Creativity
A Fantastical Art School Is Opening in a Jungle outside Tulum
Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

If you drive around 20 minutes inland from Tulum’s beachside resorts, you’re likely to spy otherworldly treehouses peeking out from the lush Quintana Roo jungle. These wondrous structures, built with the natural bounty of the land, are the first signs of Azulik Uh May, a new, one-of-a-kind arts center.
The first phase of Azulik Uh May opened to visitors in late November, with a new space for the contemporary art gallery IK Lab and a residence that will host occasional gatherings. The latter is the home of the self-taught architect Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel, who goes by Roth. He is the owner of Azulik, a lux, eco-friendly Tulum resort, as well as the new development, which will expand to become a complex of buildings—the beating heart of which will be an interdisciplinary arts-and-crafts school, inspired and driven by the creative talent of the local Mayan population.
Azulik Uh May embraces a spirit similar to Azulik in its reverence for nature, embrace of spirituality, and sustainable building practices. IK Lab, which first opened at the resort this past April, is a spectacular feat of architecture—an undulating, womb-like structure made from local vines and synthetic concrete, punctuated by living trees and plants—which couldn’t be further from the traditional white cube. The gallery’s program has already included prominent international artists like and .
Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

The new IK Lab space at Azulik Uh May opened with a show curated by artistic director Claudia Paetzold, featuring installations by Neto, , , and Oskar Metsavaht. This gallery is perhaps even more impressive than the first: a 16-meter-high dome made from concrete and bejuco vines, based on Fibonacci proportions. Dozens of living trees shoot up from the ground as pale ribbons of concrete snake between them up above.
“You’re really invited to connect to your own creative inspiration when you’re in a space like this, it’s very much alive,” said Paetzold. “For the artists, it’s quite rewarding to see their work here—to see how their creative process relates to the creative process of nature.”
Roth’s own creative process as an architect is entirely related to the natural world. “I am excited to see visitors realize that building in the jungle does not require sacrificing the local trees,” he explained, “but that it is possible to preserve them and to integrate their intelligence into the structures.” His home, he added, incorporates 250 trees.
Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

The mind-bending architecture has been realized, however, by a skilled staff of indigenous Mayan artisans and builders. They will continue to contribute their expertise as Azulik Uh May expands to include a school—and some of them will become its first students.
“The arts-and-crafts school was inspired by my experience with the local Mayan population and the talent I saw,” Roth explained. He gave the example of one man who was performing poorly in his job at the resort collecting seaweed on the beach, but turned out to be a gifted carpenter. He now has 100 people working under his direction.
The first classes are slated to begin in the first half of 2019, led by artists in residence at Azulik Uh May and other creative professionals. The aim will be to honor the skills of the Mayan people, while allowing them to learn new ones. “The idea is we will be able to help idiosyncratic Mayan knowledge meet with processes of creation, fabrication, and design,” Paetzold offered. Roth added: “The learning process in our school will not be based on the master-disciple relationship, but both teacher and student will learn together and co-create.” (They also intend to offer master classes and workshops for visiting students, though the school will be free for locals.)
Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Image of Azulik Uh May in Tulum, Mexico. Courtesy of Enchanting Transformation.

Though future construction dates are not set in stone—“We will grow organically, like the jungle, like the plants,” Roth said—gradually, Azulik Uh May will grow to include an array of distinct workshops for various creative pursuits, such as ceramics, wood- and stone-carving, 3D-printing, fashion and jewelry design, and carpet-weaving.
The Mayan people will also be able to apply to work as assistants to the artists, Roth said, and will be given the tools to pursue their own artistic practices. He hopes for the school to eventually become a model that can be replicated in other communities. “It will always be those who build the school, those who will start training as assistants for the artists, who will eventually become the artists,” he said. “It is a harmonic circle in which everyone participates.”
The complex will also include health and wellness programs, which, Roth hopes, will help more people become involved in the art school, and more in touch with the healing power of art.
“In the gallery, the floors are all curved and the walls are detached and floating. As a result, the visitors lose their usual frame of reference, which might have otherwise prevented them from being in touch with the art and the sacred,” Roth mused. “Eventually, art is not about making the connection outside of ourselves, but inside.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.