Local color: Leona King Gallery features whimsical Oaxacan sculpture.
Local color: Leona King Gallery features whimsical Oaxacan sculpture.
Eleazar Morales

Creatures Bright and Small

When 17 life-size fiber-glass horses clopped into downtown Scottsdale in late 2000, lovers of animals and art took to the streets to admire the stallions. This summer, another curious collection of creatures has made its way into the city's gallery district, and though it lacks the noise of the Scottsdale Stampede, it merits a look nonetheless.

"The Magic in the Trees," currently on exhibit at the Leona King Gallery, showcases colorful animal carvings handcrafted by the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico. Called alebrijes, the small-scale figures are carved from the wood of the copal (or copillo) tree, a hardwood variety native to southern Mexico's Oaxacan Valley.

According to gallery owner Sam King, the "village-taught" artists first rough out the image with a machete, then detail the piece with woodworking tools. After the carving is hand-sanded, bright acrylic paints are applied in intricate patterns, the unmuted colors often taking on Aztec designs.

While the carvings' intense coloration — a defining feature of the art form — turns off some collectors, King says he considers the eye-catching hues to be a thoroughly creative approach. "I think [the color] is great. I don't need to see the animals in their natural colors. I like the brightness."

Indeed, the pieces display imaginative color schemes rarely seen outside a 4-year-old's coloring book. A purple stripe zips down the back of a mountain lion the color of blue jeans. A brown moose sports purple hooves, turquoise ears and antlers, pink nostrils and green eyes. Red-and-teal lizards with curlicue tails sprawl across a gallery wall; a green-eared Brahma bull, red-eyed buffalo, gray polka-dotted cat and blue-speckled anteater sit on a shelf below.

While the works draw on divergent themes of religion, mythology and everyday life, the artist often allows the shape of the wood to dictate the form that emerges. Though various carvings represent humans, saints, devils and religious rituals, animals — real, mythical and conceptual — are the most common subjects.

King says the fanciful figures have found a receptive local audience. One particularly dramatic piece, a dragon crafted by renowned husband-and-wife team Jacobo and Maria Angeles, sold for $2,000 the morning after its photo was posted on the gallery's Web site, and King promptly received orders for four more.

Most of the carvings carry more modest price tags, many in the low $100s. The cost of the largest work in the collection, Feliciano Santiago's considerable Oaxacan Cactus, is a mere $180. The piece's fluid color scheme, with 14 interchangeable blooms of fuchsia, yellow, orange and blue, encapsulates the Oaxacan artist's world — conceived by nature, colored by imagination.

"The Magic in the Trees" is on display through the end of August at Leona King Gallery, 7171 East Main in Scottsdale. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Log on to www.leonakinggallery.com or call 480-945-1209 for additional details.


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