The Straw Man
By Mildred Boyd
Though everyone calls him the Straw Man, Andres Mendoza is neither a character from The Wizard of Oz nor a fallacious argument set up only to be knocked down. Andres is a gifted, if somewhat unconventional, artist. Instead of brushes and paints he produces his masterpieces with beeswax and colorful straw. Andres is the third generation of his family to do this work. Both his grandfather and his mother were skilled in the art, which he began learning from them when he was only seven or eight years old.
The ancient art of straw painting, called Popote, has been practiced by the Indians for centuries. Originally, such paintings were used only in rites of fertility or hunting magic. Paintings and statues, songs and dances were all part of rituals performed to cause the plants to multiply and bring forth abundant harvests and to appease the spirits of game animals so that they would give themselves willingly to feed a grateful people. Those rituals are an important part of many cultures even today.
Popote, however, is a dying art. The reason is simple; while the techniques are similar to the bead and yarn paintings still done for religious rites and as souvenirs for tourists, preparing the materials for straw art is far more labor intensive and time consuming. Only the truly dedicated will bother when imported glass beads and acrylic yarns are readily available. So, like the wonderful feather mosaic work of the ancients, such work is seldom seen today. Andres admits ruefully that he knows of only one other person in Jalisco who still practices it.
Before Andres can begin to create he must first harvest both the straw and the natural materials required to produce dyes. Popote is the common broom straw that Mexican housewives and gardeners bind in bunches to make their brooms, and the best, according to Andres, comes from Zacatecas, but he usually harvests his supply nearer his home in Guadalajara. Unlike many grasses, it grows tall, straight and smooth, without joints and with very little variation in diameter. Properly dried and cut into dyeable lengths, this raw material is ready for the next step.
Andres obtains most of his dyes from plants but animals and insects contribute their share. For purple he uses the vivid bracts of the bougainvillea, blue comes from the fruit of the granseño tree and brown is made from the beans of either the mesquite or the hoesatchi. Yellow, however, comes from the bile of animals and the brilliant red is made from the crushed bodies of a small insect, the cochineal, which infests the prickly pear cactus. Sumac berries, onion skins, snakeweed and various other fruits, flowers and barks provide other hues as needed. Most of these dyestuffs have been in use since pre-Columbian times to produce a brilliant array of colors for dyeing textiles, painting murals or illustrating codices.
Different methods are required to extract the coloring agents from such materials, most of them tedious in the extreme. The final step is the addition of a mordant to set the colors and make them permanent. Again, there are many chemicals to do the job. Alum and various metallic salts are frequently used, but the most common—and certainly the most readily available—mordant is the combination of uric acid and ammonia found in human urine. Andres now has a brilliant array of fast colors which can be mixed to produce the entire spectrum. Lengths of straw are immersed in dye baths until they take on the desired intensity of color, and then set aside to dry.
All that is left is to prepare the “canvas.” Any thin, rigid material will do but Andres usually uses a heavy cardboard coated with smooth white paper. The surface to be painted is coated with an adhesive material to hold the straw in place. Although unrefined beeswax is the traditional adhesive, Andres admits with a grin that he sometimes cheats a little by using gum Arabic to give a firmer grip.
At long last, Andres is ready to create. Using only his rainbow-hued bunches of straw, a very sharp knife and his innate talent, he creates landscapes, still-lives and portraits by positioning tiny pieces of straw on the prepared surface and cutting them to the desired length. He uses a subtle blending of colors to create shadows and depth and minute changes in direction to shape contours and give a sense of movement. Every tiny piece is meticulously placed to achieve the desired effect and, viewed from a short distance, straight lines become curves, divisions disappear and it is difficult to tell a straw “painting” from one done in any other media.
Andres draws his inspiration from the lives and tales of his own people. Humble village streets, grandiose church facades, lush gardens and laughing people going about their daily business wearing colorful clothing; all reflecting the charm of Mexico.
A man rides down a cobble-stoned street wearing a bright red poncho which swirls to the unsteady gait of his burro. Flowering vines cover blank walls with tree tops peeking over to hint of the beauty within, while men and women stop to talk while carrying their goods to market. Skylines are dominated by the tiled domes and bell towers of village churches and mountains loom in the distance. An old man sits comfortably leaning against a wall, legs outstretched. He seems to be taking a short nap instead of working on the new fishnet he holds in his hands.
He is wearing the traditional white shirt and short pants with bands of embroidery at wrist and knee, a striped poncho and straw sombrero, but his feet are bare. Aztec warriors wear jaguar skin cloaks and eagle headdresses into battle and pescadores cast their nets in the early light. Don Quijote and Sancho Panza engage in acts of derring-do and ladies stop to gossip on their way to mass.
Andres’ is represented in Ajijic by the Galeria Maestros del Arte located at 16th de Septiembre, #13