Eleazar Morales

Master Wood Carver from the village of San Antonio Arrazola

     

”I am very proud of having learned this fine

craft by myself with no formal training...”  - Eleazar Morales

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Eleazar Morales is a well-known Oaxacan woodcarving artist. His work has been exhibited and collected around the world, and his special skill in sculpture-making began at an early age.  He is considered a master wood carver from the state of Oaxaca, In this village, where artisans abound, Eleazar stands out because of his exquisite attention to detail and his fine carving and painting. 

      

Eleazar Morales is a recognized artist because of his fanciful Oaxacan woodcarving sculptures. He has established himself as one of the better artisans in this field through his innate ability to carve realistic animals (you can almost SEE the muscles under the skin of his carvings) and his meticulous and innovative use of painting techniques as well as his attraction to “bringing back to life” many extinct forms of life.

 

He constantly researches beasts from long ago to present ages that have gone extinct. Examples are Eleazar’s Saber-toothed Cats, Tasmanian Wolves, and endangered wildlife.  Eleazar also creates painting patterns on his animals that are amazing to bear witness to - his gorillas are vibrant shades of purples and blues; his leopards come to life with witty spots and bright colors, and his feathers float off into flight. Eleazar Morales has also created larger sculptures of people and places - from Benito Juarez to Aztec warriors with the Virgin Mary on their clothing.

Tasmanian wolf or tiger- an extinct (?) Marsupial carnivore called a Thylacine from Australia, Tasmania & Papua New Guinea - note the organic, fluid and realistic lines to the animal's form.

 Eleazar is a political witness and a believer in philanthropy - he observes social changes, political strife, and religious anxieties then converts these observations into artistic manifestations. His analytical historical woodcarvings (full of juxtaposed ideals and references) have garnered him much acclaim and awards which have led to features in many publications. You can often times recognize Eleazar’s artworks because of the subject matter he uses as well as the painting patterns he produces (gorgeous base colors with spotting and ringlets of accenting colors); but there is one more characteristic his artwork holds... look at the EYES of the artworks. Eleazar is the only artisan that produces an incredible expressiveness within the eyes of his creations, whether it be beast or human.

   
Fanciful fish   nautilus carved by Eleazar   a colorful stingray

The eyes are excited and full of emotion - if you look carefully you will see the sparkle of light that reflects from their depth.  Another characteristic you can look for in Eleazar Morales’ work is that of “inlaid” skeleton patterns. He is very fascinated by the skeletal systems of animals, and has been known to incorporate the bone structure pattern into some of his pieces.

A true artisan, he feels that art is definitely a necessity and a joy to have upon earth.

Eleazar Morales was born in the town of Arrazola, Oaxaca, on the 20th of February, 1976. He completed public education up through high school, and throughout his childhood he desired to be a painter and artist. He began carving at the age of 17.  He has a brother, Susano Morales whom is also a woodcarving artist. Eleazar married his sweetheart Dora, and together have been raising their children Obed, Amdey, and Jazmin.  They have a beautiful home, overlooking the rugged hills surrounding their village.   Eleazar has constructed a traditional adobe workshop in the courtyard of his home, where he stores and dries his copal wood and does much of the carving and painting of his pieces. 

   
Eleazar's main carving area in his adobe workshop   A workspace where Eleazar does his carving in his adobe   the view from Eleazar and Dora's home in Arrazola

His town had many woodcarving artisans, but no formal education for becoming a woodcarver. The people who did practice the craft kept it secret, afraid other townspeople would steal their designs and livelihood, and sharing of secrets of woodworking was non-existent. At about the age of 11 he began to act as a tour guide in his town, and therefore was able to get an inside glimpse into artist’s homes and wood-working secrets.

  

“When I paint my pieces I feel realized, complete. I imagine myself as a great painter in some 19th century European country, hanging my work for the public in great salons...”

Little by little he practiced the craft, and by the age of 14 he began to work in earnest to support himself as an artist. He enhanced his skill by going through the leftover woodcarving trash of his town neighbor, Manuel Jiménez, who was one of the most famous founding fathers of Oaxacan woodcarving. Eleazar would take the bits of unfinished works and scraps that Don Manuel Jiménez would throw away and study them to see how to better carve his own creations.

“I am very proud of having learned this fine craft by myself with no formal study or training. I applied myself, and feel that the results have been excellent!”

   

His first intent at creating a woodcarving came in the form of a hog - a complete and utter disaster!

“The piece was horrible and completely unbalanced - I had to use nails to hold in place the poor animal’s appendages!”


  


Now, Eleazar Morales’ artworks are splendid beasts - magical and fantastical. He has a very positive outlook on life, and he tries to be as positive as possible when dealing with life. His wife, Dora, says,
“Eli hates to be mad, angry, or frustrated. He is happy and satisfied, and treats his family and friends with great respect and joy. He loves life, and he loves being an artist.”

Eleazar spends most of his day working on his pieces, ready to sell them directly to customers from his house or to the many upscale shop owners from the nearby town of Oaxaca or from the United States, Europe and even Japan!

     

Eleazar travels to create new interest in his works and to promote his craft and has a visa to legally travel to The United States as a working artist. He has visited many locations in his quest, from Mexico to The United States, and he has visited Nuevo Laredo, Acapulco, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.   At least once a year, Eleazar visits Zanzibar Trading Company and often has a show of his work and carving demonstrations.  The Owners of Zanzibar, Scott and Josh, also make regular buying trips to Oaxaca and visit Eleazar and commission works of art from him. 

Eleazar has been recognized in many artisan publications on Oaxacan woodcarving, and he is considered to be one of the best and most disciplined creator of whimsical beasts and figurative sculptures in the state.

Life for Eleazar Morales and his family begins very early.  At the crack of dawn, the Copal vendors usually arrive to the Oaxacan Valley towns; they come with heavily burdened burros carrying loads of Copal wood.  They do not cut down copal trees, rather they simply trim off the limbs of the trees, which re-grow.  Eleazar also participates in a program that replants copal trees in areas where they have been over harvested for fire wood, copal resin and building materials. 

Eleazar prizes this particular type of wood for its pliability and gnarled form that produces movement within the sculptural forms he produces. One of the better qualities that Copal wood has is that it sands down to a smooth, porcelain finish.

  There are several species of copal trees native to the Oaxacan area.  Many carvers mistakenly claim that two of the species are actually "male" and "female" trees of the same species, however they are in actuality simply different species, albeit closely related. 

For centuries, natives to this area used the copal tree for building, carving of day to day items and also for its sap - fragrant copal resin. 

Today there is a major restoration and replanting program that our carvers participate in. 

 Copal branches can be very fragrant depending on the time of year they are pruned and fresh pieces have an aromatic smell that pleasantly fill the woodcarver’s home. When dried, Copal wood becomes light and flexibly strong. Characterized as a soft wood, Copal thrives in higher elevations and is an aggressive grower. Eleazar embraces the use of this tree because it is sustainable and minimally impacts the environment, a concern he has in a society where resources are hard to come by.

   
Cut copal branches in Eleazar's workshop   Cut copal showing inner bark and resin   copal resin seeping from a cut in this copal branch

Before Oaxacan woodcarving became popular, copal tree resin was primarily used to make incense and its berries were a common cure for acne! The incense was regarded as a favorable god-given gift by the Mayans and used as a form of protection against sorcery, illness, and misfortune. The incense still burns in many Mexican churches today for the purpose of making the body, and the religious space, ritually clean. The dried resin, when burned, projects an odor similar to frankincense but with a lighter citrusy tone.

The qualities and themes inherent in copal resin transmit to the carvings themselves. Monstrous figurines like “alebrijes” (a brightly colored Mexican folk art sculpture of fantastical animal-like creatures) or “nahuals” (night spirits and magical/whimsical animals) are used to scare off evil spirits or stifle the effects of sorcery. “Animalitos” (small animals) such as frogs, dogs, and owls are seen as good luck companions. They artfully personify the natural twists and curves of the branches themselves.

Originally, Oaxacan wood-carvings were very big and bulky but the work rapidly evolved into streamlined dynamic forms that master sculptors, such as Eleazar Morales, can now sculpt an entire creature from one piece of wood.

Different parts of the branches make for different animals. A fat knob may be used to make a turtle while a wispy branch may be transformed into a lizard. The endless tangled maze of branches are a constant inspiration and invention for Eleazar, and nothing is ever wasted. Small pieces are transformed into ears, tails, and sometimes teeth for his artistic wonders!

Eleazar spends a great deal of his time chiseling with a machete the desired form from the Copal wood while it is still wet and soft. He keeps unused pieces of Copal wood wrapped in wet newspaper and he places them in cold refrigerators in order to help the wood keep its humid consistency.

Eleazar Morales works with axes, machetes, and even small kitchen knives to sculpt his artistic vision as he methodically coaxes the delicate shapes from the wood. Equally important is the sanding; it is here that Eleazar, the master artisan, can bring out the personality and the character of his creations.

As the wood continues to dry, small cracks are
sanded out and re-sealed. If more than a single piece of Copal wood is used, Eleazar will carefully glue arms, tails and other appendages on the animals and figures. Single piece carvings are usually smaller and more "organic" in appearance, while larger pieces are typically created from an assortment of smaller wood carvings. Some of the choicest master wood works actually fit in the palm of your hand and are carved from a single piece of wood, while others can very well hold their own presence on a large table or display cabinet.
 

       

SOME QUESTIONS ASKED OF ELEAZAR:


What are your favorite tools for making your artworks?

“My favorite tool is an old kitchen knife I use to carve my figures. I sharpen it myself, and I really enjoy the way it fits into my hand. I also love the machete to start the carving process and to form the sculpture early in the process. I also make extensive use of files and sandpaper to smooth out the pieces. For painting, I prefer Acrylic paints and to apply this I use regular paint brushes, toothbrushes, and a syringe for creating really tiny detailed marks.”


How do you begin an artwork?

“First, I settle myself down and concentrate until I can imagine the artwork and see it clearly in my mind. I imagine the living environment of the animal- what it’s living conditions are, and how those affect the way it looks and behaves... I dream that they are happy beasts, in joyous and fantastical worlds... even ferocious, snarling mouths and teeth look content to me... I see the details of the fur and feathers, the mouth and its teeth, the sparkle in the eyes.

By imaging all this I set my mind on the mood of creating the animal. I don’t use sketches or drawings, I just begin by carving a large chunk of Copal wood to form the base for the sculpture- I use my trusty machete."


What is your favorite material to use when creating your wooden carvings?

“I prefer to use Copal wood for various reasons. It is a very “clean” wood- it rarely has any types of holes or knots. It also is very humid which allows for easier carving and forming (other types of wood also dry quickly, often times bending and disfiguring the sculpture). I keep the Copal wood humid by wrapping the wood in a plastic bag and storing it in a refrigerator. I obtain it from a cooperative that works with a green organization to grow and sell the wood in a sustainable manner.

The Copal trees are planted in cycles to grow in 15 years, and thus harvested in an efficient, and controllable, manner. Each artist in the village is able to purchase a certain set allowance of wood, and i am very satisfied with this type of system. If need be, I also use other types of wood on occasion, including cedar and red wood.”


What is your favorite part of the art-making process?

“I get the most joy from painting in the details once the pieces have been carved out. I love creating the intricate details that my artworks portray including the mottled patterns on the bodies, the expressiveness of the eyes, and the whimsical colors I choose. I have a very steady hand in creating the details that include various types of lines, dots, circles, and spots that help to create an illusion of fur, feathers, or skin.”


“I especially love the feeling of satisfaction and pride I feel when completing special custom-made pieces, those are usually the hardest to make because the client has a very specific artwork in mind, and I use my skill to transform that dream into a reality.”



When do you know an artwork is complete?

“I feel that the work is complete when my eyes tell me so- when the painting is all done and the detail creates a life within the piece. I really enjoy seeing the detail that I make wether it’s tufts of fur, scales on a reptile, or feathers on an eagle. I love those tiny little details in creating texture for the bodies of my beasts.”

Do you take into account environmental issues when creating artwork?

“I am very conscientious of nature and it’s sustainability to my art. I am part of an association in my town that supplies copal wood to artisans through use of sustainable, environmentally-safe sources and farm land that are carefully farmed and reseeded to continue the Copal tree growth. Each section of the farmland run by this organization is harvested and reseeded every 15 years; therefore the wood harvests are being sustained and not damaging the environment.”


What do you do differently that sets you apart from other Oaxacan woodcarvers?

“I believe that my work is some of the most detailed available. I try to create a realism in the texture of the painting I do on the figures, from the repeating patterns of feathers and scales to the sparkling eyes that look back into your own eyes. Also, I try to think about nature by creating artworks based on animals that are extinct or rare, and by doing so I feel that i bring their existence into our own time and consciousness.”

A painting of the Virgin de Guadalupe with an

ocelot at her feet, painted by Eleazar Morales

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