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Oaxacan Wood Carvings

The state of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-Haw-ka) in Southern Mexico is a place of contradictions. Tiny villages of mud huts and dirt roads are bounded by mountains and seated in poverty. Yet from this dusty, hardscrabble life spring fanciful creations painted in flamboyant colors.

From mundane tools, carvers work magic. All carvers use wood from the copalillo tree, a small-leafed hardwood. The work begins with machetes and kitchen or pocket knives, the carver whittling perhaps as he tends his sheep and goats. Once carved and sanded, the piece is handpainted with acrylic paints, using human hair paintbrushes, down to a single strand of details. The final touch might be hair snipped from the carver’s goats or pigs or donkeys and glued as whiskers to a tiger or flowing hair on an angel. It can take up to a week to complete a figure.

Figures run the gamut from the mundane to the magical: farm animals to unicorns, fiesta musicians to frogs playing saxophones, maidens to mermaids. Inspiration flows from the village life and picture books, the imagination and superstition. Witches and angels inhabit the Oaxacan world. As do Nahuals, people who shapeshift into animals at night.

Some say the exuberant wood carvings spring from deep creative heritage or from land rich in superstition. Maybe the optimism was fate: born in the name Oaxaca itself. It’s a Zapotec word that means “land of the guaje,” a big broad tree with ruddy red pods and bright orange flowers. Beauty, defiant in the face of harsh reality. Artistic endeavors affirming life