So what exactly are alebrijes (ali-bree-heez)?
Alebrijes are hand carved and hand painted wooden animals that are created by families in small towns outside the city of Oaxaca. The three largest towns are: Arrazola, San Martin Tilcajete, and La Union Tejalapan. Each town has its own carving and painting style that differs from the others, which I will highlight in future blog posts.
But in general, you may ask: how are alebrijes made? What is the process?
It all begins with a piece of wood. Copal wood is most commonly used however other types of wood are also selected, in particular Jacaranda branches. The artisans select a fresh piece of wood that has recently been cut and look for inspiration in the wood – the curvature of the branch, the grain of the wood, the texture of the bark. From these details they create an animal or an imaginary figure. For example, here is a carving of a horse with the tail of a beaver, the hind legs of a jaguar, the scales of a lizard, and the wings of a dragon.
When making alebrijes, only one’s creativity limits what can be done!
After deciding on the piece of wood and the animal that will created, carving begins. Usually the men in the family carve and the women paint. The men start by using a large machete to make the rough cuts and then refine the creation using small knives (usually like the kind one would find in their kitchen).
Remarkably, no power tools are used in the creation of alebrijes! All of the carving is done by hand. It is a very time intensive process that requires the utmost skill and attention.
After the piece is carved, it is dried in the sun for a few days or a few weeks depending on the size of the piece. When it dries, cracks form in the wood that are mended using a paste made of glue and wood chips preserved from the carving process. The whole piece is sanded extensively (by hand, no power tools are used) before the painting can begin!
Painting can be carried out with acrylic paint or aniline dyes, which are organic compounds made from plants, bugs, and minerals – but acrylic paint is most commonly used. Painting can takes days to weeks depending on the size of the piece and the intricacy of the design.
Alebrijes are judged by the quality of both the carving and the painting. The carving should be completely smooth without any cracks or rough spots. The painting should be perfect without any smudges or drips and the details must be sharp and crisp. Getting both elements absolutely perfect is very difficult and requires years of practice.
Three Dreaming Rabbits will only stock alebrijes of the highest quality and we will only work with artisans whose work consistently exhibits the highest levels of carving and painting. We will search for and display work from up-and-coming artisans who are just making their name in the trade as well as showcasing established artisans. Either way, all our customers can rest assured that when they order a piece from Three Dreaming Rabbits it will be as close to perfection as possible.
Three Dreaming Rabbits is a Mexico City based project devoted to alebrijes, hand carved and hand painted wooden animals created by artisans in small towns outside the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Three Dreaming Rabbits features an online gallery and unique bespoke services so everyone can search for and obtain their perfect alebrije.
Three Dreaming Rabbits… what do you dream of?