Preserving the Art of ‘Papel Picado’

The American translation I grew up with is hardly picturesque – brightly colored plastic triangles strung along roadways, noisily flapping in the breeze in vain attempts to motivate you to “stop here for gas” or “trade in your car today.”  But, as with many humble or utilitarian objects in Mexico, banners were elevated to a form of art and signified celebrations important to the community.  Papel picado, or punched paper, artists use hammer and chisel to punch designs out of stacks of up to 40 layers of tissue at a time.

As part of the San Antonio Conservation Society’s celebration of Historic Preservation Month, a display of papel picado, or punched paper, by artist Kathleen Trenchard is on exhibit in the Visitors Center of The Steves Homestead.  While her work includes traditional papel picado banners, Kathleen’s contemporary interpretation of the art form includes portraits, buildings and major public art installations – at the AT&T Center, the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center and the Grand Hyatt Hotel.  Kathleen also designed the official Fiesta pin for the Conservation Society’s major fundraiser, A Night in Old San Antonio, or NIOSA.

The legendary printmaker and satirical cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) created his oft-reproduced “La Calavera Catrina” to satirize the lifestyle of the upper class in Mexico in the late 1800s.  In one of the works on exhibit at the Steves’ Visitors Center, Kathleen crafts a skeletal “self-portrait” as a dancing partner of La Catrina.  

“Portraits” of architectural landmarks featured in the exhibit include the Bexar County Courthouse, the Japanese Tea Garden, the silos at Blue Star and the Pig Stand.  The one must suitable for the cause of preservation follows the satirical style of Posada:  “Demolition:  1123 Brooklyn.”

In recognition of her artistic perpetuation of this form of Mexican folk art, the Conservation Society will bestow its Lynn Ford Craftsman Award upon Kathleen at its Historic Preservation Awards Dinner on Friday, May 14.  The Conservation Society established the award in 1978 in honor of Lynn Ford, a craftsman, cabinetmaker, builder and teacher.

Preserving the Art of Papel Picado will be on display at the Visitors Center located behind The Edward Steves Homestead and House Museum, 509 King William Street, through June.  The Visitors Center and Museum are open daily, but hours vary depending on scheduled tours.  For more information, telephone 210.225.5924.

Tickets for the Conservation Society’s Awards Dinner are $75 for individuals or $600 for a table of eight.  For reservations, telephone 210.224.6163.  To find out information about other Preservation Month activities, visit www.saconservation.org.

So what could the “prodigious poster” learn from a form of art where what is eliminated paints the picture?  Cut.

Added on May 3:  Great article on the area of Puebla known for papel amate

NIOSA Papel Picado

Shell out your $10 quickly.  Unless NIOSA ordered thousands more pins than normal, the medal Kathleen Trenchard designed for the 2010 Fiesta event should sell out quickly.  Delicately crafted in metal instead of paper, the papel picado NIOSA pin is turquoise, pink-ribboned and festooned with dangling charms.  

Traditional papel picado, or punched paper, is created with hammer and chisel, and Kathleen works magic.  While she produces traditional banners, her portraits are amazing, sometimes unexpected (two women eating dim sum) and always immediately recognizable (a skeletal version of Mike Casey riding his bike in the King William Fair).  Picking up my husband’s shoes from being resoled deep on the south side, I immediately recognized the man waiting on me – Kathleen’s bootmaker.

Order one before they become rare collectibles fetching high prices on eBay.

April 6 Note:  If you missed seeing it during Luminaria San Antonio, visit Kathleen’s March 16 blog to see her wonderful papel picado portrait of El Curro and Teresa Champion.