This article is from the November 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
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LAS JOYAS DE MEXICO

The Amazing Art of Popotilla

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com

A little departure this time, readers. Instead of telling you about a magical place in Mexico, I’m going to digress a little and instead describe and show you one of the most incredible of Mexico’s folk art mediums, that of popotilla. Also known as straw painting or straw mosaic, this art form is one of Mexico’s most ancient, generally believed to date back to pre-Hispanic times. The origin of mosaicos de popote isn’t clear – some anthropologists believe the roots are Eastern, some feel there are European beginnings. I can’t speak to either theory directly as none of these ancient pieces survives, but there are a few pieces in existence that date from the mid-1800’s and many more from the early 1900’s. There was a period in the latter half of the 1900’s (after World War II) when business declined and the form pretty much died out, but thankfully – while design styles have changed a great deal – the harvesting and techniques remain much the same, and the medium is enjoying a bit of a comeback today.  

Which isn’t to say you can find it anywhere, because you can’t. I understand from Mexican friends and from my own explorations that popoteros are pretty much confined to southern and central Mexico, and to further complicate the export of these pieces, they are rarely distributed to any of the border towns or tourist destinations, nor are they to be found in the northwest of Mexico or western US anywhere. The artists are few and the quality highly varied, but in a small way, the form is experiencing a revival, which absolutely thrills me to death. 

The straw used in these works is taken from chaff growing wild in the plain areas of Mexico and is cleaned and acid-bathed to improve the absorption of the dyes used to color it by straw vendors, who then supply it to popoteros. The dyes were originally vegetal (i.e., blue from lupin flowers, red from cochineal, green from sargo brush, pink from sumac berries, etc.), but as the number of artists increased, aniline dyes were introduced and became popular for their increased varieties of color. It is my guess that today, most popoteros are using aniline dyes exclusively, as newer pieces appear less apt to fade.  

The design was and is today initially sketched in pencil on either cardboard or plywood, and most recently, on MDF; a thin coating of beeswax is then applied as evenly as possible on top of the sketch.. The popotero then gently lays his piece of straw across the surface of the piece and cuts it within the design lines with a tool resembling an X-acto knife. Originally, the completed pieces were sealed with egg whites, sugar and water, but eventually varnish and most recently enamel finish have succeeded the natural formula, which in time did little to hold the straw in place.  

As in many other art forms in Mexico, there were specific families working in popotilla who became famous for their work. Foremost of these was the Olay family of the Coyocan area of Mexico City, whose pieces were unsurpassed for their subject matter, design and technique. Beginning with Gabriel Olay in the 1850’s and continuing for five generations to the present, this family was most influential in the evolution of the craft, both by their own family members as well as several of their trained workers who went on to open their own shops. Unfortunately, only Raul and Luis Olay continue to work today – both are elderly and produce on a very limited basis. Other notable artists involved in the vintage craft included H. Mendoza, Piro Hernandez and F. Ariza, most of whom worked in the early to mid-1900’s.  

The antique motifs in popotilla were intricate landscapes, churches, Mexican historical landmarks, images of Christ, folklore dances, religious and village scenes, and indigenous portraits. Today, the images are of a more contemporary Mexico and in some cases, unfortunately seem designed entirely for indiscriminate tourist consumption. There are, however, some interesting experiments taking place. I recently acquired in Puebla a straw mosaic done in the center of a terra cotta plate, and it is common to find little trinket boxes decorated with straw mosaics on the top and sides. As well, it has become fairly common to do designs on crosses, both wood and cardboard, although the quality of these varies widely. Some are done on carefully composed and routed wooden crosses; others are simple small designs on cardboard cutouts.  While no two designs are ever exactly alike, some that have proved popular are remarkably similar and thus easy and quick to produce.  

While it might initially take some time to distinguish an antique or vintage work from a contemporary piece, there are several prominent indications. The most obvious is the background surface – anything done on MDF has to have been done within the last couple of years. (Matte board and plywood are somewhat less easily identifiable, but stain shades and fading are often clues.) The older pieces are generally done in natural colors which in most cases have faded to neutral straw shades with hints of their original colors. They also generally have highly detailed borders around the designs and in the case of the Olay family, are most often signed with distinct letters and symbols. Some are framed and can be age-identified by the paper on the back, or by price tags and shop stamps. (i.e., without zip codes, five-number phone numbers, prices before the revision of the peso system). Most important in these older pieces is the quality of the technique – many tiny pieces of straw arranged in amazing detail. For the most part, these pieces are fairly small, in the range of 4”x 6”, and in some cases, even smaller. 

Modern pieces seem in most cases to encompass much less detail, very strong colors, and repetitive subject matter. Most common today are village scenes with people depicted from the rear, houses, cactus, mountains, pyramids, palm trees and a great deal of flat background in the form of fields, water or sunsets. There are, however, a few popoteros working today who are capable of great artistry. One group I have found working in Tlaxcala (outside Mexico City) is attempting to vary the subject matter from commonplace scenery to more interesting depictions of Mexican life, often in fairly large pieces – 8”x10” and 11”x14”. Unfortunately, these popoteros seem uninterested in signing their pieces as they consider them to be a group effort. Another contemporary artist is the multi-talented Arturo Hernandez of Puerto Vallarta (on the mid-Pacific coast). Sr. Hernandez is turning out many small commonplace, repetitive, inexpensive pieces for the tourist trade, but he also occasionally produces a real work of art very much in the mode of vintage work. I understand his ethic – only the most serious collectors (of which there are few) are willing to pay for the time, effort and talent required to create the most technically excellent work, while parvenus and tourists will spend a little here and there for souvenirs – but I can’t help wishing he would concentrate more on the works of art. I have a most remarkable piece by Sr. Hernandez that everyone who sees it believes to be very old that I in fact purchased off the street in the early 90’s for only $12. It depicts the cathedral and gardens in the little town of San Juan del Rio (just north of Mexico City on the way to San Miguel de Allende). I am told that I could get serious money for it today on eBay, which fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it) seems to be the most ready source nationwide for finding vintage popotilla today. Contemporary pieces can be found in La Cuidadela Market in Mexico City, El Parian Market in Puebla, the studio of Arturo Hernandez in Puerto Vallarta, and very rarely, here and there on the street, as well as occasionally on eBay. However, one should be careful on eBay – many vendors selling there are uninformed and pass off every piece they find as vintage and valuable when in truth, they were purchased yesterday for $4 in Mexico. 

The creation of straw mosaic takes a very long time, requires great patience and an incredibly steady hand, and is perhaps one of Mexico’s most meticulous popular arts. The very intricate designs of the past took as much as two hours per square inch to create; the less detailed designs of today for the most part use larger and longer pieces of straw and less shaded coloring, thus taking less time and skill. However, there are of course some remarkable exceptions which are well worth the search and price, which still isn’t much. The antique Olay pieces can sell for as much as $400 or $500 each, but most modern work can still be had for very little money. Look around next time you go to Mexico, or even (God help us all) take a cruise through eBay under Mexican Folk Art. This rare and marvelous art form is at best incredible and amazing, and at worst, still interesting to look at. I promise.

A Note from Lynne Doyle 

Since the publication of my Las Joyas column entitled “The Amazing Art of Popotila,” in November 2004, I have found a descendant of the famed Olay family who is today producing some very impressive examples of this rare art form, although his work is different from his ancestors – in execution, if not in theme. He is Guillermo Olay, son of Gabriel Olay, grandson of Petra, and great grandson of Gabriel #2. He is about 45 years old and lives and works in the Michoacan village of Tlapujahua. Guillermo uses many of the themes created by his famous ancestors, such as folkloric dances, portraits of traditional Mexican people, etc., but his style is singular, both from his forebears and from other contemporary artists. Rather than use long pieces of straw to create his images, he uses very short pieces of graded coloration to establish depth and texture. His work is extraordinary, but in keeping with his celebrated heritage, the cost of his creations is substantial.

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