Alebrije – El Pájaro de Presa
El Pájaro de Presa
Super Sculpey Sculpture, 2017
Resin cast, 2018
My latest visit to Mexico, during a honeymoon cruise to Cozumel and Costa Maya, reignited my passion for the Oaxacan hand carved spirit animals, the alebrijes. I must admit, however, that seeing Disney’s Coco also sparked some inspiration and pushed me ever further into my love of Mexican art and culture.
On the trip I scoured shops and booths in both ports to find the Oaxacan alebrijes with no luck, until we stopped off in a beautiful shop that called to me, D’GARHETI Boutique Gallery. The boutique was home to not only the most amazing and elaborate alebrijes I’ve ever seen, but also other forms of folk art, including paintings, ceramics, glass work, tapestry, and jewelry. It was so refreshing and beautiful that I had a difficult time leaving – especially since they had no functioning website for sales. I had to buy what I was seeking there on the spot, or not at all.
Mind you, crafts in Mexico are not expensive by comparison to American goods, however, everything is marked up in these tourist traps and the smallest of the alebrijes that I could afford was $44 USD (which, I don’t personally feel is a bad price, it’s just a lot for tourists not carrying a lot of cash in a foreign country near the end of a trip).
So, I bought one – but it wasn’t for me. Of all the alebrijes that I saw, one in particular caught my eye and demanded to be a gift for someone else. As much as I wanted one for myself, this one was to be for my sister, Roxanne, and it turned out to be for a good reason as the alebrije I chose was based on a hummingbird and the lessons that come with the hummingbird spirit, I feel, are good lessons for my sister to ponder.
I decided that I would tackle creating an alebrije of my own using sculpey. I did some online research and discovered a discrepancy in the creation of the alebrije, mostly in how the originating artist, Pedro Linares Lopez, came up with the idea for them. One broadly accepted story is that Sen. Lopez was basically on his death bed and dreamt of colorful, fantastic creatures accompanied by the auditorial hallucinations of the word “alebrije”, while another story states that Sen. Lopez basically added wings and claws to Judas figures, paper machè figures made for a religious holiday in Mexico. Either way, his original version of the alebrije took some mammal, bird, or fish form and incorporated insect like parts along with claws, bulging eyes, and bright colors.
Another artist, Miguel Jimenez, from Oaxaca, MX, took the artform of the alebrije and applied it’s style to hand carved wooden animals that his region was already known for. The Oaxacan alebrijes are the more popular and easily found versions – so I took some inspiration from both versions for my own. (Mexican Folk Art)
The Process of Developing El Pájaro de Presa
I didn’t want to just make something from my imagination alone – though I had already started drawing up some characters. I really wanted to be inspired by something else, some external stimuli that spoke to me. One night, while taking a shower I saw the moon beams cascading through a palm tree, revealing an interesting and horrifying visual. The palm frawns created a feathered-wing like image, and other palm frawns laid upon it creating a body of a creature that looked like a nightmarish vulture. I jumped from the shower to take a closer look, at first believing it to be an actual bird in the trees, but I soon realized it wasn’t and was perhaps just what I was looking for as inspiration. I ran inside (our shower is outside – long story), grabbed my sketch book and immediately sketched a rough image of what I saw. This became the design for my first alebrije.
With an original organic form to work with, I massaged the image to incorporate some design features that I felt were stylistic – notched beak, half-circle connected eyes, sharp attributes to describe is threatening intent, etc. Initially, I created a skeleton out of aluminum foil and masking tape to bulk out the form my creation. Then I added layer upon layer of Super Sculpey until I achieved the basic shape and form I needed from which I could carve out the figure. While carving, I began to see a likeness in the design to a beetle. Infusing Lopez’s original conceptual design of insect parts and characteristic qualities, I reshaped the back of the figure to be like a beetle’s abdomen; segmented and plump. Once I completed the main body, I moved on to the wings. Total truth, I took the idea from the alebrije hummingbird I purchased from my sister as it was a perfect design suited to what I saw in the moonlight. I shaped each wing as sharp and best as I could based on the sketch and inserted small wooden dowel rods in the ends of them for later attachment to the body. After completing the wings, I threw everything in the oven and baked it according to the Super Sculpey instructions. Once everything had cooled down, I used a dremel to reshape, sharpen, and define each piece.
When it came to the mold-making process, I was hesitant. I had never made a 2-part mold, but I knew that it would probably be the best way to cast this particular figure. I opened up one of the 3-kits of Smooth-On Oomoo 25 I had on hand (important to note that where I live there are no providers of this product) and to my dismay, I found that the last cold front we experienced had caused a chemical reaction in the compound that resulted in part A geling. I rushed to open another kit, and again, found the same. Then, in a panic I started to open the third, but stopped myself. The disappointment sat in heavy on me – I began to feel like this project wasn’t going to get finished because I was attempting something new and there seemed to be a number of obstacles in my way preventing me from achieving the goal – enough obstacles that I felt failure was imminent. Those kits were $30 USD each, and $60 was already garbage. To see the third was to twist the dagger in my already bleeding heart, so I paused the project and left it on the table for about three weeks.
Despair is a real emotion and sometimes it doesn’t take much to bring it on.
On a trip to one of my favorite Florida comic book stores, Tate’s Comics, I found hope again. We were conducting a usual visit while in the area, and I was on a mad search for a new comic out from Image Comics, called God Complex, when I suddenly came across a section dedicated to cosplay and costume fabrication; located in this section Smooth-On Dragon Skin Platinum Silicone Rubber. It wasn’t something I was use to using as I had only ever worked with Oomoo 25, but Manuel pushed me to purchase it so that I could continue the alebrije project. So, I did – reluctantly.
I was eager to try it, but first I had to face that last kit of Oomoo 25. I opened the kit with hopes that maybe it was still useful to me, only to find that it too had spoiled. However, with my renewed hope, I quickly assembled a mold for the alebrije using normal sculpey as a base for the first part of the 2-part mold. I mixed up the Dragon Skin according to the directions and poured it eagerly over the figure, only to notice as it settled that I had not made quite enough to cover the model securely. This resulted in a slight transparency in the mold where the negative space of the model could be seen and the silicone was weak and would probably tear. The despair crept back up on me, but I did not give in. I decided no matter what I’d push forward and if it worked then I was blessed and if it didn’t, then I’d simply have to do better. I made the second half of the mold, not realizing that without the mold release compound – which I was also completely out of – it would bind with the first half. Thankfully, I remembered seeing a YouTube video where a propmaker sliced a silicone mold open in a zig-zag pattern to open it for release of the model. This method worked for me too. I removed the model and cleaned the mold and beheld my first ever
2-part, wraparound mold. I was now ready to attempt a cast.
As soon as I mixed the Smooth-Cast 300 Bright White together I poured it into the mold and watched in horror as the thin sided silicone expanded with liquid plastic. I already knew it was a disaster, but to my astonishment the first cast wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, it came out fat and slightly curved from the expansion, but most of the detail was captured and done so well.
I used two pieces of cardboard to strengthen my mold walls for the second attempt. As I poured liquid plastic into the mold, more than before seeped out of the sides and the air holes. I slowed down my pour, thinking that maybe it would start to set-up before all the plastic poured out, but after demolding the figure, I found it partly incomplete because the resin seeped out too much – YET, this casting was not curved and captured more detail that the last. I knew I was on the right track, but I was running low on materials and my self-imposed time restriction. I only wanted to spend one more week on this project, and then move on to another.
By the fifth cast I finally achieved a successful piece. While the resin was still liquid in the mold, I had to hold the mold at an angle to eliminate an air pocket that was created by the design and mold entry pour hole. Then I had to slush it around a bit to make sure all areas were captured. I quickly moved on to creating a mold of the feather-wings. My plan was to create a mold of one side, then flip them over and create a mold of the other side, but after the first mold the feather-wings completely shattered upon demolding them.
Just my luck.
So, despite the set back, I moved forward with casting the wings as they were, and sanding them down to fit the other side. This worked out pretty well since the mold nearly wrapped around the original models anyway. In fact, had I know that it would work as well as it did, I’d have designed it to do just that.
Finally – I had a complete figure No. 5. I sanded everything down, added dowel rods where needed, and super glued the feather wings to the body.
I coated the entire figure in white paint, then painted it a purple color scheme, but hated it, so I added in red, and then hated that too. I used Google Search to find a color scheme that I could live with, but nothing was really attracting me. One of the elements that I love about the Alebrijé is that they are so colorful and imaginative – but I found it very hard to break away from my comfort zone of color and do something… random. So, I listened to Manuel’s suggestion (he made one while I was painting and complaining about it) to incorporate his favorite color, green. I used Green on the insect-like plating of the body, and created a red gradient on the wings. I left the beak it’s original purplish colors and added in patterns of dots and lines.
The lines I don’t care so much for, none of my brushed were thin enough to give me a nice thin line, but I’ll work on that in the next iteration. The dots really added some interesting texture. To achieve them, I used a broken toothpick.
So, without further ado, here’s my completed Alebrijé!