Routes, not roots

With the skills I have learned, the legacy of stucco masters such as Serpotta and the Asam brothers is under no threat.


More valuable is the knowledge acquired by doing, the research prompted by the activity and the context of the residency.

Sara Ryu makes a pertinent point in her essay on the cane Christ of Telde:

“A term coined by the anthropologist James Clifford, “borderlands” are zones of passage characterized by their liminal existence between places of origin and destination. Their importance lies in understanding “routes rather than roots” as essential threads of human connectivity.”

It struck me that this could be a useful way forward in thinking about hybridity, the very nature of which is problematic.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to give a presentation about my residency at the Santa Monica Museum of Religious Art, where I had been taking my classes. In the presentation I proposed that caña de maíz sculpture is a truly hybrid technique.  It was wonderful to share my thoughts, pictures, art work and a few jokes with the museum staff, who are friendly and close-knit, like a family. Their insights, and those of the staff at Arquetopia, added a further dimension of meaning to what I had learned. Many avenues for future art work and research opened up in front of me. It was a great way to wrap up my residency experience.

A relaxed visit to the nearby town of Cholula with my now firm friend Elizabeth from Puebla was the icing on the cake.. Or rather, the alfeñique on the edificio of my adventures in Mexico.


Gazing out of the window of the airport bus, I saw stacks of maize canes piled high in the fields for miles around. I wondered at all the possible sculptures they could become.



Figuratively speaking

Some canes are bones, others are flesh.. Still others are innards, muscle, the leather of a boot.

Papel amate, handmade paper from the fibres of the fig tree, is soaked and applied with rabbit glue; this becomes skin and when bunched up, fat.. When stretched, it is fascia, tendons, capillaries.

A thickened gesso is applied to the scored, dampened and glue-primed surface. This may be built up, cut back and sanded into shape. Once dried, it is rock hard and brilliant white. When buffed, it becomes wonderfully smooth.


This is the surface onto which pigments are applied. Some sculptures were polychromed with oil paint, others with egg tempera. I learned how to make this paint using natural pigment, egg yolk and water.

The result is a luminous colour with a noticeably different texture to oil or acrylic paint. The premise of ‘natural y natural’ was further reinforced here, as Barbara explained about the compatibility of the paint, gesso and caña structure.

The Sacred Plant

Having been working with maize – and eating a lot of it too – it seemed pertinent to find out more about it. Its importance in Mexican life is underlined not only by its ubiquity but also in the historic art and displays I had seen at the Museo Antropologia in Mexico City.

This Huffington Post article contained the surprising and troubling fact that around a third of Mexico’s maize is now imported from the U.S:

I began to really see the importance of knowing where your food comes from and why. It’s not just about the economy, politics and power – it’s about identity and cultural heritage, the human relationship with the earth.

The same can be said for the facture of art. Both the technique and materials of caña de maíz sculpture are truly Mexican, and this to me means hybrid – not just ‘indigenous’ or ‘Hispanic’, or a convenient ‘half and half’ mix of the two – but a fascinating, complex and metamorphic living entity.

I quote again Sara Ryu’s piece on the cane Christ of Telde, Gran Canaria, as this seems to embody these ideas; this post is largely indebted to it.

“These Cristos were thus, like many colonial artifacts, the product of an interaction between Spanish and indigenous artists. As Amador has shown, while maize as an artistic medium was surely pre-Columbian, it now seems that a European technique of casting lightweight processional sculptures from pastes of wood and paper was imported to New Spain soon after the conquest and adapted to the new environment through the appropriation of a material indigenous to Mexico.”


Sculpted agony

“What (the public) saw was sport, intense and purifying; it was theatre…it was a festival of unwashed masses, of a populace that trembled as if taking the punches themselves”.

p.10, Espectacular de Lucha Libre, Fotografias de Lourdes Grobet.


You are inside the Arena, surrounded by the incessant clamour of snare drumming, horn blowing and cheerleading, peering intently through the chicken wire. Beer and snack vendors intermittently squeeze past, hawking their wares. What follows is a unique spectacle, not of aggression as expected, but of choreographed slapstick violence, which at the same time, comprises impressive feats of athleticism which can only be the result of intense and disciplined training.


I was lucky enough to catch a three vs. three match of women wrestlers, or luchadoras, on my visit to the Arena. This immediately erased any doubt in my mind as to what the subject of my sculptures would be. Having made sculptures of Thai boxers, directly inspired by my experiences in the ring, it seemed a fitting progression to do a Mexican version, especially having shed my own sweat inside the luchadores’ gym.

imageAs I continued to work with cañas de maíz, I became more adept at manipulating them. I began to bulk out basic armatures based on the dynamic poses of the strapping and ostentatious women I had been transfixed by at the arena.

Grobet’s text goes on to say, of lucha libre:

“Its expressions of agony are by necessity sculpted…violence acquires a singular dimension, not that of street fighters, nor the attitude of restless youths…but a deluge of punches and dislocated positions in which symbol devours reality”. (ibid)

These symbols, these metaphors for life and death, good and evil, so powerful in lucha libre (as in all combat sports), have strong resonances with religious sculpture. The medium of corn cane, with its historic  associations, seemed apt to portray these figures, playing out these narratives in the context of the secular and profane.




‘Frijoles’, I said decisively to Barbara. It means refried beans. We were mixing polvo de mármol grains with calidra slurry to make the first layer of stucco, and Barbara looked confused. Perhaps I had made a mistake with my Spanish? Then, the penny dropped and we began down the route of pure workshop understanding, where non-verbal communication and food metaphors are more useful than lengthy explanation.

We had begun work on a different type of stucco technique, that which was used to create the ornament and flourishes seen on the Casa del Alfeñique and other such buildings. Calidra, or cal, was harvested from the bottom of a vat, the water covering the mixture ensuring that it does not have contact with, and react with, the air. This slurry was then mixed with cal powder and polvo de mármol to create the spreadable granular paste, henceforth known as ‘frijoles’.

Tiles had been prepared, by soaking them in water and draining them. ‘Wet on wet’ and ‘natural y natural’ were our mantras as we worked, ensuring a strong bond, or ‘happy marriage’ between materials. The frijole mixture was spread firmly and evenly on the surface of the tiles, and left to set. Areas requiring more build up were scored to make them rough enough to receive the next layer of stucco with conviction.

During this session we also applied blanco de España (a mixture of talcum powder and rabbit glue) to the caña framework we had previously prepared. Shredded cane pulp was made damp, mixed with the blanco de España and applied firmly to the structure, to bulk out the form and create the requisite surface for the next layer of pure stucco.

Exiting the conservation studio through the beautiful ex-convent courtyard, I was reminded of what a fine place this was to work, the perfect setting in which to learn these historic techniques. I wondered silently about all the nuns who had walked there before me.


A Bunch of Lightweights

‘It is always easier to run away with a cornstalk paste god than with one made of stone’

So says this source on cane paste sculptures, and I am inclined to agree:

Click to access cornstalk.pdf

The material, once dried, is perfect for sculpture – light, strong and easy to manipulate. The technique of harvesting the cores of maize canes and binding them with natural glue is pre-Hispanic. It was used by the ancient purepechas people in Michoacan, South West Mexico to create the aforementioned effigies of their gods (ibid).

The Spanish invaders were delighted with the technique but less keen on the indigenous gods. They employed it henceforth to create Catholic figures, mainly Christs.

imageImage source: .

The lightness of the figures (around 4 kilograms for an almost life-size Christ)  made them easier to carry in street parades for religious festivals, and of course to display them inside churches.

My own efforts began to take shape once I had become familiar with the materials, made use of my own tools and gained inspiration from my experiences in Puebla.


Mass Production

My homework from Barbara was to make an armature from the canes, which we could begin to make a complete sculpture from. A delivery of canes arrived at the residency on Saturday morning from a nearby village.


That was my weekend spoken for: it was a job of work to sort, cut and strip the canes, dry out the cores and glue bundles together in readiness for the next step.




Body slam!


Yesterday morning I did boxing training again at Gym Puebla. We finished the session by trying out a few lucha libre rolls in the ring and acted out all the outrageous moves we saw the wrestlers doing on Monday night at the Arena.

They have various methods to increase the perception of impact, for example, slamming their arms down when thrown to make it sound like a heavier fall. Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends documentary on wrestlers came to mind, as it is absolutely no joke slamming your body onto the ring, let alone some of the other crazy athletic feats they do. Respect.

The coach at the gym does a number of amusing things, including pretending not to be tired (when lying in a pool of sweat in the centre of the ring) claiming he is the best coach in the world, and yelling ESO!!! every time you do something right, or make strong contact with the focus mitts.

If it wasn’t for my friend Elizabeth, who I met there on the first day I walked in, I probably would not be training there, and certainly not getting as much out of it, as she kindly translates for me as well as being a great training partner. I am very grateful to her, and to them, for making me feel at home in Puebla, as my training is the final piece of the puzzle for my experience here.


Las Iglesias

 No, not Enrique. I’ve nothing against him. Its just that I wouldn’t cross the world and spend hours on end beholding his magnificence, like I do with historic churches.image

You can’t walk for more than a block or two in Puebla without coming across one. I am drawn into all of them. Some are so spectacular, I immediately feel like walking out again, overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of ornament (the Rosario chapel at a Santo Domingo being the main culprit).


Some are more humble, but no less interesting and enchanting in their decor and design, their atmosphere, works of art and various devotional shrines and objects within.

Sometimes I have been lucky enough to catch a service: a seemingly traditional Mexican guitar accompaniment to soaring voices, the scent of copal infusing the space with a heady atmosphere which envelops you and lingers in the memory long after you have left.

Aside from the beautiful tiled and stuccoed exteriors, the first thing I noticed about Puebla’s churches was the extent of the gore on the Christ figures here, and his piteous pose as he bears the cross. The suffering is made so utterly, uncompromisingly and excessively real.


Limpid glass eyes and wigs, sometimes with rather fetching curls, contribute to this verisimilitude; low light glints off the ornately gilded glass vitrines.  A strong sense of the uncanny follows you around, the reverie occasionally interrupted by the sound of a coin landing inside a donation box, and barely discernible whispered prayers.


Caña imagine?

My classes began immediately on arrival in Puebla. I was whisked away from the residence to the Santa Monica Museum of Religious Art, on the northern edge of the central historic district, catching glimpses of the city on the way. My teacher, Barbara, is a conservator and stucco expert. She is also in a rock band and covered in fine tattoos, created by her husband.

Our first task was to strip some cañas de maíz (corn canes), to extract the soft, pulpy fibrous material inside. It’s Mother Nature’s polystyrene.

The canes must be dried out so that they can be cut and sanded easily. Then, they are attached together with rabbit glue to form blocks. Obviously polypropylene string would not have been available in the 17th / 18th centuries, but we used it here as it is less absorbent than natural fibre, and therefore easier to remove once the glue has set.

My homework was then to strip the remaining canes, extract the fibres and create bundles with which to work. I also had to prepare a batch of cane fibre shavings using a cheese grater. These will be combined with gesso and glue to bulk out the form later in the process.


Artist Lucy May is at Arquetopia in Puebla to learn traditional stucco techniques