Mexican Ironwood Carvings

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Mexican ironwood carvings are made in the states of Sonora and Baja California from the tree known in the area as palo fierro.

The craft was originally developed by the Seris, an indigenous group of the Sonora State. Generally the carvings motifs include local flora such as cacti and a wide variety of animals.

Ironwood dolphin

The Palo Fierro Wood
The Olneya Tesota is native to the Sonoran Desert and can only be found within its area; it grows as a bush or tree and reaches heights of about 10 meters and average trunk diameters of about 60 cm.

In younger trees, the bark is gray, shiny and smooth while in older trees the bark is broken open. Ironwood trees bloom in spring for short periods of about two weeks.

Studies have led to estimate that some desert ironwood trees have lived for more than 800 years.

The palo fierro wood is one of the hardest and heaviest woods in the world.

Its heartwood is rich in toxic chemicals that make it non-biodegradable and it is remarkably resistant to rotting. Ironwood trunks can last for up to 1600 years.

Ironwood seal

Ironwood Carving History
Palo fierro carvings were originally developed by the Seris, one of the indigenous groups living in Sonora State. They carved harpoons and other tools, toys, musical instruments, and balls for games.

The Seris originally inhabited the Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California and lived isolated from other communities being fishing and hunting their main source of food.

The lack of water and severe diseases among other reasons forced the Seris to leave the island and in 1936 the federal government founded for them a fishing cooperative in Bahia de Kino.

When non Seri fishermen started to establish in their town the Seris left and went about 90 kilometers north were they founded Desemboque (Haxol Iihom in Seri language) where they continued fishing for a living.

In the 1950's commercial shrimping began disturbing the gulf ecology and fishing dwindled hence the Seris were forced to find other sources of income.

Ironwood kwam

In the late 1950's Seri Jose Astorga began travelling to Bahia de Kino to sell animal figures carved in stone. He began interacting with tourists and by 1961 he was selling ironwood utilitarian products such as bowls, spoons, barrettes, and paperweights.

From then on ironwood carvings evolved thanks to the tourists' feedback and by 1965
local animals and cacti became the most popular carving motifs.

The palo fierro carvings were polished with sea turtle wax until an American carpenter vacationing in Bahia de Kino suggested the carvers to use wet sandpaper and a paste wax to give the piece a shiny finish.

Palo fierro carvings became so popular that soon half of the Seri population engaged in wood carving with all the family members participating in the creation process.

From the 1970's non- Seri crafters began imitating the Seris sculptures using electrical tools to mass produce them and in some cases fraudulently claim the carvings are made by the Seris.

Ironwood rattlesnake

Art versus Crafts
Nowadays the Seri communities of Punta Chueca and Desemboque make a living fishing and selling ironwood carvings, traditional baskets called coritas woven by the women and jewelry made with stones and shells.

The palo fierro sculptures are still hand carved and highly sought by art collectors that usually visit the Seris in their communities to avoid buying copies although the Seris characteristic ability to synthesize forms and at the same time create fine details easily contrast with the intricately carved figures made with electrical tools.

Noteworthy Seri artists include Jose Astorga the creator of the style and his daughters Aurora and Herminia, Jesus Lopez, Alejandro Diaz Feliz, Nacho Barnett
Armando Torres Cubillas, Elvira Torres and Ernesto Molina.

The crafting industry originated by the popularity of the Seri carvings extends to the States of Sonora and Baja California and sells its work in the country's main tourist destinations and exports abroad. The mass produced carvings are usually inexpensive and sold as souvenirs to foreign tourists.

Ironwood turtle


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