Mexico’s creative traditional folk art is a true celebration of rich color and vibrant beauty. Each of Mexico’s 32 states offers unique talented artists producing a seemingly limitless collection of stunning and whimsical hand crafted art. Mexican culture and pride are soulfully expressed in “Arte Popular”.

Skills have passed from generation to generation for over 2000 years using techniques, progressing and changing with time, from pre to post Hispanic periods. Early influences included: common day to day community life, nature, religious worship; superstition and mystic folk lore, war and catastrophe.

Early Indigenous folk artists used intense colors derived from natural substances such as: plants, fruits and vegetables, crushed and ground minerals, insects, sea shells, charcoal, and lime.

The conquest of the new world introduced and expressed a new movement of colonial folk art, depicting Catholic religion and Spanish rule. Popular themes were often painted on tin, in the form of Retablos and Ex-votos, prayers to the Virgin de Guadalupe and other patron saints, for help or thanks. They were left in churches, now a serious collectors’ dream to find an original. Arte Popular artists have started a new movement of these objects, still painted on tin, with oil or acrylic paint.

In the colonial period Day of the Dead was celebrated as the Catholic holiday, originally Old Souls Day, and this still is one of the most important celebrated holidays in Mexico. Lovely high fired brightly colored ceramic and paper mache Catrinas (Female Skeletons) are still used to decorate and pay homage to ancestral relatives and loved ones. The most spectacular Catrinas are created in the tiny villages of the state of Michoacán.

The colonial period introduced the production of the intricately hand painted Talavera and Majolica tiles and ceramic to the Indigenous artists. The tiles and ceramics were in every home of the working and noble classes. Puebla and Guanajuato states produce the finest to date, in the original Spanish patterns.

The revolution brought other influences into folk art; there, often images were illustrated in black and white or sepia photos. This is the period of Jose Guadalupe Posada, Mexico’s most famous graphic artist, an engraver and illustrator, who was most renowned for his satirical Calaveras images, the skeletons, now classic themes in Mexican folk art.

Barro is produced from the clay made from the rich red soil of central Mexico; it is by far the most popular form of folk art. It is decorative and functional, from dishes to chimeneas (coal pots for cooking). These ceramics come in every shape and color, and also popular is the unfinished natural rich terracotta color.

Shadow Boxes are a three dimensional form of folk art displaying a scene. A glass covered deep framed box complete with paper flowers, Milagros, lace, paint, miniature objects and figurines make a complete little theatre stage come to life.

Carved wood, from furniture to masks, is abundant from every part of Mexico. Equipale furniture assembled from treated dyed pig skin, Rosewood, jute and palm fronds are still handmade the pre-Colombian method today in the mountain villages of central Mexico. Carved wooden masks portray the devil, mermaids, jaguars and angels, and are regularly used in religious and cultural dances. The photo is of a tropical hardwood carving of the Virgin of Health, from the lake district of Michoacán. She is painted with oil paint and finished with gold and silver leaf. The final coating of beeswax gives her a lovely patina! Available at Alma Mexicana (address below).

Frida Kahlo is a Mexican icon and a major influence of subject matter in Mexican folk art. Her work and image is copied in every medium. She remains the most popular woman today for artists, especially when adorned in her lavish native costumes, vivid head dresses, and jewelry. She is far more popular in folk art than her husband Diego Rivero.

Blown glass is called “Vidrio Soplado”. It is found all over the central region of Mexico. Workshops are hot and uncomfortable; this is where the creative genius happens. Blown glass comes in every shape, size and color of the rainbow. Glasses, bowls, bottles, vases, plates, pitchers, and decorative items are fashioned with the individual characteristics of air bubbles, often present in the final product. Each piece is made by hand & the breath of the artist.

Textiles are an important part of folk art. Brilliant wool carpets woven in Oaxaca, hand dyed with natural colors in pre-Hispanic designs, are found in the local artisan mercados. Huipils are beautiful festive native dresses with meticulously detailed embroidery, the very best examples found in Yucatán, Michoacán, and Oaxaca. Intricate lace tablecloths made from bleached cactus fibers are produced in central Mexico. Loomed and hand woven bedspreads, tablecloths, place mats and curtains come from central Mexico in dazzling color combinations and patterns. Chiapas women embroider the most fascinating whimsical designs in all of Mexico. Their textiles include bags, clothing, pillowcases, and blankets; they are inspired by nature, often a design telling a story.

Silver and gold is why the Spanish conquered Mexico. Jewelry making goes back to pre-Hispanic time, and Spain brought Filigree design to Mexico. Taxco, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Cuernavaca are Mexico’s jewelry cities. Folk art artists create designs with pre-Colombian geometrics, animals, flowers, mermaids, religious symbols & lucky charms, usually in silver, mixed with Chiapas amber, fresh water pearls, turquoise, red coral and semi-precious stones. Folk artists also use beads made from shells, seeds, coconut, metal Milagros, nickel, and glass in their work.

Do yourself a favor, own a piece of Mexican folk art, or better yet, let it own you!

Text by Claudette Flury

Photo by Pepe Molina
[email protected]

Where to buy Mexican folk art in Mérida:

Artesanaria, Calle 60 #480 x 55, Centro.

Casa de Artesanías Mercado, Calle 61-A x 60, Centro.

Casa de las Artesanías de Yucatán, Calle 63 # 503ª x 64 y 66, Centro.

El Estudio, Paseo de Montejo No. 486 x 41 y 43, Centro

Galería Tataya, Calle 60 No. 409 x 47 y 45, Centro.

Hotel MedioMundo Gift Shop, Calle 55 # 533 x 64 y 66, Centro.

Plaza Americana, Fiesta Americana Hotel, Calle 56ª # 451 x Av. Colón y Cupules.

100% Mexico, Hotel Casa San Angel, Paseo de Montejo x Calle 49, Centro.

Where to buy Mexican folk art in Izamal:

Hecho a Mano, Calle 31 No. 308 “La Casona” facing Parque 5 de Mayo.

Must-see Mexican folk art museums:

Casa de los Venados, Calle 40 x 41, Valladolid.

Casa Montejo, Calle 63 x 62 y 60, Mérida.

Centro Cultural y Artesanal, main plaza, Izamal.

Museo de Arte Popular, Calle 50A x 57, Mérida.

Mexico’s creative traditional folk art is a true celebration of rich color and vibrant beauty.

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