Roberto Macias is hard to miss. He is a big sturdy man, sporting double-pierced ears and other prominent jewelry. While definitely duranguense, he comes across as a bit of a stranger in his own land.
He began to show artistic inclination as early as age 5, surprising teachers with his ability to model clay. However, he was also getting into trouble for carving figures out of his wooden pencils instead of paying attention in class. Although he took some classes at the city university, Macias considers himself self-taught, indicating that he was (and still is) something of a rebel among Durango artists and artisans. But it is people like Macias who think outside the box, and create surprising new forms.
His most prominent work is the making of decorative masks using the petioles of palm fronds, which after the thin part of the frond is cut off, make for a kind of thick triangular or diamond shape. This shape forms the basis of his masks, making most elongated, almost African-like. In fact, a number of his works even have cowrie shells, which he states is his recognition of Mexico’s African heritage. Macias says that Mexico does not like to acknowledge that the country even has one, but since African slaves were more numerous than Spaniards in the colonial period, he considers them more important to Mexico’s mestizo heritage than even the Spanish.
He began making masks in relation to theatrical productions, as a way to earn money. He still does this… and makes certain artistic and specialized musical instruments. He began experimenting with working with palm frond petioles while in college, although he says that he took some flak for this from his teachers. He claims that the local art teachers have little imagination and are mostly interested in doing what was done before. Despite this, he has continued to make masks of this and other materials, particularly ceramic and various metals, finding enough of a collectors’ market to make the activity viable. While the masks have a definite signature style, one that influences masks made with other materials, no two are exactly the same.
Macias’ creativity extends into other areas as well. There is a gray area between folk and fine art and Macias’ work not only blurs the line, sometimes it stomps all over it. He has experimented with just about any material an artist might use, and then some. But aside from the masks, most of his work has been wood sculpture and a novel take on cartonería.
In Durango City, one can see a number of dead trees, often very large ones, which have been converted into sculptures. The tree itself often determines what will be carved but almost always it is something figurative and human. Macias’ work of this type mostly dates from the early 2000s and in locations just south of the city center. While his fotos, taken during and just after completion show his talent, unfortunately these sculptures have not been maintained since.
Cartonería is at best nascent in Durango, but it does exist. Macias take on it is to create a base form with Styrofoam then cover in paper and paste. The purpose behind this is to avoid having the final structure hollow, making it sturdier and less-prone to collapse. The innovation does not stop there. Most of his works are then given other layers, usually with amate (a bark paper whose history goes back at least as far as the Aztecs) and often with leather and even metals.
Taking his own road has had its benefits as well. He has a permanent exhibition of his palm and other masks at the Museo de las Culturas Populares in Durango and has had a number of exhibitions of his work, most recently at the Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura in the city of Durango.
The maestro can be contacted via his cell phone at 618 134 5683. He does not have a web presence.