Children make traditional Mexican paper cutouts while learning about symmetry in design. For ages 6 to 13. Plan 2 sessions.
- Learning about one of the native arts of Mexico
- Practice with cutting skills
- Understanding and creating symmetrical designs
This website has examples of Amate paper cutouts. Click on each picture to see the full image.
The Otomi Indians of Mexico begin their cutouts by making paper from the bark of the Amate tree. Strips of the Amate bark are boiled in an ash solution until soft, then laid criss-cross and pounded with a stick until the fibers mesh. This process creates a strong paper that retains the texture of the bark.
With this paper, the Otomi people make beautiful, symmetrical cutouts which are used for traditional purposes, such as warding off diseases, protecting crops, or guarding homes. The designs are fanciful or symbolic, using the human form and elements from nature. A typical design might contain the head of a man, with the wings of a bird and maybe the feet of a chicken.
YOU WILL NEED
- Brown craft paper cut into 12 x 18-inch pieces (one for each child)
- Waxed paper cut into approximately 18-inch pieces (two for each paper cutout)
- Iron (A safe area with adult supervision will be needed for the hot iron.)
- White paper for mounting the finished paper cutouts
- Spray adhesive or white glue
- Hole punch (optional)
- Stapler (optional)
- Set out the brown craft paper and pencils.
- Have the scissors, stapler, and hole punch ready, but set aside.
- Tell the children about the Otomi Indians and their Amate paper cutouts. Share any examples you might have. Explain to the children they will be making cutouts similar to those made by the Otomi Indians.
- Explain that the figures in the paper cutouts are fanciful or imaginative rather than real. The children can use any combination of human forms, wild and domestic animals, birds, and plants in their cutouts. Individual characteristics of animals work well, such as a chicken's head, an alligator's teeth, or a rooster's tail.
- Demonstrate how to make the paper cutouts. Fold the paper in half lengthwise, making a 9 x 12-inch drawing area. Explain that half of the design needs to be drawn along the folded edge of the paper. When the design is cut out and the paper is opened, the children will see the other half or mirror-image of the drawing. This creates a symmetrical design where the two sides are the same. For example, drawing half a head along the folded edge will result in a single head when the paper is opened. If a complete head is drawn, the final work will have two heads.
- Make a single line drawing starting and ending on the fold in the paper. (It is best not to include the straight edges of the paper in the design.) Enough of the folded side needs to remain uncut to keep the paper in one piece when it is opened. Encourage the children to keep their designs simple; complicated designs can become too difficult to cut out.
- Have the children fold their papers and draw their designs. After the drawings are finished and have been checked to be sure enough parts of the folded papers will remain intact when the cuttings are completed, the children should cut out their designs. Remind them to be sure to cut through both sides of the folded paper.
- Do not open the papers until all cutting is completed. If needed, there will be time to continue cutting in the next session.
- Set up a safe area for the iron using a thick pad of newspaper to protect the work surface. Have the waxed papers ready (two sheets per child) and sheets of newspaper to use over the waxed paper to protect the iron. This area must be supervised by an adult.
- Set out the paper cutouts.
- Set out scissors if more time is needed to complete the cutting.
- Explain to the children that they will be changing the texture of their papers to simulate the bark from the Amate tree.
- When their cuttings are complete, the children can open their papers to reveal their symmetrical designs. Have the children crunch and crumble their unfolded papers into very tight wads.
- Open the papers again, carefully unfolding all the delicate pieces. With the iron set on high, iron the flattened papers between pieces of waxed paper. Be sure to do the ironing on a newspaper pad to protect the work surface and lay a sheet of newspaper on top of the waxed paper to protect the iron. Move the iron over the paper slowly, giving the wax a chance to melt. (The older children can iron their own cutouts with adult supervision. I have the younger children watch as I iron the cutouts for them.)
- Have the children peel open the waxed paper. The melted wax darkens the stiffened paper and gives it a beautiful texture.
- The children can use small dots of white glue to attach their paper cutouts to a larger piece of white paper.
- Children enjoy the surprises in this project and are very proud of their cutouts.
- Remind the children to begin drawing on the folded side.
- Patterns, such as on the wings of the dragon above, can be cut by double folding the individual section.
- Be sure to completely unfold the cutouts before starting to crumble them.
- Since only one cutout can be ironed at a time, it’s a good idea to have an extra activity planned for the children as they await their turn or complete their work. It should be something simple, such as sketching or reading.
- For another Mexican folk art using the same prepared paper, see the lesson on Amate Bark Paintings.
- Point out the mirror-images in the symmetrical designs.
- Discuss how texture adds to the cutouts.
- For fun, plan some purposes for the paper cutouts just as the Otomi Indians did.
- I don’t know what to draw.
- My scissors can’t follow all the lines I drew. I cut off a foot.
- How can I make eyes on all my heads?
- Crumple my paper? But I like it just the way it is.
- Is this crumpled enough?
- Wow! I did that!
- A good way to start is by choosing a favorite animal and only drawing one part of it. Then add another animal's feet and maybe a third animal's tail or wings.
- As you plan your design, remember that you will have to cut it out, so don't make it too complicated. If you cut off a piece by accident, save it. You can crumble and iron it along with your paper cut and glue it together on the white paper.
- To make eyes you can either fold the head and cut into the paper or use the hole punch.
- To make your paper look like bark, you will need to crumble and iron it. This will give it a beautiful texture.
- The more you crumble your paper, the more it will look like bark.
- Let's think of some purposes for which the Otomi Indians might use these wonderful paper cutouts.