You might think you’re dreaming when you walk inside the gates of Cantigny Park in Wheaton and spot giant, fantastical creatures like winged lemurs, two-headed dogs, and rabbit kangaroos frolicking among the flowers.
Eighteen monumental versions of the folk art known as alebrijes are in the park as a part of the exhibit “Alebrijes: Creatures of a Dream World“ brought to Cantigny Park by the Mexican Cultural Center Du Page in collaboration with Meztli Artist Collective in Mexico City.
The art of alebrijes started with a dream. In 1936, a feverishly ill Mexico City paper artist, or cartonero, named Pedro Linares said he dreamt of magically mishmashed creatures exclaiming “alebrije!” When he recovered, he began making and selling colorful papier mache versions of the beasts.
Today, alebrijes are a cherished Mexican folk art, and many are made from wood. But the alebrijes on display at Cantigny Park are much closer to the original artist’s fever dream of fantastical creatures that existed only in his imagination made into papercraft.
Master artist Miriam Salgado named one of her creations “Tochtli” – the name derives from the Nahuatl term for rabbit.
“It’s a combination rabbit kangaroo and it also has an iguana crest,” Salgado said. “He’s a very happy rabbit!”
Artist Edgar Camargo Reyes’ whale-slash-anglerfish surfs above grassy waves in a hilly area of the park.
“This is inspired by deep water fish and all of it, including the skull, is a representation of that type of marine animal deep in the ocean,’ he said of his alebrije, which is about the size of an SUV.
The inspiration for the intricate adornment on each alebrije can come from anywhere, say the artists.
“I’m inspired by nature. And to develop these alebrijes your state of mind is very influential,” Salgado said. “At the moment you’re developing the pattern, you’re actually painting what you feel at that moment on the actual figure.”
Alberto Moreno Fernandez’s alebrije ‘Bicefalo’ depicts an interior battle between good and evil.
“It’s really centered around yin and yang. That’s why one head is fighting the others,” Moreno Fernandez said.
Moreno Fernandez said he had to take Midwestern weather into account while planning “Bicefalo.”
“Even while the wind is blowing, the piece isn’t really moving – it’s in equilibrium.”
Arturo Zarate constructed his alebrije – a combination of toucan, jaguar, bull and butterfly he calls the “Malucan” – with recycled materials like paper and plastic bottles that he solicited through social media.
“My expression is living together with nature and the animals in it and that’s how I have designed my artwork,” Zarate said.
“It had to do a lot with endangered species – and the tendency of humans to appropriate animals that should in reality be free.”
Zarate said the spirit of Mexico and its people is also part of the Malucan.
“Hispanics have a lot of resilience and a lot of strength, and this is reflecting some of those strengths.”
The visiting artists say they hope their big and brilliant alebrijes will inspire people to learn more about Mexico’s artistic traditions.
“We’re here in Chicago to represent just a very infinitesimal part of all of what Mexico has to offer,” said Camargo Reyes.
“Alebrijes: Creatures of a Dream World” will be on display at Cantigny Park June 12 – Oct. 31, 2022 and includes an additional 30 smaller sculptures throughout the park. The exhibit “Maquetas & Bocetos“ will display models and drawings of the alebrijes through Aug. 27 at Gallery 200, 103 W. Washington Street, West Chicago.