Quite gradually over the years, I have developed an interest in the crafts of Latin America, primarily because of their bright colors which draw me in with their seeming cheerfulness, and the ingenious use of materials. One such craft that I recently discovered is masapan, bread dough art from Calderon, Ecuador.
You may be familiar with bread dough crafts from your childhood. When I say “bread dough” I don’t mean the kind you knead to make bread out of, but the craft clay-like material you make out of torn pieces of white bread mixed with white glue. Like salt dough, it’s one of the many types of play clays you can make from ingredients you have readily on hand.
Probably the most famous types of bread dough ornaments in the world are made in Calderon, Ecuador, where entire families were once involved in their production. I say “were” because many of these families have stopped producing these figuras de masa pan. Sad to say, it is a dying art, but there is a glimmer of hope, as a few individuals are determined to keep this art alive. They have worked to revitalize the production methods by improving the processes and modernizing the look of the figures.
One of the ways in which these artisans have modernized the process is by using a cornstarch dough in place of the traditional bread dough, that apparently increases durability. The figures made with the traditional bread dough were painted in bright colors and varnished, while the modern figures have a matte finish and are lighter in color. The facial features and expressions of the newer figures are more cartoon-like and less crude in appearance than the traditional pieces.
Given that the majority of bread dough art is from Ecuador and the fact that I was not planning on any international trips anytime soon, I decided to go on the internet and do a search for original Ecuadoran masapan for purchase. There wasn’t a whole lot available, but I did find one item listed on eBay that totally piqued my interest. It was a wooden plaque in the shape of a bird, upon which small pieces of painted bread dough had been attached to form a vibrant floral pattern.
According to the seller, this piece had been purchased in Ecuador in the 1980’s. Given the time period, the bright colors, and the varnished finish, (some of which have worn off), I gathered this bird plaque was done in the more traditional style of masapan.
I just love the folk art look of this bird!
And to think this handicraft was started from bits of bread! You’ve heard me say this more than once – I love the ingenuity of using humble ingredients to create works of art. To me that is what makes folk art special and endearing – use what you have and make it work for you. It is a shame however, that these types of crafts are dying, but hopefully with the current interest in handmade items, there will be renewed interest in these types of handicrafts, and younger artisans will infuse them with a modern sensibility.
What vintage type folk crafts have you discovered that you would like to give a shout-out to? Please share in the comments.