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:

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.




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