Creating Works Of Art Bead By Bead

You know those beaded sculptures you see in shops? They’re made by hand, not mass produced.

Juventino Bautista is a 29 year old artisan born and raised in Huejuquilla El Alto, a tiny town in Jalisco over on the mainland. Juventino is a Wirrarika (also known as Huichol) artist; the Wirrarika people are famous for their handicrafts, particularly their intricately beaded sculptures.

Juventino’s career as an artist started when he was eight years old. He was taught by his father (who was taught by his father, and so on) to make the bead covered sculptures and figurines that you see in many souvenir shops. Juventino is in love with his craft, calling it “the gift that God gave me.” There are no signatures on his pieces; the Wirrarika artists do not take any credit for anything as they believe it is what they are meant to do and share with the world.

Bead Guy.jpgJuvention’s pieces are made of Palofierro. Palofierro, or ironwood, is a special type of wood that’s similar to ebony and come from the southern part of Mexico. It’s a very hard wood and needs to be perfectly sanded, otherwise the beads and the wax used to hold them in place easily come off. Once the wood is ready, a thin layer of Campeche wax - a fine bees wax, typically found in the Campeche - is spread over the surface. The wax layer must be just right; not too thin or the beads will fall off and not too thick or the beads will sink in it and the colors won’t be appreciated.

After the wax come the beads. Thousands of beads are arranged in different designs, with the colors blending together to create amazing patterns and even optical illusions. Think of every bead as a tiny pixel, and all the pixels blend together to make a bigger picture. There is no drawing or sketching of a pattern before placing the beads, it’s all in the artist’s head. The perfectly symmetrical designs flow out of the artist’s needle thanks to generations of teaching.

Once the design is on the figurine, the artist goes over it one last time with eagle eyes to make sure no beads fell off during the process. There is no final coat of varnish or glue; the wax keeps everything in place.

When Juventino works, he sits at his table, barefoot, with a pound of beads in a rainbow of colors in front of him. He is putting the final details on a cow’s skull. It took Juventino seven days, working from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with only short breaks, to finish his masterpiece. In the middle of the skull is a beaded sun - a symbol for strength for the Wirrarikas - in bright yellow, orange and red. A couple of wolf heads, the Wirrarika symbol for wisdom, are carefully placed as well. Under the sun, a white and blue two-headed eagle design is placed. The eagle has two heads because one of the guards the earth while the other one guards the sky.

Most of Huichol beaded figurines have a peyote cactus included in them somewhere. This is their most important symbol and the source of their inspiration. Once a year in February, many Wirrarika people, including Juventino, travel to Real de Catorce, a small village on the mainland, to take part in a peyote ceremony. The peyote is used to make a tea, which the Wirrarikas drink collectively to have a guided trip to consciousness, where they see more colors and designs for their beaded pieces through hallucinations. Only Wirrarika are allowed to possess, harvest or get peyote in all Mexico; for everyone else it is illegal. Not a bad job perk, huh?

Juventino first came to Cabo 10 years ago and started working in a gift shop downtown. He was making figurines all day, every day and only got paid $80 USD a week, with no extra commission for sales. He stayed in that job for a couple of years until he realized he was being taken advantage of. He tried to sell his work on the marina, but every time police officers saw him they would confiscate all his work and money. After awhile, Juventino and a couple of other artisans went to the city and talked to the governor, who agreed to let them use the long space on the marina behind the marlin statue, outside of Captain Tony’s, for a market.

huichol.jpgJuventino’s work is time intensive, but he’s able to make a decent living from his art. A small jaguar head goes for about $80, while a big cow skull runs between $300 and $500. The biggest piece Juventino has ever made was an iguana sitting on a branch, which was about four feet tall and sold for $7,000. In an average good month, artists can make up to $500 and in a bad month as low as $50.

For Juventino and many other artists, it’s better to sell their crafts to tourists rather than Mexicans, because they get great compliments from tourists. Mexicans usually underestimate the craft and think they can do it themselves. Tourists also usually don’t haggle as much as locals and, really, no one should try to get these pieces for cheaper because they are true works of art.

You can find Juventino’s booth at the end of the crafts market on the marina. Tell him you read about him in the paper and make him smile! And then buy something from him and make him smile ever more.