This is a small town located in the Bajio region of the state of Guanajuato. The name (Bajío) comes from the word “low” referring to the fact that the area is flat… at least by Mexican standards.
Apaseo el Alto (to distinguish it from the nearby Apaseo el Grande) is a small colonial town on one of the area’s mesas, facing the cliffs of another. It is somewhat arid, green with scrub and grass, but no trees.
The old center is typical for the area, a main square and municipal hall. One small oddity is that there are two churches on the square. The older of the two is the main parish, and the other is named after the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built in the 19th century, undergoing extensive renovations when I visited, making it look new.
Wood working has been a generational craft here but very few artisans and their workshops are anywhere near the center. Instead, they are now clustered along the Pan American Highway which connects the town with nearby Celaya. This appears to be a recent development as most are on the side where the town center is. The municipality has marked the area for artisans, and even built a market for them, but very few artisans are in that building, preferring the visibility the highway gives their wares.
Religious iconography from Arte Barroco
Most sell rustic furniture in colonial or modern styles, with the quality ranging from good to very good. Furniture made with hard woods can be had as well, but are done by special order only as the artisans do not have the capacity to invest in and store such expensive pieces. I also found some stores selling trinkets, such as wood buckets, but the most impressive pieces have to be carved and sculpted pieces, most reproductions of colonial-era religious icons, but with a few surprises thrown in.
Coming in from Celaya by bus, I first noticed the shops on the highway but assumed that most of the workshops would be in the town proper. Despite this, I jumped off the bus when I came upon the workshop of Humberto Centeno and his father, Enrique (52 413 106 2281 Whatsapp). It was impossible not to be impressed by the meters-tall sculpted monks, crucifixes and horses being worked on mostly outside the building proper. How the move the pieces in and out of the shop is beyond me.
Maestro Humberto seemed surprised to be asked for an interview, but he graciously agreed. He is a third generation artisan, beginning his training working in the family business at 7 years of age. Although he handles much of the business now, he still credits his father with the artistry on display in the shop.
The family specializes in these extra large pieces, using hard and speciality woods such as mezquite, Mexican cypress and eucaluptus. Many of the pieces are made with entire tree trunks, often with the roots. These come from contruction projects where trees are felled, mostly from the state of Guanajuato but occasionally from as far as Michoacan. Images of Christ and the Virgin Mary are a staple. But a number of interesting figures were taking shape in the shop including a “jimador” (one who harvests the agave plant for making tequila) and various figures of horses. The use of capricious tree roots were fascinating.
The workshop’s clients are mainly churches, business and haciendas. Humberto noted that one Virgin Mary figure he is working on will have the face of the woman sponsoring the work. The family’s work can be found in many parts of Mexico and has sent one piece so far to the United States.
Although most artisans making more artistic pieces are very reluctant about photos, this shop allowed me to take as many. Each piece is dictated by the wood and each is unique, so “copying” is not really an issue. While some pieces in the shop were painted, most were not, either left unfinished for the buyer to paint or more often, finished only with varnish so that the workmanship in wood can be appreciated.
I browsed a number of other shops/workshops but some were not willing to talk, stating they were too busy and several had clear signs forbidding photography.
One other workshop that granted an interview was that of Arte Barroco run by Heriberto Giron Campos and his wife,Yanely Mendoza. Giron also learned to sculpt from his father. This workshop focuses more on colonial baroque religious figures (with the occasional exception) with the sizes generally running smaller, from miniatures to those up to two meters high. Again, most are left in the natural wood color, but they can paint with oils, and use techniques such as plaster (estofado) and gold leaf. One added plus is that both artisan and wife speak English.
Samples of work from Arte Barroco
All photos related to Arte Barroco, including the lead photo, are from the workshop’s Facebook page, reused with permission.