Trees of Life: Symbols of Abundance
By Susan Page
Some form of the “tree of life” has been found in all Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, and Olmec, and continues to be a strong theme in Mexican folk art today. It is a symbol of the abundance of the universe, depicting the connection between heaven and earth, the four sacred directions, and the lineage of humankind. The central idea of the tree of life is the unity and connection of everything and everyone in the universe.
Trees of Life in Mexican Folk Art
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In contemporary Mexican folk art, the tree of life has become a “canvas” for artists to present a variety of subjects, from daily life in the village, to indigenous dress and traditions, to folk art from all parts of Mexico. Many include religious themes.
Today, three towns in Mexico are most well known for their trees of life. All of these towns and artists are represented in the Galería Atotonilco. Most people associate trees of life with Metepec in the State of Mexico, where many families create detailed, busy, colorful creations from tiny to enormous. They are made up of hundreds of small flowers and figures, both beautiful and stunning. A more recent innovation from several artists is a softer, matte palette that results in a delicate, quiet piece.
The tradition of trees of life in Acatlán, Puebla, was started by Heron Martinez, who worked prodigiously throughout the last half of the 20th century. His work is highly collectible. He had no direct descendants, but several families have carried on the tradition he started. The work is distinctive because the clay is burnished but left with its natural color, ranging from brown to dark red. Acatlán trees of life are beautifully proportioned. Themes include mermaids, peacocks and other animals, and Adam and Eve.
The most famous family in Izucar de Matamoros, the other town famous for its trees of life, is the Castillo family. Their works are extremely intricate, often with contemporary themes, and very expensive. But other families make equally beautiful work in an everyday price range. Galeria Atotonilco carries a wide range of beautiful and fun works by the Balbuena family from Izucar.
A prolific potter from Santa Cruz de las Huertas in Jalisco, Gerardo Ortega, creates everything from dogs flying airplanes to stacks of animals. He also has begun to create wonderful trees of life that may be loaded with dogs, flowers, or whatever he will think of next.
Visit us in our 5,000-square-foot exhibition space for an open house with refreshments, Saturday and Sunday, April 23 and 24, noon to 5pm. We carry a wide variety of folk art, vintage photographs, textiles, and more. We recently acquired a collection of San Miguel de Allende photos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.