Home Entertainment Alebrije artists create huge sculptures for Cantigny Park display

Alebrije artists create huge sculptures for Cantigny Park display

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The jaguar figure stands on a four-wheeled, wooden platform, waiting to be pulled around the garden like an old children’s toy.

But there is nothing miniature about this big cat, a masterfully crafted creature with dragon wings and a serpent’s tail curled above a green leafy hedge.

A stroll through the blooming gardens of Cantigny Park in Wheaton becomes an encounter with alebrijes, surreal animal hybrids brought to life by six visiting artists from Mexico.



"Alebrijes: Creatures of a Dream World" consists of 48 creature sculptures created by artists from Mexico.

 
“Alebrijes: Creatures of a Dream World” consists of 48 creature sculptures created by artists from Mexico.
– Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Alebrijes are the stuff of dreams. A fish with legs and talons looks as if it’s emerged out of a pond and onto a sandy patch of beach at Cantigny. A two-headed dragon and other mythical beasts line sidewalks on a kind of parade route across the park for a new exhibition, “Alebrijes: Creatures of a Dream World,” opening today and running through October.

For all their whimsy, alebrijes (pronounced ah-leh-bree-hehs) are labor-intensive works of art, often made of wire skeletons, covered in papier-mâché and layers upon layers of brightly colored paint. But no two alebrijes are alike.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

“I’ve always liked to make alebrijes that are friendly and very colorful, and I think that they look feminine, and there you see my personality,” artist Perla Miriam Salgado Zamorano said in Spanish.

Her jaguar bears her signature, “Miri Salgado,” and vibrant style. One half of a husband-and-wife team from the Xochimilco neighborhood of Mexico City, Salgado has devoted 17 years to the art of making alebrijes monumentales, larger-than-life sculptures.

“It allows me to create what I want — what I can imagine,” she said.



Artist Miriam Salgado Zamorano stands next to her alebrije in a garden at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

 
Artist Miriam Salgado Zamorano stands next to her alebrije in a garden at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
– Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The artists let their imaginations run wild, creating nearly 50 alebrijes for “Creatures of a Dream World.” The largest ones are some 20 feet tall.

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

The six maestros — Salgado and her husband, Alejandro Camacho Barrera, as well as Alberto Moreno Fernández, Roberto Carlos Martinez, Edgar Israel Camargo Reyes and Arturo Zárate Ortiz — worked in their home gardens, in parks, on the streets, on rooftops, wherever they could find a space large enough to accommodate construction. The jaguar alone took Salgado took two months to build.

“It’s so beautiful, the work and the craftsmanship that they put into it. They don’t even realize the incredible stuff that they’re doing with their hands and how many hours that they’re putting into it,” said Fernando Ramirez, president and founder of the Mexican Cultural Center of DuPage. “And I think it’s our job to help them be brought out to life, brought out to the community.”

Ramirez dreamed up the idea of an alebrijes exhibition and approached Cantigny over a year ago to host it. It’s not just a celebration of Mexican folk art. Ramirez sees the artists as ambassadors of a cultural exchange.

“First, I want them to see Mexico reflected in these pieces,” Reyes said of his sculptures, intricately painted in almost fluorescent shades, for a Cantigny audience.


Todd Henderson, assistant director of horticulture, works around one of the alebrije creatures at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
 
Todd Henderson, assistant director of horticulture, works around one of the alebrije creatures at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
– Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Pedro Linares López is credited with developing the art form in the 1930s and coining the term “alebrijes” after falling ill and drifting into a fever dream populated by otherworldly creatures. Like López, the artists featured at Cantigny specialize in the handcrafted trade of cartonería.

“I am inspired by the artisans who enhance and give identity to my country with their work,” Salgado said in a video series introducing the alebrije artists. “In Mexico, there are 12 million artisans who are neither famous nor recognized, but they give that magic, color and folklore that represents Mexico. They give identity to my country.”

The artists were recruited by the Mexican Cultural Center of DuPage and arrived at Cantigny in May. After the alebrijes came by truck to the park, the artists finished assembling them, touching up paint and applying many coats of lacquer to help protect them from rain and the elements. You’ll see “¡Viva México!” painted on their sculptures and a Mexican flag on their work aprons.


A mosquito sculpture made by artist Arturo Zarate is positioned for display by Alejandro Camacho and Scott Witte, director of horticulture at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

 
A mosquito sculpture made by artist Arturo Zarate is positioned for display by Alejandro Camacho and Scott Witte, director of horticulture at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
– Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

“We see this as a celebration of cultural diversity through art, and it’s a good message and aligns perfectly with our values, so it really made for the perfect partnership,” Cantigny Executive Director Matt LaFond said. “Plus, it also allows us to attract a new, diverse audience to the park and really expose them to everything that Cantigny has to offer.”

While the exhibition officially opens today, organizers are planning a June 12 daylong celebration with music, dance and food as part of a summer of alebrije-themed programming. The McCormick Foundation, Cantigny’s parent organization, awarded a grant to the Mexican Cultural Center of DuPage to help make “Creatures of a Dream World” a reality.

“We have programs, events, garden classes, lectures, all around the alebrije exhibit for the entire duration, not just the opening but all the way running through October,” LaFond said.


"Since I was a child from the first time I saw an alebrije, I fell in love with them," artist Edgar Israel Camargo Reyes said.


“Since I was a child from the first time I saw an alebrije, I fell in love with them,” artist Edgar Israel Camargo Reyes said.
– Courtesy of Cantigny Park

The artists will stay in DuPage until the first week of July. This month, they’ll work together on a group project — an alebrije octopus — unfolding between an allée, or walkway of trees at Cantigny.

“People can come and ask them questions about how they do this,” LaFond said.

Sometimes, the “how” can’t be explained. Spontaneity is as much a part of the process as a paintbrush.

“When you create a piece, you’re always going to put your emotions in it, when you’re sad, when you’re happy or when you have a problem,” Salgado said. “These pieces were created with much love, and there was a lot of work. And overall it reflects much happiness when they were created.”

When one of her pieces, another winged creature, was first installed at the Cantigny entrance, Salgado cried tears of happiness.

• Daily Herald staff writer Alicia Fabbre contributed to this report

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        



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