Like so many foreigners, Leigh Ann Thelmadatter came to Mexico to spend a couple of years and never left. Teaching English paid the bills and supported an obsession with traveling throughout Mexico to learn about its culture, particularly its folk art. Her “apprenticeship” came in the form of writing Wikipedia articles, then a blog called Creative Hands of Mexico, which lasted for 5 years (until the pandemic).
Both projects have brought home the severe lack of documentation of Mexico’s handcrafts, especially the more regional and innovative ones. Fortunately, the blog led to a column of the same name in the Vallarta Tribune. Since 2019, she has been writing regularly about cultural topics in Mexico News Daily, which is now working on a series of Mexican artisan profiles. She published Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste, and Fiesta with Schiffer in 2019 and currently works on two more books. One on cloth dolls in Mexico and one about foreign artists who live in the country. The first is to give credit to the housewives whose creative talents and economic contributions are often overlooked. The second is an outgrowth of many years of contact with Mexico’s fine arts community.
The work on Creative Hands led her to learn about Mexico’s highly developed but almost completely unknown paper mache crafts, collectively called cartonería. They are figures made almost exclusively for the many festivals on Mexico’s calendar. The best known of these is the piñata, but also include effigies of Judas Iscariot for Holy Saturday, skeletal figures for Day of the Dead, and more.
In the past 20 years or so, modern cartonería artists have been looking to push the craft as a true “folk art,” not only creating pieces that will be used for the festival, then destroyed/thrown away but as collectors’ items.
The book begins with a definition of cartonería and its history in Mexico, themselves somewhat controversial as cartonería fulfills many, but not all, of the country’s definitions of “traditional handcraft.” The following chapters profile important figures such as Pedro Linares and the Lemus family, traditional items made with the technique (and how they are used), modern masters, and what the present and future hold for the craft.