This article is from the October 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Las Joyas de Mexico

Magic in San Martin Tilcajete

Jacobo and Maria Angeles Ojeda

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  

From the time I was a child living in Cuernavaca, I have collected folk art. As a child, I had a child’s budget, so those early pieces in my collection were miniature pieces of copper, silver and pottery and small alebrijes, otherwise known as animalitos or painted wood carvings, from Oaxaca. In the early 50’s, on one of his wanderings through Mexico looking for artes populares, Nelson Rockefeller happened across Manuel Jimenez in the Oaxacan village of Arrazola, who was carving these little pieces as toys for his children. A stone mason working on the excavations at Monte Alban, as well as a part-time farmer, Señor Jimenez used to carve when it was raining and he was unable to work. At the time, the carvings were not painted or otherwise adorned except for occasionally a cornsilk tail on a horse, but Rockefeller saw something in Jimenez’s gift for depicting power and movement in his pieces and encouraged him to put more time into his craft. Now known as the father of Oaxacan woodcarving, Jimenez founded an entire movement which has culminated in one of the most versatile, innovative and popular art forms coming out of Mexico today. 

Hidden away in the farthest reaches of the village of San Martin Tilcajete (about half an hour east of Cd. Oaxaca) are two of the best of the second generation Oaxacan woodcarvers, Jacobo Angeles Ojeda, and his wife, Maria. My first introduction to these two dynamic young people was in the early 90’s at a Mexican art store in San Francisco. I found an intricately carved and painted bird that was, although small, a striking piece. Unfamiliar with the style, I turned it over to see if it was signed and was immediately struck by the fact that the signature included the names of both husband and wife, as well as the name of their village and the year the piece was made. At the time, this was unheard of – most carvings were still unsigned, and, while women in the families of carvers often significantly contributed to the family business either by painting or actually running the business end of things (as they do today), they were never acknowledged (still mostly the case today).   

I thought at the time that these guys must be young and evolved, or maybe just particularly savvy. At it happens, they are both. Jacobo is in his mid-thirties now and is considered to be one of the hottest carvers working today, and Maria – well, Maria is in a class by herself. Their home and studio can be found at Calle Olvido #9, the last road in the furthest corner of this dusty little village, but once you enter the gates, you can see tangible signs of their success. The house is spacious and beautiful, with separate workrooms, beautifully-lit display areas, and living space. Maria is the sister of master carvers Bili and Carlos Mendoza, who live nearby, and is a singularly gifted painter in her own right. Perhaps most importantly, however, she has managed to combine her life as a traditional Mexican wife and mother with an incredibly sharp business acumen. The first time I met her, I commented to her that I had been initially impressed with the inclusion of her name in the signatures on their pieces and she replied, with an arch look thrown over her shoulder, “Well, it wasn’t HIS idea!”

Since that time, we have become friendly. When I visit, they never fail to offer refreshments and ask after my family and other collector friends. If they aren’t busy, they are happy to sit down at the umbrella table on the patio and dish about other artists and the state of the folk art business. Their acumen continues to grow – they are represented on all of the higher-end Mexican Folk Art websites and their work can be found in just about every upscale art store in both Mexico and the southwestern US. Their newest innovation, adopted a year or so ago, is that one can email them directly and order specific pieces to be made and picked up at a later date. While they do take credit cards, they are not yet doing so electronically, and therefore are not shipping to the US. However, when you call or email them with an order, you can depend on its being ready and waiting when you arrive. They do speak some English, although they are still more comfortable conversing in Spanish.  

Of course, their prices reflect both their shrewdness and their exceptional talent, but if you are ever in the market for a truly remarkable example of this most Mexican of media, Jacobo and Maria are the duo to keep in mind. You won’t be sorry – it’s worth every penny. 

Examples of their work can be found on the websites, www.viva-Oaxaca.com, a unique site dedicated to selling the finest folk art from all over Mexico (run by a very neat guy with excellent taste named Phil Saviano), and www.OaxacanWoodcarving.com, a site dealing exclusively in Oaxacan carvings, as well as on many other Mexican folk art sites. The Angeles’ work can also be found in all of the best shops in downtown Oaxaca, but the best prices will be from Jacobo and Maria themselves. Their email address is Jacobo@tilcajete.org   Phone from the US is 01152 951 5 24 90 27.