to be thrown away later. He has his own, somewhat complicated, recipe for paste which contains natural ingredients such as vinegar to make pieces harder and more resistant to both time and insects. He prefers realistic over bright colors using various paints and even encaustic painting (using wax to fix the color) to achieve various effects. To get volume and hardness, figures typically have at least 2o layers of craft paper, which also works to keep the frame from showing through.
The road to paper artistry began with Amezcua’s grandfather in Michoacan who had various talents but was very poor. Just to make money to eat, he taught himself to make crosses from reeds and other materials to sell. As a child Amezcua was attracted to his grandfather’s creative endeavors, asking questions about how things were made. Amezcua’s family moved from Morelia, Michoacan to Mexico City when the maestro was five years old, but the family remained poor and the grandfather inventive. Amezcua recalls how his grandfather made the family’s children toys for Three King’s Day simply from whatever scrap materials he could find. Because of this and more, Amezcua says his childhood was happy and he did not feel deprived.
As he got a little older, Amezcua worked his grandfather, especially with painting, and here is where his talents, which he believes are inherited from his grandfather, began to show. As a young man, he went to study art conservation and restoration but could not complete school because of family finances. He briefly studied painting as well. Later on in life, Amezcua made money in various ways, the more artistic of which included the painting of images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and “retablos,” small paintings on sheet metal or other cheap materials to be offered as a petition or thanks in Mexican Catholic tradition.
Along the way, Amezcua also learned to sculpt and made toritos. In 2007, he had a very small exhibition of a few pieces which caught the attention of the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, which invited him to make figures noted people in Mexican history and popular culture, which he did using wood, wire and cartoneria. This led to an exhibition of Grandes Maestros de Arte Popular at the Museo de Arte Popular.
An average piece takes between four to six weeks to make, both because of size and the care in the construction. In the case of certain figures, such as those from history and literature, he does research on the subject to make sure he gets the appearance right, such as clothing and hairstyles. The idea is not to have the figures completely realistic but to have enough characteristics of the figure to make it instantly recognizable.
As most of is work is commissions for museums and other institutions for events, he tends to make large figures about the same height has himself, 1.60m. However, he also makes smaller works for art galleries. Much of his aesthetic is from the fine arts. Art books are scattered around the small townhouse where he now lives in Toluca, State of Mexico. He has contacts with people in the New York art scene and various artists in Mexico including studying under Luis Nishisawa. These contacts led to a commission to make a skull to be used in the promotional poster for Alejandro Springall’s film Morirse esta en Hebreo, as well as participation in the Museo de Arte Popular’s biennale pairing artisans and artists.
However, selling paper mache as art is not easy. It is difficult to find clients willing to pay for finely-crafted and original pieces. Amezcua is also demanding, refusing to bargain down his prices, with little love for many Mexican museum shops who he says do not treat artisans well. He has had to arrange his finances almost such that sales of large pieces become “extra income,” so teaching and working with prison craft programs provide for much of his subsistance.
The main attraction of the craft for Amuezcua is the work itself, not the money per se. He has always found enough money to live on and do his most important projects… stating that “Death” often saves his from financial ruin as when things are really bad, it is usually a commission for a skeletal figure that saves the day.
All photos courtesy of the artisan.