Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tonala folk art Part 1: making paper mache

Paper mache toucan rests quietly as its paint dries. Carole and I recently took a tour of several folk art workshops of Tonala, the craft manufacturing center of Guadalajara. Charter Club Tours of Ajijic conducted the tour and, as usual, did a fine job. Their guide, Rosie, is outgoing and well-informed and the tour was worth every penny of the fee. For further information on Charter Club tours, click here.

The colorful toucan above was made in one of the paper mache workshops in Tonala. We also visited a glass-blowing factory and the workshop of the master potter of Tonala, a modest man whose expertise is held in reverence by potters far and wide. In this posting, I will show how the paper mache creations are made and some of the finished products. In two following postings, I will focus on glass-blowing and pottery. There are many more crafts than these, created at a mind boggling number of shops. For a map to Tonala and a walking tour guide of crafts workshops, click here.

Paper mache begins with creation of the basic shapes. The grey and rather ugly objects piled above are the forms which are used in various combinations to create the desired shapes. The Mexican art of paper mache manufacture goes far back into Mexican history, at least to the early days of Spanish colonization. Tonala itself has a long history and was the capital of a small kingdom which dominated the area. The name of the kingdom was Tonallan, which means "the place of the rising sun". It was populated by indigenous people of the Coca and Tecuexes tribes. Spanish priests called Tonallan "the factory of paganism" because of the strong tradition of craftsmanship in the representation of their gods, particularly the sun god. That tradition of craftsmanship continues unabated 500 years later.

Butterfly takes shape, not from a cocoon, but from a paper mache form. A worker here cuts away excess material from the shape which will eventually become a brilliant butterfly. The factory, in back of the storefront showroom, was simply a large open room with scattered tables where the workers, in stages, created an amazing menagerie of brilliantly colored animals.

The flaming face of the sun. Using recycled newspaper, a worker further cuts and shapes this representation of the sun with a human face. After 500 years, the sun is still a popular figure for paper mache makers as it was for their forebears at the time of the Conquest.

Parrot spreads his wings for the worker. Pasting additional layers of newspaper strips on this parrot's wings strengthens them.

Parrot gets his colorful feathers in this step of the process. With great patience and an extremely steady hand, this worker gives the parrot the finely detailed features and extravagant colors that are so striking in the artwork as well as in life.

A tiger dries while waiting for the painting process. This fellow appeared almost ready to pounce, but lacked his vivid stripes. The next step after application of the recycled newspaper strips and final shaping is a coating of grey material which becomes the base for the paint. The paint is applied in two steps, first the base of orange, then the stripes.

"Tiger, tiger, burning bright... in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?" The poem by William Blake could well apply to this ferocious-looking and nearly full-sized creature. Just what you'd want to encounter in your living room while stumbling around in the middle of the night investigating strange noises.

Parrots perch in foliage. Looking almost as they would in the southern jungles of Mexico, these parrots wait for a new home. The show room of the factory resembled a still-life zoo.

Toucans dry after their final coat of paint. The life-like expressions and postures of the animals represented in the showrooms are very striking and show fine craftsmanship.

Peacock seems to hear the call of its mate. The peacocks came in a variety of postures and were some of the most colorful and finely decorated animals displayed.

Gazelle meditates restfully on a dais in the showroom. The factory created and displayed animals from all over the Americas, Africa, and India. Interestingly, there were very few representations of human figures, except for a Christmas creche scene.

This completes my posting on the paper mache factory of Tonala. I hope you have enjoyed it and will also enjoy my next two on glass-blowing and traditional pottery making.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Amazing art!! and with newspaper all of them?

  2. Lala- Yes, I only saw newspaper used while I was there, although they may have used other materials at other times. Glad you liked it! Jim

  3. Your blogs are facsinating! I just today stumbled on them. We are fairly new to lakeside and you kindly provide lots of great info on what to see and do. One thing I am having trouble getting a straight answer on: we would love to purchase a nice set of Mexican dishes....plates, cups/saucers, etc. We have been told not to buy anything that says "Pueblo" because they are not glazed, therefore, not safe to eat on. We got this information from a salesperson in Tlaquepacque, and we are not sure if she wanted to sell us what she had (no point of reference to know if the price was fair) or what. We were also told that sets are made in Tonala....wouldn't the prices be better at the source? than say, in Tlaqu.? You seem to be knowledgable regarding where you can find things, so thought maybe you could give us an inbiased opinion. Thanks for what you do and your beautiful photography. *I am also interested in photograpy, just purchased a Canon Rebel which I love. Do you know if there is a photog. group lakeside? Would love to join one and maybe learn something and go on outings.
    Thanks again,
    Linda Klein

  4. These are beautiful. We need to understand what Paper can create. I'd like you to post more about paper based items. Thank you. I'm not sure how I found this blog, but I'm glad.

  5. mr jim very thanks

    gud wishes
    shiraz from India

  6. Amazing... i loved this art...i would also love to try doing one..
    Is this art done by soaking the newspapers in water and giving them shapes n then colouring them?
    could you please tell mi the process of doing this?


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