ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This vertical carousel spins with cultural characters bringing life to the folk dances of Mexico.
Josué Castro and his wife Elisa Ayala add movement and whimsy to children’s toys crafted from papier mâché. Mechanical engineer Castro designs the mechanisms, while Ayala’s nimble fingers sculpt and paint the figures, complete with traditional clothing from each Mexican state.
The couple’s wheel is up for bid at the curated International Folk Art Winter Auction previewing Saturday, Nov. 28, at folkartmarket.org. The online auction opens on Wednesday, Dec. 2, extending through Dec. 5.
Mexican artists use paper, water and wire to form cartonería figures used in yearly celebrations, especially for the burning of Judas during Holy Week. No less than the legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera collected cartonería.
Castro and Ayala continue this tradition by adding the spin of mechanics. Their handmade toys move with spirited personalities gleaned from Mexican folk tales.
It was Ayala who conjured the idea of making a wheel to cradle examples of national folk costumes and dances. She began taking papier mâché workshops four years ago.
“I was thinking of doing something that represents different traditional dances of Mexico,” she said in a telephone interview from Salamanca, Mexico. “I try to tell a story of them.”
She researched clothing and dance online, and by using local contacts. With a purist’s eye, she didn’t want to mix clothing styles she saw on the streets.
The embroidered shawl wrapping a “Huasteca” figure derives from northern Mexico. When the figures dry, Ayala meticulously paints them using acrylics. The Huastecs were the northernmost Mesoamerican group on the Gulf Coast.
“I make a wire (scaffolding) for the hands, for the legs,” she said. “The chest I cut out of cardboard. Then I cover it with paper that is wet with a natural paste.”
The tiny faces proved tough in the beginning, she said.
“I think the hardest part is the place where the eyes are; the nose,” she said.
As the wheel turns, a deer’s head sprouts from a male figure shaking maracas.
“That dance is called the deer dance,” Ayala said. “That is a dance that is made for fertility. They dress as the deer and the other dancers try to catch him.”
A braided Frida Kahlo look-alike balances a pineapple on her shoulder.
“That is the pineapple dance,” Ayala said, “… one of the most popular dances in Oaxaca. It’s the Guelaguetza, the give-away party.”
Another chair swings a flute player from Papantla, Veracruz. The ceremony involves five participants who climb a 30-meter pole. Four of these tie ropes around their waists and wind the other end around the top of the pole in order to descend to the ground.
“It’s to ask for benefits from nature for the harvest like rain,” Ayala said.
The flirty figure dressed in pink hails from Jalisco.
“All the teachers teach you in school to dance it,” Ayala said. “I think I learned it three times in school. This is specifically to have fun. It is the home of the mariachi.”
The couple’s colorful sculptures also feature bustling fiestas, dinosaurs and bakeries complete with an apron-bedecked skeleton. Castro began making them nine years ago. Today the pair own a gallery and run online workshops.
“I’ve focused on these types of figures because it’s a way to get the interest of the people,” Ayala said. “Of course, they’re used to skeletons and piñatas, but when my husband started adding mechanics to these figures, they became much more interesting. People are connected to the piece by turning the knob and seeing the movement.”