Instant Décor: Mexican Paper Art
Tara A Spears
Anytime a cheerful party decoration is needed, in Mexico most people put up brightly colored paper designs- in the house, in the yard or even strung across the street. In a culture that abounds with creative expression, two forms of Mexican folk art standout. Papel picado -cut paper images, and papel amate -Mexican bark paper painting, are wonderful traditions art. Papel picado banners are displayed during special events, such as the Day of the Dead or wedding fiestas.
Experienced Mexico travelers recognize a sure sign that a local fiesta is in progress whenever they see a churchyard or stretch of roadway bedecked with lines of bright tissue paper cut-outs. Papel picado, an enchanting Mexican popular art form with roots in the country’s ancient cultures– lends a festive air for many types of celebrations. The colorful, lattice-like designs, traditionally cut into tissue paper, are made to celebrate religious festivals and national holidays. Mexican craftsmen use punches, knives, hammers, chisels, and scissors to cut holes in the tissue. Sometimes the result is a simple symmetrical design, or it may depict a scene from the Bible. The decorationsare placed in windows and hung as banners. The papel picado is also used as table runners or place mats during events.
This basic process, familiar to Mexican people of all ages, is used to create quick and economical decorations that may be hung outside their homes for religious and civic festivities or used to brighten an interior room or patio for birthdays and other family celebrations. To make papel picado, a paper patron (pattern) is first drawn as a guide. The pattern is laid on top of layers of tissue paper (up to 50 at a time) that are placed on top of a lead sheet. The artist then cuts this pattern out using a hammer and different sizes of chisels. San Salvador Huixcolotla, Puebla, is the village most noted in Mexico for the art of paper-cutting both for local festivals and marketing in Mexico City and abroad. Paper cutting is a family tradition, passed down from generation to generation.
Skilled craftsmen use awls, chisels and special cutting blades to render more intricate designs. The design, often laid out over a delicate window pane background, may include figures such as flowers, foliage, birds, angels, crosses, skeletons and historic figures, as well as words or phrases associated with specific holidays. Borders may be straight, scalloped, zig-zagged or fringed. Each design is a unique and complex work of art requiring a keen ability to envision the use of negative space.
Use of papel picado in religious ceremonies: The use of paper as an accouterment of religious festivities can be traced back to pre-Hispanic Mexico. The Aztecs used the bark of mulberry and wild fig trees to make a rough paper called amatl. This was employed in numerous rituals to make flags and banners to decorate temples, streets, homes and fields. Paper banners were common adornments for rituals associated with the rain gods.
After the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, papel de china (tissue paper) was introduced and became the material of choice for Christian holiday decorations. Because tissue paper’s delicate consistency tends to make it short-lived, plastic is frequently being used today. Happily, the contemporary banners still have the charming traditional designs which help compensate for what the sturdier, more modern material lacks in aesthetic value.
Tare traditional colors used for various occasions. Sky blue or pink and white colored tissue paper are commonly chosen for celebrations in honor of the Virgin Mary. Other events use yellow and white for parton saints, vibrant pink, orange, and purple are the key tones employed for ofrendas (offerings) associated with the Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos). Shades of purple are also widely used at Easter. The colors of the Mexican flag—red white and green—are set aside for venerating the nation’s patroness, La Virgen de Guadalupe, as well as for commemorating Independence Day, Sept. 16th. Rainbow hues are appropriate for Christmas and non-religious festivities; white is common for weddings.
Papel picado, the enchanting Mexican popular art form with roots in the country’s ancient cultures, lends a festive air for any type of celebration. Whether you’re a tourist or a collector of original folk art, adding papel picado is a wonderful way to add the spirit and color of Mexico to your home.