The Mayan pyramid of Izamal

Outposts of Handmade Paper in 21st Century North America

No. 1 of three separate posts…

Huun Paper
Calle 19

Merida, Mexico
Date of Visit:  January, 2015 + 2016

Coming later in 2016
Part 2. Le papeterie Saint-Armand, Montreal, Canada
Part 3. Dieu Donné & Paper Think Tank, Manhattan and Philadelphia

The Mayan pyramid of Izamal
The Mayan Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal, south of Merida.

mexico map copy

Paper was an integral part of the ancient Maya civilization, used for clothing, maps, official records, books, tribute payments and as a vehicle for casting magic spells. But unlike the stone pyramids that remain from the same civilization, virtually all Maya paper artifacts have been lost, leaving historians without significant resources and a loss of continuity with the ancient craft of papermaking. Researchers have pieced together that around the fifth century Mayans developed a bark proto-paper, called Huun, from the white tender material found between the dark bark and the woody center of a wild fig (ficus cotinifolia or padifolia) tree. Bark was collected on the new moon when the sap was in the root, allowing the tree to recover from the harvest. The inner bark was stripped away and boiled in a soda ash solution for softening and then pounded flat with a stone. Sheets could then be fabricated up to many meters in length.

(Left) The Wild Fig   (Right) the Jonote tree.*

The Aztec version of Huun, amate, (or amatl in the Nahuatl language) made in central Mexico utilized ficus, and mulberry and jonote trees. To fabricate the amate paper sheet strips of the inner tree bark were laid out to form a close grid and then pounded flat with a specially grooved flattened rock to form a sheet.

laying out paper
The Otomi Indians of Pueblo area still make paper in the traditional manner.
Beating the fibers with a rock
The fibers are pounded together with a flat rock.


Textured rocks used to pound the fibers to a sheet of pulp.
Textured rocks used to pound the plant fibers into a paper sheet.

The Maya Codices
The Mayans fabricated books from their paper in the form of screen-folded codices. The surface was made more suitable for ink and paint by a liberal application of white lime paste. Over centuries Mayan scribes produced thousands of codex books documenting their religion, astronomy, agricultural cycles, history and prophecies, but only 3 have survived— because they were among treasures shipped from Mexico back to Europe (where they remain today in museums in Paris, Dresden and Madrid). All other Mayan books were victims of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, when Catholic bishops embarked upon an aggressive campaign to dismantle the existing native culture and religious beliefs.

We were able to view a replica of a Mayan codice in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.
A replica of a Mayan codice in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.

mayan codice detail

In 1529 the first Bishop of Spain, Fray Juan de Zumarraga began a campaign of “spiritual cleansing” by collecting Aztec codices from throughout Mexico and burning them in the market place of Tlatelolco. A similar event transpired on the Yucatan in 1561, when Bishop Diego de Landa burned any remaining Mayan codices in front of the Catholic church in Mani, the seat of the Tutul Xiu (a Mayan chiefdom located in central Yucatan). The bishop wrote, “Among the Maya we found a great number of books written with their characters, and because they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods about the Devil, we burned them all, which the Indians felt most deeply and over which they showed much sorrow.”

Mayan codices were burned in front of the Catholic church in Mani
Mayan codices were burned in front of this Catholic church in Mani. We visited the now tranquil site but finding the church was difficult in 2015 when the town roads and main square were undergoing a massive reconstruction effort.
By 2016 we found that the work was complete.
Murals of the book burning at Mani appear on the walls of the Plaza is the Palacio Municipal in Merida.
A mural of Bishop Diego de Landa burning Mayan books in the town of Mani
is painted on the walls of the Plaza is the Palacio Municipal in Merida.

Huun Paper : A Community Paper Project in Merida by
Mark and Yolanda Callaghan
HUUN paper street facade


Mark and Yolanda Callaghan
Mark and Yolanda Callaghan

In the pre-Hispanic era numerous Mexican villages were devoted exclusively to papermaking however, due to the Spanish interference, the craft virtually disappeared by the end of the 17th century. Today artist Mark Callaghan and his wife Yolanda are revisiting traditional methods in a culturally and environmentally sustainable effort named, Project Huun.We were able to visit the Huun Paper headquarters on a warm January afternoon in Merida. The rooms were full of Callaghan’s handsome original prints and a display of their Huun paper products. We were informed that we would not see papermaking in production there, the paper is produced in an undisclosed location to protect their trade secrets. They are naturally protective as it would be easy for others to exploit workers at a lower wage, undermining Huun’s goal of self-sufficiency for their workers.

Callaghan, an artist and papermaker, was born in San Diego but moved to Mexico with his mother and older brother when he was 16 years old in 1970. He studied under a local Merida artist, Emilio Torre Gamboa and later at the National School of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico City before earning his BFA at the Instituto Allende (1980) in San Miguel de Allende. He began his career as a life-drawing teacher in the Bellas Artes school of San Miguel before moving back to Mérida in 1982. After the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 he visited his friend and colleague printmaker Alejandro Ehrenburg at his the famous printmaking workshop, Artegrafias Limitadas in Mexico City, and began experimenting with recycling paper using a small blender.

While in Mexico City, overseeing an exhibition of his paintings at the UAM University, Callaghan partnered with Ehrenburg to develop Plastigraphy, a new printmaking process that combines bondo or clay as a workable surface with plasticine used to make a plate. They were inspired by the Mixografia® technique that was earlier developed by the famous Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo and the printmaker Blade. Mixografia® allows for the production of three-dimensional prints with both texture and very fine surface detail. They are printed onto large thick sheets of moist handmade cotton paper. (See more details about Mixografia® here.)

Tamayo's Mixografia prints.  (Left) Luna y Sol 1990, (Right) Perfil amarillo, 1979.
Tamayo’s Mixografia prints.
(Left) Luna y Sol 1990, (Right) Perfil amarillo, 1979.

An inspired Callaghan returned to Merida in 1985 and began developing ways expand the possibilities of papermaking still based on ancient  techniques but using sustainable materials of the Yucatan. He visited the village of San Pablito in central Mexico to study the amate-huun papermaking process (discussed above) from the Otomi Indians. Then, back in the Yucatan, he identified communities of Maya-Yucatecs who were interested in developing papermaking as part of their local economy.

Although he trained the craftsmen in the traditional manner, Callaghan also began to experiment with papers made from renewable indigenous natural plants such as corn, kapok, sisal, sanseviera, grasses, banana and papaya stalk. Several organizations provided funding for Callaghan’s projects to re-acquaint the Mayans with their traditional craft; Sostenabilidad Maya, Ashoka and the MacArthur Foundation.

Several projects took Callighan outside of Merida to small villages on the peninsula. To help Mayans embrace their lost tradition Callaghan taught papermaking to a group of Mayan teachers and actors in the village of Oxkutzcab, with the hopes that it would be passed down to their children. In the aforemetioned village of Mani he taught papermaking history and process at the bi-lingual primary school and was then invited to witness a reenactment of the Bishop de Landa’s book burning in front of the church (held with the blessing of the local Catholic priest).

graphic Maya
Contemporary Mayan codice by a student.
Book making in the Huun Merida workshop.
Book making in the Huun Merida workshop.
Huun products
A display of Huun products available for purchase.

It became obvious to Callaghan that it was more environmentally friendly to use renewable plants than the traditional tree bark. Using the local sanseviera plant he devised a method that combines Japanese washi technique and the ancient Mayan Huun method.

Sanseviera plant (sometimes called Mother-in-law tongues)

For the last 25 years, Callaghan has devoted most his time to Huun, producing specialty papers with his environmentally sustainable formula. The production helps give many rural Mayan communities a lasting source of income—one that is not part of the pervasive tourist economy of hotel and restaurant work. Moreover, by teaching the lost art of Mayan papermaking, he hopes to help restore the Mayans’ sense of pride in their culture.

It is possible to see Callaghan making paper in a video by Elizabeth Upton, on youtube.



Stock-Allen, Nancy. Interview with Mark Callaghan. Merida, Mexico, 2015.

Van Hagen, Victor Wolfgang. (1944). The Aztec and Maya Papermakers.
New York, NY: J.J. Augustin Publisher.

Hunter, Dard. (1943). Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft.
New York City, NY: Dover Publications, Inc

Sandstrom, Alan R. & Pamela E. Sandstrom. (1986). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

* Source of appropriated image of Jonte Tree. All other photos ©

One thought on “Outposts of Handmade Paper in 21st Century North America

  1. Very informative, fascinating and tragic history, good to know that the art has not been totally lost.

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