Dispatch from Mexico: Maestro Olegarío

The following is the second of two guest posts by Kevin McCloskey from Oaxaca, Mexico. All photos by Kevin McCloskey.

Oaxaca, Mexico. When I was introduced to Olegarío Hernández I knew I’d seen him before. In his straw sombrero, white homespun cotton shirt and pants, and rough huarache sandals he might have stepped out of a Diego Rivera mural. Five years ago I saw him selling earrings in the street. Today he is a printmaker on the rise.

Portrait of Oligario

His lithograph, Tiatytiti, an image of racing iguanas, won a prize in the recent Takeda Biennial and hung in the Museum of Oaxacan Painters. In January 2013 he will have a one-man exhibition at Benito Juarez University. There is talk of an illustrated catalog for his university exhibition, a high honor in this part of the world.

Olegarío grew up in Pinotepa de Don Luis, a remote village near the Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca. When there was meat on the table, it was iguana or armadillo. He didn’t learn to speak Spanish until he was 20 years old; his mother tongue is Mixtec. His background is not so unusual. Oaxaca remains one of Mexico’s most ethnically diverse regions. Nearly a quarter of the state’s population is monolingual in an indigenous Pre-hispanic language.

Iguanas, detail, litho by Oligario.

Olegarío’s mother was a gifted weaver. They had no paper in the house. He remembers learning to draw on jicaras, calabash gourds. His grandfather made soup bowls from jicaras. Traditionally, jicaras are decorated with geometric designs or zoomorphic shapes. Oligarío kept the family art form alive, and has taken the designs to another level, carving fantastic and intricate visions of tropical animals. It is as if M.C Escher was reincarnated in the rainforest. Olegarío carves elaborate bowls, earrings, pendants, and sometimes finds time to carve an entire gourd. One of his finest jicara spheres, every inch adorned with birds and beasts, was purchased for the permanent craft collection of the Banamex Foundation.

Bowl by Oligario

43 years old, Oligarío has been carving jicaras for 30 years. It is not an easy way to survive. He might work an entire week on a large jicara, then ask for 1000 pesos, around $75. Tourists and local shopkeepers counteroffer with a tiny fraction of his asking price. Sometimes, to feed his family, he has been forced to sell his work at demeaning prices.

Olegarío, however, is quick to thank good people who have helped him on his path. In his village, the parish priest, Padre Glyn Jemmott, bought carved jicaras at a fair price to give as gifts to donors to the mission. Olegarío also sings the praises of his printmaking mentor, Abraham Torres, of Taller Bambu. Maestro Abraham guided him in the transition to lithography. “I can sell a print for 1000 pesos and still have the stone to print a hundred more,” says Oligario, smiling at the thought.

Abraham Torres of Taller Bambu printing an image by Cristina Cardenas. He says, “Never slap the litho stone; treat it like a lover.” His studio, founded in 2003, is open to visiting artists.

3 Maestros: Oligario Hernadez, Cesar Chavez and Abraham Torres at Taller Bambu.

Maestro Abraham’s studio specializes in lithography. He taught Oligarío a printing method that approximates working on Jicaras that he calls false mezzotint or “manera negro.” The litho stone is covered with a thin layer of black paint. Olegarío carves through the paint to reveal the polished stone. He uses his own homemade tools that he originally developed for jicara carving. He files matt knife blades and then fits the custom cut steel into carved wood or bone handles. Olegarío admits he still needs practice drawing on the flat plane of the litho stone; he is so accustomed to drawing on a convex surface. In either case, he says, “it is all in the wrist.”

Sphere at the Centro Cultural San Pablo, Oaxaca, purchased by Banamex Foundation.

Chastast, Mixtec for spirits, litho by Oligario.

Oligario’s handmade tools.

Olegarío is a simple hardworking man, but he is not naïve. He studied fine arts for a time at the University of Guadalajara, before returning to Oaxaca. Mexican newspapers have already written features about the homespun Indio’s rise from artisan to artist. He has saved enough to build a small house for his family in his village near the coast. Several times a year he takes the 8-hour bus ride into the city of Oaxaca. He brings a bag of carved jicaras with him. Sometimes he still sells earrings in the street. He spends his good days working in Taller Bambu and evenings going to gallery openings.

In Oaxaca, one often hears the honorific Maestro (Maestra for females) used to address teachers, as well as accomplished writers, musicians and artists. I watched Olegarío work the room at gallery opening for the uber-hip tattooist and muralist Dr. Lakra, perhaps Oaxaca’s hottest artist of the moment. Olegarío was exchanging his cell phone number with important artists and collectors. Each time he was addressed as “Maestro Olegarío” his eyes lit up. Maestro Olegarío is going to have a very good year.

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