The base of this miniatures carving is about 3 cm X 3 cm, colored with cochineal (cochinilla), and made from wood of the pochote tree, depicting a typical market scene in Mexico.
Despite having carved miniatures as small as 1 mm in size, the only time Oaxacan folk artist Miguel Ángel Martínez Reyes has used a magnifying glass has been when exhibiting his remarkable artwork to the public. “I have excellent eyesight, and I rarely work using artificial light; the exception being when I’m under the gun to complete a piece with a certain deadline, which happens infrequently,” explains Martínez Reyes one morning while we’re having breakfast with his artist colleague Dolores Leycegui. “My work is so small and detailed that sometimes people would ask if I had a magnifying glass to help them better appreciate my art, so I began bringing one to my exhibitions,” he continues.
The 34 year old master of the diminutive has shown his art as far away as in Treviso, Italy; as well as in Mexico City, Oaxaca and hometown city Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz. The 2013 Italian museum exhibition was part of a global tribute to famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. He donated his creation, a carving in miniature of Kahlo and Diego Rivera made of wood from the pochote tree, to the
museum, as a gesture of his gratitude for having been invited.
“I work with wood from the pochote tree because it’s soft, but for me bone is more elegant though more difficult and time consuming; when I have been commissioned to do a specific piece, or if I
have a particular theme in mind which lends itself to using bone, that’s my preference,” explains Martínez Reyes.
Dating as far back as he can remember, Martínez Reyes enjoyed drawing. But it was when he was nine years of age while climbing pochote trees with his friends, that he took notice of the whimsical knots, texture, and color in the trunk and branches of the tree.
Scaling pochotes with his friends provided the initial inspiration for creating miniatures. He continued carving, making pieces with greater detail as he got older. Out of economic necessity he took a two year hiatus from his work to sojourn to the US. Realizing that “The American Dream” would likely continue to elude him, he returned home to Oaxaca. It was upon his return when he was about 19 years of age, that he began using beef bone as his preferred medium. From that point
onward Martínez Reyes recognized that carving would be his calling in life.
Only the extent of his imagination restricts the subject matter of Martínez Reyes’ work, although women provide his strongest stimulus. “I hold women in the highest esteem, and thus I respect and admire them; after all, a woman gave me life, so how can I think otherwise,” he asks rhetorically. He speaks of the mother earth theme in some of his work, which bears the fruit of life.
The wizard of whittle gingerly digs into a knapsack and carefully removes his work. He cradles in his hands, as if ready to disclose the delicate petals of a flower in bloom, a number of his pieces. They include a mermaid, as well as two indigenous women kneeling at work both hewn from pochote. There are also bone pieces with religious imagery. His 1 mm work is a nativity scene, each figure carved on the top of a toothpick.
“I still work with pochote, as well as with cedar, cypress and other woods, and even fruit seeds,” he continues as he shows me two carvings in peach pits.” Martínez Reyes’ array of mediums also includes pits from other fruits including tamarind and mamey, coconut and pecan shell, agave needles, tree root, as well as stone and minerals including limestone, amber, jade, turquoise and
obsidian. His current endeavor is a bone catrina figure.
The range of materials Martínez Reyes uses dictates using a wide variety of tools. I use needles and pins, x-acto knives, gouges and chisels, and whatever piece of metal or iron I can sharpen to a fine point, as long as I can use it for doing detailed work,” he explains as he extracts a number of slight carving tools from his bag of treasures. To carve harder materials including some stone, minerals and bone, he uses more sophisticated precision instruments, including dentist drills and tools used by jewelers. And yes, he often carves jewelry pieces such as pendants and earrings, frequently for
Martínez Reyes is self-taught. And while he has given a number of workshops on miniatures carving, he himself has never taken a lesson in any realm related to art. Yet he is a grand master, having received national recognition on several occasions. Most recently, in March, 2014, he attended a competition in Mexico City along with some 3,000 other folk artists, sponsored in part by FONART (the national fund for the development of arts and crafts). In the category of miniatures folk art, he took 3rd place and received a grand national folk art prize.
Nevertheless, with national recognition, close to two dozen exhibitions to his credit, and international exposure, Martínez Reyes continues to struggle. “Yes, I was invited to Mexico City and am grateful for having been given the opportunity to participate and for the judges’ recognition of the quality of
my work.” But an ongoing issue remains in the minds of many in the arts community, as to whether or not the state of Oaxaca provides sufficient support for both its promising and many of its well-established artists and folk artists. In the case of Martínez Reyes, his life’s dream is to be the director of a miniatures museum, so that there will be greater global appreciation of his art form.
However Martínez Reyes has a more attainable project in mind for the foreseeable future. He wants to make bone carvings of 20 of Michelangelo’s most renowned works of art, naturally in miniature, for a one-week show at the same museum which featured his Frida / Diego sculpture last year. It is neither a pipedream nor mere vision. The museum’s curator has not only expressed interest, but has assured him of an individual exhibition of the works, and payment for his ground expenses. He requires only modest sponsorship funding to cover his return airfare to Treviso. Shockingly, he can’t find it.
My interview concludes on a troubling, disheartening note. I return home, all the while trying to figure out how to help him. I phone him, proposing that he secure a written invitation from the curator, committing to the one-week show and expenses while in Italy. I suggest that he then arrange an interview with someone high up in the ministry of tourism and the economy for the state of Oaxaca, to present the idea – and the Italian commitment. How could Oaxaca deny such a request?
Return airfare to Italy within the context of such a show would yield millions in tourism for the state of Oaxaca. And if the state denied the request? There’s always the media. Then, not only would donors be knocking at his door; the state might just wake up to the grand opportunity from supporting a maestro of miniatures like Miguel Ángel Martínez Reyes.