Tepotzotlan is a small corner of colonial Mexico hidden just off the highway leaving Mexico City to Querétaro. It is surrounded by a sea of grey cinderblock contruction, shopping centers and warehouses, but its center has maintained some of its former glory, mostly due to the National Viceroyalty Museum, formerly a church and monastrery of the Company of Jesus, and the town’s designation as a “Pueblo Mágico” (lit. Magic town) by Mexico’s tourism authority.
Nancy Chavez Luna and Gabriel Granados are a wife and husband team of paper mache artists. They do not really call what they do “cartonería” as they neither comes from an artisan family, and the development of their work has a very independent origin and trajectory.
They began about 15 years ago, as they say “before the boom” of cartonería in Mexico City. Both were students of graphic design at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM) in Azcapotzalco, Mexico City. Granados was unemployed and the couple needed another source of income. Granados prefers 3D work over drawing so the couple decided to experiement with paper mache.
Using only their knowledge from graphic design and basic techniques learned in primary school, they have since began a journey to develop a paper art. Because of limited contact with other, more traditional cartoneros, their work has developed quite distinctly, in materials, techniques and design.
Paper sources are not limited to newspaper or craft, they have experiemented with various kinds, including the use of old egg cartons. While larger pieces are can be made with layers of paper over a wire frame, most of their work is with smaller pieces made, at least in part, with mashed paper pulp, rather than paper strips. These pieces are generally molded free hand and can be either hollow or solid. These are built up in sections, to give the older parts a chance to dry and harden.
One imporant aspect of this work with molded paper pulp is the emphasis on texture. Unlike other fine cartonería, the goal is not to make the finished piece as smooth as possible, thus making it look like something other than paper. Instead, the idea is to use paper’s natural roughness and slight changes in shape as it dries for textual effect. However, the end result does not look like paper either.
The design of their work definitely shows their modern, academic backgrounds, although traditional cartonería folk themes are not abandoned. As both are from Mexico City and neither is from an artisan family, they do not feel any restrictions against the making of untraditional and sometimes highly unusual forms. Much of thier work has been done in cycles or phases, such as those dedicated to the making of fairies, animals and large insects paired with tiny humans. They even make furniture, lamp shades and figures of non-animate objects such as cameras and suitcases. They have also made stage sets. The pieces are almost always collectibles, rather than those made for festivals. If they make traditional objects such as animated skeletons or images such as that of Frida Kahlo, they will reinterpret them to their style, rather than copy what was done before.
That style not only revolves about the use of the texture of paper but also the use of color and form. Unlike very traditional cartonería, the coloring on their works are more sophisticated, generally foregoing basic and clashing bright colors for more subtle hues. Even when a brighter color like yellow is used, it will be toned down with a black patina or similar technique. Many of their figures have been described as both “corny” and “gloomy” at the same time, a contrast which the couple likes, especially since it almost always causes some reaction from those who look at their work.
Today, this work is a family business under the name of Creaturas de Papel. They now live in Tepozotlan, in part because the local art bazar on the main plaza and local artists have been supportive of their work. Both now work in paper full time, and their young daughter is growing up working with it as well.
Their work has also been noticed outside of Tepotzotlan, as well, exhibiting at the Museo de Culturas Populares in Toluca, Festival de las AlmasFestival de las Almas in Valle de Bravo and have an upcoming exhibition in Toluca in October 2016. They have participated in events with the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, such as the Train of History project, making the cars representing Francisco I. Madero and one related to Mexican Independence, and they have received commissions from agencies such the Family Support Agency of the State of Mexico.
All but two photos (by the author) are from the artisan’s Facebook account, used by permission.