LA UNION TEJALAPAN
This is how it all started. A farmer takes refuge from the mid day sun underneath a shady copal tree at the edge of his field. With a knife he starts to whittle a branch and soon forms an animal or something else. One of the last remaining traditional artist villages and by far the most scenic left in Oaxaca today is La Union. Even with improved bridges and roadways in the last several years the village is still far removed.
Residing at the end of a chain of three villages La Union is eclipsed and somewhat hidden. You really have to know what and who you are looking for to reach it.
Unlike the other villages clustered with Figures de Madera signs or the massive Vegas-esque sized sign San Martin was given to by the state. La Union shows no evidence it contains some of the art forms most brilliant and inventive carvers and painters.
Although few in number they convey more style than the legions of alebrije makers in other locations. Here by age old tradition one artist and only one artist carves the wood and then paints the piece to bring out the personality of the design.
These artists truly have the beauty of sprawling greenery and forested mountains to inspire them in their sparsely populated locale. Finding the artist requires several modes of transportation. Cars only go so far and to go further requires the help of small scooter taxi cars driven by ambitious teens looking to earn small change.
These teens make a living inside villages ferrying weary walkers taking groceries home from the market. As fun as any go kart ride but the vision of tipping over persists on these rustic mountain roads.
Eventually you find yourself on foot walking on footpaths through maize fields and the occasional cow staring at you. And a UFO glancing past in the top left? Perhaps flying saucers are powered by Oaxacan string cheese.
The preferred method of painting in La Union is aniline but the artists are now incorporating more acrylic into their compositions. Probably the most eccentrically inspired artist here would be Avelino Perez. Carving and painting musical mariachis of every kind. Pumpkin headed priests and diabolic mermaids. Imagination, humor, and whimsy abound in his many creations.
Deep in a hidden hollow and along a dusty road we find the studio of Raynaldo Santiago. A maker of fine animals and large carnival pieces. Giraffes and lions are made with a playful purity mostly forgotten in other villages. It's a real treat to view his finished pieces.
The studio of Gabino Reyes is only focused on a few yet to be completed special orders. Animals with the Virgin of Guadalupe enshrined within are his focus these days. Using exotic wood he finds near the river his pieces have a standout look and feel to them. A slow and steadfast worker Gabino only does a dozen pieces a year! His works are a rarity to say the least.
Gabino sent us an amazing mermaid seven months later and it turned out quite fantastic. Her face resembles a friend of ours. This piece went to a collector a few days after we received it but not after we got a really good photo of it.
The village of La Union Tejalapan on the way towards the volcanic city of Puebla is a really far stretch to find some wondrous carving compositions with timeless appeal. Although we thought we got lost several times it was well worth the trek. Inspiring rustic landscape few other villages can compare.