The Wonderful Wooden Animals of Oaxaca

by Mildred Boyd

Michelangelo once modestly claimed that his only function was to free the statue that was imprisoned in every block of marble. Similarly, the craftsmen of Ocotlan, Oaxaca use the natural contours of ordinary scraps of wood to create animals, reptiles and birds in a fantastic array of shapes and colors. These are not made from single blocks, however, but legs, tails, ears and horns are separately shaped and attached with nails or pegs to the torso. From aardvarks to zebras, large or small, grimly realistic or whimsically amusing, they carve them all, including a number of delightful specimens Noah would never have recognized.

A visitor to this village will find workshop after workshop with shelves crammed with wooden menageries. If he shows the slightest interest, he will soon be mobbed by men, women and children from all over town eager to show off their masterpieces, all of them so enchanting they are almost impossible to resist.

The collection shown here is the result of several such visits (and lack of resistance) over a period of 25 years. Some early examples are crude, dyed in realistic colors with details painted in ink. Yet, however naive in execution, each has its own unique charm and personality. Gradually, as they were ‘discovered’ and gained a well-deserved popularity among connoisseurs of folk art, they have grown more sophisticated in style and finish until the most recent, though still recognizable as animals, are glossily enameled in dazzling colors and patterns Mother Nature never thought of.


These two little fellows, only four or five inches long, clearly demonstrate the evolution in style. Though, admittedly, the bright orange and pink armor of the earlier version is not exactly what the well-dressed armadillo is usually found wearing, the jeweled turquoise of the later one goes so far beyond the realm of nature’s probability it could almost be a new species. Though neither one would exactly blend into the landscape as the real animals do, each is obviously an armadillo and, in his own way, quite charming.


You’ve heard of blue tick hounds and red setters, of course? Well, they never looked exactly like this, although these are clearly dogs any knowledgeable Nimrod would be glad to take with him to the hunting field. The red one with the hang-dog look is obviously a scent hound and has found an exciting spoor to follow, while the slightly larger blue is a gaze hound that seems to be on the verge of pointing to the game. These fellows are about eight to ten inches long and both are in the earlier style.


Anyone to wishes to see a purple cow, or any other color for that matter, has only to visit Ocotlan, where the rainbow is the only limit. This ten inch one seems to be an unlikely cross between a red Hereford and a black-spotted Holstien. It also seems smugly pleased at its own cleverness in having broken its tether and is looking eagerly about for greener pastures. Or, perhaps, like Ferdinand, he only wants to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. Whatever it is, let’s hope he finds it.


Reptiles, especially lizards, are a popular subject among Ocotlan craftsmen, and this handsome fellow, nearly two feet in length, is a prime example of the later, more florescent style. His threatening stance, along with the enormous eyes, flaring nostrils, lashing tail and red maw give him a look of draconic ferocity. From his cunningly pleased expression, he is apparently about to pounce on some unsuspecting prey. Yet the turquoise body and the coral, yellow and white in the wondrously swirling patterns of his scales make him a thing of bejewelled beauty.


The use of the natural twist in a single piece of wood to create the sinuously curving neck and head of this magnificent creature raises mere craftmanship to true art. Though the sight of a red giraffe with diamond shaped white spots on the Serengeti plain might cause quite a sensation among the great white hunters of Africa, the wide, stiff-legged stance and the high-arching neck as he reaches for a tasty mouthful of tender leaves are convincingly realistic. Standing nearly three feet tall, this masterpiece is one of the finest examples of the intermediate style.


At first glance, this blue animal with white spots might be mistaken for Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, Babe. He might also be an elk, a deer, or possibly a moose. None of the details seem to add up to a true picture of any real animal, though he is clearly a shy denizen of the forest. With eyes wide and nostrils flaring, he is wary, alert and ready to bolt at the slightest sign of any possible danger. The most intriguing feature here is the clever use of small, bushy twigs to create the magnificent rack of white striped antlers that is his crowning glory.


This is no fiery steed, dainty head held high on an arched neck and ready for any deeds of derring-do and errantry on offer. Our 18-inch-long friend is far more plebian, a mere work horse, though, surely, no ordinary Dobbin ever sported such a bright red coat or wore elegant green and white chevrons on his legs. Still, he strides eagerly along, eyes straight ahead, ears and tail held jauntily, confident that there will be a cozy stall, a good rubdown and, perhaps, a nice bucket of oats awaiting him after his long day’s work.

The Lion and the Squirrel           

The lion and the Iamb may, as predicted, someday lie down together. The lion and the squirrel seem even more unlikely bed mates, even if, as in this case, the squirrel has the advantage of being slightly larger than the lion.

The King of Beasts, his orange mane well groomed, sits proudly at his ease, probably watching as his wives do all the work of catching and killing some poor wildebeest for His Majesty’s dinner. The mottled squirrel, while seemingly not unduly alarmed at the proximity of such a predator, is still keeping a wary eye on his companion. Both are eight to ten inches tall and are fine examples of early works.

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