Inside the Box

A fourth-generation artist keeps a Peruvian legacy of sculpting potato dough altarpieces alive


Each of Zuly Palomino Jimenez’ framed works renders a scene of Peruvian life in miniature, straddling everyday settings and Andean legends, suspended in a moment of stasis – animal or human figures are captured dancing in a carnival or fashioning Andean masks, selling hats in a market or depicting mythic stories – inside ornate cedar boxes.

Palomino and her family specialize in retablos, or altarpieces, which illuminate the Indigenous culture of Quechua. After her mother Eleudora, Palomino is the second altarpiece maker in her family and she is the only woman to create this popular art in the United States, which, Palomino notes, “is very male-dominated in Peru.” Her siblings Amalia and Sebastián Palomino have also taken up the mantle of crafting retablos.

The scenes and stories portrayed in the altarpieces are as engrained for Palomino as the techniques of crafting the fine folk art – her grandfather Florentino Jimenez Toma was known as the Great Master Retablista. “I am the fourth generation,” says Palomino. “Since I was very little, maybe six or eight years old, I was very curious watching my parents, grandparents doing all the little figures. I used to follow them around the workshop they used to have in Lima at the time.”

Her family had moved from their hometown of Ayacucho in the 1980s, fleeing political violence, but carried on the artform. The tradition dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors brought retablos to Peru as small shrines for Catholic saints, though Indigenous Quechua people adapted them into their own culture, too. “These retablos are a mix of both cultures,” Palomino explains, and in traditional use, are viewed as protection during difficult times. 

Each hand-sculpted piece starts with a simple base: potato dough. “After boiling, you mash it, like making mashed potatoes, and mix it with plaster – in this case, I use plaster of paris. I make a paste; it has to be very soft,” Palomino explains. The use of the readily available food ingredient stems from her grandfather’s practice. “He didn’t buy too much; he made his own materials, his own brushes. I remember that he sometimes would use a little bit of cat fur – we used to keep lots of cats in our house – for the brushes. He said that was the finest brush.”

Cats and dogs make appearances in some of Palomino’s more imaginative works, along with animal face masks, though the more classic retablos she constructs are populated with human figures staged in vivid, brightly colored scenes. She sculpts each individual piece using the process her family passed down – a method that requires patience, with each stage of construction necessitating the pieces to set overnight, from the torsos and limbs to the ponchos, dresses, and stout Peruvian sombreros. Once they’re dry, she paints them in vibrant hues. The doors of the boxes are adorned with flowers, which “mean good luck in the Andean culture,” Palomino says.

“I spent a lot of time in Ayacucho, the hometown of my parents, always listening to my grandmother Amalia and grandfather Florentino,” she shares. “They used to tell me Andean legends and stories,” many of which are represented in retablos. Depicting the tale of the fox and the condor, one frame portrays a great party in the sky with all the birds of the Earth. A mermaid legend shows figures bringing their instruments to be enchanted on the banks of a waterfall.

Palomino has also done restoration work for old retablos. “Most of my grandfather’s works are natural – made without plaster – just potato, so in Peru some of them have disappeared completely,” she laments. The ones she still has – even though the color may have faded – are all the more special.

Since moving to Rhode Island with her husband Brenton Leach three years ago and now working out of a home studio in Warwick, Palomino’s work has left an impression around the state and beyond. She’s hosted workshops at the Harvard Art Museum in Cambridge and more recently at The Collaborative in Warren to help keep the tradition alive for generations to come. “It’s very important to me that people don’t forget this art, to preserve the cultural heritage,” Palomino emphasizes. “It’s our family tradition.”


Handmade Gifts

This season, Palomino is busy at work making owl ornaments with little nativity scenes for Christmas, as well as different sizes of nativity retablos and other decorations. These and other one-of-a-kind masks, sculptures, and more can be found at Hotpoint Emporium in Bristol, the Made in Warren Artist Cooperative, and online at



No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here