Artist Perla Miriam Salgado Zamorano works on an ‘alebrije’ for the Mexican Cartoneria folk art exhibition at North Riverside Park Mall on March 25. | Todd Bannor

When Jeanne Heller, director of marketing for North Riverside Park Mall, saw the “Alebrijes: Creatures of a Dream World” exhibition at Cantigny Park in Wheaton last year, she fell in love with the pieces and immediately reached out to Fernando Ramirez, president and founder of the Mexican Cultural Center DuPage who sponsored the exhibition. 

“I was standing in front of them thinking, ‘These would be really cool in a mall,’” she said.

That vision has come to life with “Cartoneria: The Mexican Tradition of Paper Mache,” an exhibition that runs through May 7 at the mall, 7501 Cermak Road in North Riverside.

After several months outside at the park, the pieces were all in poor condition. Ramirez explained that the mall wouldn’t be getting a finished exhibition but could be part of the restoration process. 

“Ultimately, it was a great way to involve the community,” said Heller. “Thirty-five to 40 percent of our guests are Hispanic and speak Spanish. To have these Spanish-speaking artists from Mexico City onsite and able to speak with guests has been incredible.” 

Volunteers were invited to help on five consecutive Saturdays in February and March with work on Jonas the whale, one of nine alebrijes monumentales at the mall.

Alebrijes are imaginary creatures that are made up of parts from different animals and have components of the four classical elements: earth, water, air and fire. They date to the 1930s when Pedro Linares fell into a fever and had a vivid dream where he saw creatures calling out to him saying, “Alebrijes!” 

When he awoke, he used his skills as a cartonero, someone who works with paper and paste, to recreate what he had dreamt. Because the creatures in his dream were “ugly and terrifying” he painted them in bright colors and vivid patterns to make them less scary. 

The mall exhibit also includes 11 tones or spirit animals which are smaller and resemble normal animals except for their colors and patterns.

Of the original six artists who participated in the Cantigny exhibition, three have returned from Mexico to take part in the mall exhibition where each has three alebrijes on display. 

Alejandro Camacho Barrera and Perla Miriam Salgado Zamorano are a husband-wife team of toymakers who started making alebrijes in 2010. That year, they participated in the annual “La Noche de los Alebrijes” parade sponsored by the Museum of Popular Art in Mexico City and won first prize. 

Salgado described herself as “an artisan at heart” and credits her husband with teaching her their trade.

“We help people understand Mexican culture through our toys,” she said.

Camacho is part of the third-generation in his family to make things from wood. His grandfather worked on the boats on the canals in Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, and his father was a carpenter. 

“When I was a child, there were always tools and materials at home, so I learned how to use them,” he said. 

He described his pieces as being like a metaphor for humanity: different parts coming together to make a whole.

Artist Edgar Israel Camargo Reyes discovered alebrijes at the Sonora Market in Mexico City when he was a child. He soon found a teacher who taught him the cartonería process. 

He later attended the National Institute of Fine Arts majoring in ceramics and sculpture. Camargo gets inspiration for his alebrijes from nature, especially patterns that occur on fish and insects.

At first, he was nervous about the language barrier when working with the community volunteers last month, but then he enjoyed the process of teaching others again after not having been able to because of the pandemic. 

“People were eager and excited to help out and learn,” he said. 

Camargo never expected to be able to make a living as an artist, much less gain national recognition and be able to travel to different countries. 

“It’s surreal,” he said.

The process of making the alebrijes can take six to 12 weeks. It starts with a boceto (a sketch) and then a maqueta (a mock-up). A steel skeleton is welded together and then chicken wire and Styrofoam are used to give the alebrije shape. 

Finally, eight to 20 layers of paper and paste are used to cover the form before it is painted. At the mall, the artists are using thicker paper and an acrylic-based paste to shorten the process.

The alebrijes and spirit animals at the mall are all going on to permanent installations elsewhere when the exhibition closes. 

“Their first life was at Cantigny, their reincarnation is at the mall, and their second life will follow,” said Ramirez.

“Cartoneria: The Mexican Tradition of Paper Mache” runs through May 7 at North Riverside Park Mall.

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