Oaxacan Sculpture

By Stamatis, Nancy A. | School Arts, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Oaxacan Sculpture


Stamatis, Nancy A., School Arts


The Oaxacan Valley of southern Mexico has been called the Valley of Myth and Magic by many people. I certainly believe that the wooden carvings which are intricately painted with patterns of dots and dashes weave magic in my Art I classes.

Woodcarving is one of the most popular art forms among the Zapotec peoples who live in the Oaxacan Valley. The three main carving villages are Arrazola, La Union Tejalapan, and San Martin Tilcajete. The art form of today grew out of toy carvings and ceremonial masks, but was also an economic necessity. Farming within the Valley, the chief source of income for many years, could not survive and provide basic necessities during drought conditions.

Colorful Wood Sculptures

To begin my lesson, I show posters of Oaxacan wood carvings and share my own personal example which I bought on a trip to Mexico. I explain that colors are usually happy and bright with patterns applied in dots and dashes to a flat painted area. We examine and discuss how these sculptures were made usually with small, sharp carving knives in a `whittling' style. On the bottom of each sculpture is the artist's signature. It names the artist as well as his family, whose members might have helped create the sculpture. It is known that many Oaxacan woodcarvers produce carvings as a family project, often using services of brothers, sisters, or children to complete various stages of production.

The students then discuss ideas for their sculptures and decide on the subject matter. In the past, animal themes have been popular. Pictures of animals are then studied. Students notice body styles and specific details that make each animal unique. I explain that we will use the Oaxacan carvings as the basis for our sculptures, but instead of carving, we use precut shapes that require students' creativity and imagination.

Piece By Piece

Next comes the fun. I place random pieces of scrap wood on each table of the classroom. …

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