This afternoon I am at Mi Casa Gallery in Austin Texas with Jim Luedeke, the proprietor. Mi Casa Gallery is the only location in Austin that features the Castillo family’s Mexican folkart called “Alebrijes”. One of the great things about Mi Casa and Jim specifically is that he has such a deep knowledge of all the artists and arts that are carried. As we were looking around we met Arturo and Elvis Castillo and fortunately Jim was there to interpret for us.
JIM This folkart is hand carved and painted wooden figurines made of copal wood and created by the Castillo family of Oaxaca, Mexico, including works by Castillo brothers, Arturo and Elvis. Alebrijes is a craft that was developed in the 1930s. Families in this region would see spaceships and all sorts of UFOs which stimulated their imaginations, and they began carving spacemen, or what they called Marcianos (the men from Mars). Later people who were buying the artwork began asking for animals and mythological creatures like dragons and griffins.
STEAM How did you get started in this? Is it a family tradition that has been handed down?
ARTURO My father taught us when we were young. This was handed down from his family. Everyone in our family does this artwork; whether they do it as a business or as a hobby. Elvis and I went to school and the University. When we returned, this is what we chose to do as a business.
STEAM What is the name of your business?
ARTURO Alebrijes de San Martin Toxplan.
STEAM With your artwork being so delicate and complex how do you get your wares here to Austin?
ELVIS We disassemble and wrap each piece and then pack them carefully in boxes. We load the trailer and drive from San Martin. It usually it takes about 22 hours and this includes a three or four hour wait at the border.
STEAM When you are at the border and bringing across a trailer full of art; do they go through each piece? And aren’t you afraid that they could break it?
ARTURO When we come across the border we go through customs and we do this three or four times a year. They usually make us empty the trailer and put everything together.
JIM When the Castillo’s come to my store, which is two or three times a year, they have each item disassembled and wrapped. So when they get here it takes hours for them to meticulously open each piece and assemble all the items. They have to do the same thing for the customs inspectors.
STEAM How long have you been doing this and where do you sell your work?
ARTURO Every April we come to San Antonio for the Starving Artist Art Show and we’ve done this for about 24 years. We have been coming to Mi Casa for 17 years. We also go to the University of Maryland in Salisbury, where we do an art show for two weeks as well as teach our artcraft. About four years ago the president of the University visited us at our home and stayed with us for four days.
STEAM Since you do this pretty frequently do the inspectors recognize you so you don’t have to go through all of your works?
ARTURO No, there are too many inspectors and each one is different. They never remember until after we’re already halfway through.
STEAM You all have very vivid imaginations. Do you do custom orders?
ELVIS Yes, we have done some for Jim and other customers.
JIM Once I sent them a pair of antlers and requested they bring the deer back to life and they created a mask called Bambi’s Father. Another time, I only had one antler to send them so they developed their own mask and named it The Ram-Buck. One side is buck, the other is a ram, and dividing them is a snake. I’ve also asked them to do figurines of Guadalupe, Juan Diego, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Another item that Arturo and Elvis design is nativities. They are so incredible because the Castillo’s use such imagination and creativity in designing them. One of the nativities they brought in included an angel that had a beard. I had never seen an angel with a beard before that.
STEAM Where can people go to purchase your artwork?
ARTURO Right now we do not have a website but we are on Facebook. Mi Casa Gallery is the only location in Texas, with the exception of San Antonio’s Starving Artist Art Show in October.
JIM That reminds me, today is the first meeting between the US President and the President of Mexico. Here are all of you meeting for the first time. What a great coincidence!