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Oaxacan wood carvings, better known as alebrijes, have become one of the most popular art forms in Mexico. Pedro Linares, a skilled figurine maker and friend of Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera, was the first person to begin making alebrijes which were a product of his own imagination. He dreamt about fantastic imaginary and colorful animals in his dreams which all repeated one word over and over. That word was "alebrije." Ever since then, Pedro and his family began creating creatures out of paper mache and meticulously hand-painted each one with intricate designs and patterns.
While the traditional method of making alebrijes is still in practice, the more common and sought after alebrijes are the ones made of wood, specifically copal wood. Artisans in Oaxaca had already been creating wood sculptures of animals and other types of figures for centuries when they learned about alebrijes. They adopted the art form and brought it to the popularity it has to this day.
Artisans choose to work with copal wood because it is easier to carve and shape which enables them to create much more detailed pieces. The people of the town of San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola in Oaxaca Mexico have a deep respect for mother earth and never kill trees for the sake of creating alebrijes. The wood used is sourced from tree branches and in an effort to prevent the copal tree population from declining, many artisans also plant copal trees in the fields where they reside.
Nowadays there are several talented artists in Oaxaca who make sculptures out of copal wood and decorate them with bright colored paint to create beautiful works of art sought after all around the world. Many of the artisans work alongside other family members who specialize in different parts of the process. Most of the work is split among carving, sanding, and painting with several months being required for the entire process in order to allow the moist wood to fully dry prior to painting. If any cracks result in the drying process, which usually is the case, they are filled with a wood filler to prevent any further splitting in the wood and to give a uniform and smooth look to the sculpture. After this is done the piece is ready for painting!
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