If you spend time in Mexico’s old colonial cities, especially in the center and south of the country, you are bound to visit churches which date back hundreds of years and often contain elements that are equally old.
The most interesting of these elements are those from the early colonial period, when an extremely ornate Baroque style called Churrigueresque dominated the architecture and decoration of churches. The overwhelming details both inside and outside of these churches had two purposes 1) the elements served to evangelize and reinforce Church teaching, often through depictions of Bible stories and saints and 2) to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Church.
Needless to say, statues and other elements from this time are invaluable and there is unfortunately a black market for stolen colonial splendor. But it is possible to own a piece of history without harming Mexico’s cultural heritage. For example, towns like Apaseo el Alto in Guanajuato are known for their authentic reproductions in wood of crucifixes and statues of saints.
While wood was the most common material for church interiors, other materials were important as well. There are fewer artisans who have revived these, but their work is special indeed.
Two of these artisans are artists and business partners Noé Arreortúa and Ramiro (Troché) Herrera.
While wood makes for fine art, it is quite heavy. Processions were (and still are) extremely important in Mexican Catholicism, in no small part due to the fact that they were also a part of pre Hispanic religious tradition. In Michoacan, the Purhépecha had developed a way to create lighter-weight religious images, but the Spanish brought a technique as well.
Arreortúa and Herrera have a business/workshop called Galería Capilla de la Soledad. It has had several locations in the greater Guadalajara area, but today it is located just off the main square in the tourist haven of Tlaquepaque. It is a natural fit for the more upscale stores and clientele.
They work with a kind of paper mache technique called “encolado.” Instead of using layers of paper held together with a flour-based paste, the adhesive is a natural glue tmade with boiled animal parts. Introduced in the early colonial period, This technique dates back much further than the use of paste in Mexico. There are a number of pieces showing the use of this technique, including in the collection of the Franz Mayer Museum. Unfortunately, few colonial-era images survive, both because of the fragile nature of the material and also because these images were valued less than their purely-wood counterparts.
It was introduced for the making religious icons, usually limited to the body. Intricate and most important aspects would still be carved from wood. The reason for this use of paper was that it was cheaper than a wholly carved piece and lighter, allowing the image to be more easily carried on procession. This was particularly important to Virgin Mary images as these were often carried by women.
Both men work on the making of various types of Virgin Mary images with this, but it was Ramiro (who prefers to go by the name Troché (TroSHAY – “hummingbird”)) who initially worked to rediscover and revive the technique. He learned the basics from a Canadian friend, but the refinement was due to his own research and diligence.
The technique is best adapted to the bodies of saints and the Virgin Mary, as the layers of robes and other clothing eliminate the need to create a defined form between the neck and ankles. It is particularly good for many Mexican images of the Virgin Mary, whose body is often only hinted at with a large cone structure. The body and clothing are constructed using the encolado technique. The body needs to be quite thick and rigid to support the weight of head, hands and clothing. Kraft paper of various thicknesses are used. Heads and hands are created from either resin, red clay or a fine white clay. Most are now made from resin as they no longer have space to work a kiln for the making of the clay pieces. Faces for commercial pieces, particularly small ones, are generally made with the use of molds. Those made for art exhibitions are modeled by hand. For example those made for a series they did of Virgins with indigenous faces. When the piece is assembled it gets a coast of blanco de españa (a chalk-based plaster). The effect between the paper paste and blanco is to somewhat simulate what was done with wood statues using stucco.
Their work with encolado and other paper techniques is not limited to the making of Virgins, although they admit that the images are their bread-and-butter (with images of Frida Kahlo coming in second). Both work as both artisans and artists (seeing little difference between the two), but Noe states that it is Troche who has the patience for the detail work of the recreations. Both do modern art as well with some truly novel uses of paper, such as coating fiberglass bases with a paper paste to give a more natural appearance to the work.
They still use animal-based glues for their work, despite the fact that when moist, this glue has a very strong, unpleasant smell (like a dead dog). The reasons are both for authenticity as well as the fact that the finished piece is far more rigid and solid. They called this glue cola de conejo (rabbit tail) but it is also known as horse’s tail in other parts of Mexico.
The partners’ interest in recreating the past is not limited to encolado. They have also joined with Michoacan craftsmen to revive pasta de caña … image made with bundled cornstalks and cornstalk paste. Like encolado, this technique has historically been limited to the making of religious icons… but in the case of pasta de caña, this history extends back into the pre-Hispanic period.
Noe and Troche have exhibited both together and separately in various parts of Mexico, including the states of Jalisco, Sinaloa, Veracruz and Oaxaca. They have had one exhibition abroad, in Argentina. They regularly give workshops in the Guadalajara area and sell at the Saturday market in the city’s trendy Chapultepec neighborhood.
All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.