The Pottery of Tonalá, Jalisco

The tradition of burnished ceramics in Tonalá goes back to pre-Hispanic times. Works from Tonalá are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London! Today, artists there have expanded their designs, their surface decorations, and their range of colors, but carefully preserve distinctive Tonalá traditions. Any one of their pieces is a singular work of art. Several Tonalá artists have been widely rewarded for their innovations, winning competitions, and selling work to major collections. “If these were paintings,” says gallery owner Shacter, “they would be thousands of dollars, but ceramics is still reasonably priced.”

San Agustín Oapan

In the mountains of Guerrero, in a small village so remote that it does not appear on maps of Mexico, a group of families carry on a tradition of ceramic art that is hundreds of years old and that has been passed from father to son and mother to daughter for many generations. Nowhere else on the planet are people making work that is anything like the large ollas, animals, tall figures, and village scenes created by the families in San Agustín Oapan, Guererro. To own a piece of this work is to own a piece of the history of indigenous Mexico, and to help support hard-working families and a traditional way of life for this village.

The work is a wonderful example of Mexican folk art in that it is unique to this village, handed down through generations, deeply rooted in tradition, retaining a naive quality, and preserving the history and customs of the town. The figures are burros, pigs, turkeys and other birds, men on horseback carrying water jugs, churches with gatherings of villagers in the plaza, and the village’s trademark tall, thin figures with faces that resemble the villagers themselves. All the pieces are painted with village scenes like weddings, fields being plowed and planted, chickens and pigs being fed — the everyday life and venerable traditions of these villagers.

Generally, the women sculpt the figures out of clay, and the men paint them with scenes of village life. One potter told us he feels it is important to preserve traditions that are not as common anymore with the younger generations. “We must avoid losing the traditions,” he said, “and the best thing is to paint them on a clay figure as a way to keep them alive.”

They prepare the clay by mixing and then straining local black and red muds. They mix in “cotton” from the Pochote tree to add strength to the clay and sand to obtain the texture they want. They decorate the pots with iron oxide in liquid clay, called slip, and make their own brushes from dog hair. The natural clay painted with iron oxide gives the work the distinctive look for which the village is known.

Our visit to San Agustín Oapan

The first time gallery owner Mayer Shacter and I visited San Agustín Oapan, we had arranged for village artist Javier Santiago to meet us in Iguala, two hours from the town. Javier climbed into our van and guided us over dirt roads with unlabeled forks and turns, following the course of the clean, sprawling Alto Balsas River. Without Javier, we would never have found this small town tucked below towering mountains. The family compound, a dirt lot surrounded by cement block buildings with dirt floors, was filled with women who warmly greeted us including Javier’s wife, sisters, and mother, and countless children, all with bare feet and shy smiles. Their work was neatly laid out on the floor for us to see.

After we selected most of the figures by Javier’s family, a neighbor showed up with several pieces of her work. And then another. And another. The word had spread, and neighbors kept arriving, proudly setting their work out for us to see. Mayer kept the mood light with smiling and laughing, and he kept selecting pieces. We were both amazed to see the continuing variety of forms and the fineness of the painting.

At one point I counted twenty-seven people, mostly women, all carrying on lively conversations in their native Nahuatl, and all dressed similarly with a pinafore-like dress with tiny pleats in the skirt and finely embroidered designs on the lapels and waists. Javier told us that no one had ever visited the village to buy work! The artists take their work to neighboring towns, almost exclusively in Guererro, though sometimes as far as Mexico City, to sell it. Our arrival was like a state occasion for these villagers, they were so excited to have us there.

We do know that Banamex had visited the village, because one of the families is pictured in the Banamex Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art book, but no one in the village had ever seen the book or their photograph in it. We brought them a copy, and they were amazed and overjoyed to see themselves in this elegant book!

The children were getting a big kick out of my iPod, passing it around, taking turns, listening to classical music. When the small children tired of the novelty, one 11-year-old boy curled up in a chair and listened for a long time. Probably he had never heard Mozart before.

After almost six hours, including a meal of delicious pork soup and hot, homemade tortillas, with many warm handshakes and kisses and our van packed with amazing art work, we drove away with the whole neighborhood waving. We had the feeling they would all remember this day for a long time. So will we!

The Pottery of San Agustín, OapÁn Guerrero

In the mountains of Guerrero, in a small village so remote that it does not appear on maps of Mexico or on GPS, a group of families carry on a tradition of ceramic art that is hundreds of years old and that has been passed from father to son and mother to daughter for many generations. The work is completely distinctive and utterly “Mexican!” The figures are burros, pigs, turkeys and other birds, men on horseback carrying water jugs, churches with gatherings of villagers in the plaza, and the village’s trademark tall, thin figures with faces that resemble the villagers themselves.

The tall, thin clay figures the potters of Oapan, Guererro, have been creating for many generations are called “reinas,” queens. All the pieces are painted with village scenes like weddings, fields being plowed and planted, chickens and pigs being fed — the everyday life of these villagers. The potters mine clay from abundant local sources and decorate the pieces with red iron oxide, which they also source and prepare locally. Nowhere else on the planet are people making work that is anything like the large ollas, animals, tall figures, and village scenes created by these families.

Jaguars from San Cristóbal Chiapas

Artists in the village of Amatenango, just outside of San Cristóbal, Chiapas, have long been known for their dramatic jaguar jars, sculpted jaguars, and traditional ceramic roosters. The booths that line the highway near the village are heartbreaking for traditional folk art collectors, because many artists in the town have abandoned the traditional work in favor of garishly painted, molded decorative items. However, there are artists in the village who are still making wonderful traditional jaguars, ollas, and roosters. These are among the best examples of folk art, carrying forward decades old village traditions.

Burnished Ceramics from Acatlán, Puebla
Ceramics from Ocotlán, Chiapas
Decorated ceramic figures from Izúcar de Matamoros, Puebla

Santa Cruz de las Huertas, Jalisco

“The naïve, exuberant, and lighthearted pottery of Santa Cruz de las Huertas comes as close to the true heart of Mexico as any other folk art,” says gallery owner Mayer Shacter. “It has never become precious or pretentious and remains extremely affordable. An animated chicken or a stack of dogs fits in with any décor and brings the flavor of Mexico front and center.”

How the Work Came to Be

The story of the development this work is a precious piece of Mexico’s history. Pottery making in the general area, what is now the outskirts of Guadalajara, goes back at least 2500 years, long before the Spanish came to the area. Villages very close to each other developed distinctive styles that remain today, with no overlap from one village to the next.

Originally, the town of Santa Cruz de las Huertas produced hand-made sewer pipe and roof tiles. Around 1900, a man named Julian Acero realized he could have more fun with the clay and began creating toys, whistles, and banks. He was the first person to paint the clay with bright colors. Julian took a young boy in the neighborhood, Candelario Medrano, into his family, and taught him how to work with the clay.

Candelario Medrano

Already adept at making sewer pipe, Medrano soon turned his imagination loose and began to create churches, castles, bandstands, arks filled with animals, boats, trucks, and fanciful creatures. He filled his buildings and vehicles with happy people and animals and painted them with bright colors.

He also became well known for his nahuals. A nahual is a mythical figure, popular in Mexican traditional life. Half animal/half human, it is a shape shifter, a magical creature who can create mischief or help in time of need. Naghals use their powers for good or evil according to their personality. Many Mexican folk artists still incorporate nahuals into their work.

Candelario Medrano’s brightly colored and distinctively Mexican sculptures had a primitive quality and a humorous edge that appealed greatly to American tourists. By the 1960s and 70s, Candelario Medrano was considered one of Mexico’s most original and famous folk artists, and his work was widely collected. His works are still highly collectable whenever they surface.

Serapio Medrano

When Candelario died in 1986, his son Serapio Medrano continued the tradition his father had begun but added a distinctive style with an even greater range of items like pregnant chickens, a fat saucy mermaid, or primitive animals.

“During the 1970s,” Serapio recalls, “this little block would fill up with gringos wanting to buy my father’s work. Many came from the United States to buy in quantity. Before he died, he left the studio and his numerous customers to me. At times there is a lot of work, especially around Christmas time, when we do a lot of nativity scenes, but still, nothing like when my father was here.”

(Quoted by Gustavo Garcia Hernandez in El AntiQuario Magazine)

Juan José Ramos Medrano

Candelario’s grandson, Juan Jose Ramos Medrano, is also carrying on the town tradition with his large roosters, bullrings, whistles, animals and scenes. He has won a number of national competitions for his work.

Gerardo Ortega

Another Santa Cruz de las Huertas artist who works in the town tradition is Gerardo Ortega. His grandparents were making sculptures at the same time Candelario was being so prolific, and Gerardo is now the 4th generation in his family to be working in the tradition.

Gerardo is married with three children. He works daily in his workshop making his imaginative figures and also giving lessons to children who want to learn this technique. He has won many awards for his work and exports his art all over the world. He is bilingual, sometimes travels to the States to market his work, and employs several of his siblings and cousins to keep his line of work flourishing.

Gerardo and his family make a wide variety of sculptures, all designed for fun. He is well known for his Trees of Life, for his happy animals stacked on top of each other, for his animal musicians, and his happy chickens. You might find a pair of dogs enjoying cotton candy on a park bench, a pig dancing with a mermaid, a dog reading the paper or playing the violin, or Ortega’s signature nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, and the baby in the front seat of a convertible car and the three wise men riding in the back.

No one can view Ortega’s works without smiling and even laughing. They are quintessential Mexican folk art.

Tastoan Masks

Gerardo’s father, Eleuterio Hernández Ortega, in addition to making figures, also made masks for the “Dance of the Tastoanes,” a dance performed every year in Tonalá that reenacts the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The indigenous people were so brutalized by the Spanish that the masks are grotesque, amazingly imaginative, are still being made every year for this annual ritual.

“Barro Betus”

The clay work in this village is known as “barro betus” because of the finish on the pieces. The artists extract resin from birch trees, heat it together with egg whites, and rub it onto the completed ceramic figures after they are fired and painted, leaving the pieces with a sheen similar to varnish. The name “betus” comes from the word abedul, Spanish for birch tree. In recent decades the artist have been using a clear acrylic sealer, which is stronger and does not discolor with age, but they still call the work “barro betus.” The figures are fired at low temperatures in kilns that are simple brick holes covered in old tiles.

Santa Cruz de las Huertas in the 80s.

“I visited Santa Cruz in 1981,” said Mayer Shacter. “Many families in the town were still making the hand-made sewer pipes, and it was common to see pickup trucks stacked high with piles of pipe. Candelario Medrano was still working. I visited his studio and was able to purchase some of his work.

Forty years ago, potters were burning old tires in brick kilns. The stench and pollution was unpleasant. Today they are using simple, wood-fired, updraft kilns. It pleases me to see the families making a living and carrying on this work that goes back thousands of years and at least 120 years in its present form.

Mata Ortiz Ceramic Art

Mata Ortiz pottery is among the most exquisitely beautiful and finely executed pottery being made anywhere in the world today.

The story behind Mata Ortiz pottery is often referred to as a “miracle.” If not a true miracle, the story certainly qualifies as remarkable.

Mata Ortiz is a tiny village in the state of Chihuahua near the town of Casas Grandes. Originally a lumber town, it fell upon hard times when the railroad that once ran through there moved to a different location. Near the town are the ruins of an ancient Paquimé Indian pueblo, an Anasazi tribe who abandoned the area more than a thousand years ago. In the early 60s, a young man named Juan Quezada, having little to do with his time, wandered among the ruins and began to collect shards of pottery left by the ancient tribe. As he fit the shards together to form partial pots, he said to himself, “I bet I could make a pot like this myself.” Completely on his own, he figured out how to mix the nearby clay into workable material, form, decorate, and fire a pot. Just as the first stone-age people had to figure it out, Quezada again started from scratch and was eventually making credible pots.

Somehow, several of his pots made their way into a small shop just across the U.S. border in Deming, New Mexico. There, an American anthropologist, Spencer MacCallum, saw them and inquired about their origin.

“Gosh sir,” said the shop owner. “I don’t know. Can’t tell you much about them.” The anthropologist took the best part of a year to trace the pots back to Juan Quezeda in Mata Ortiz. He strongly encouraged Juan and told him, “I’ll buy anything you make.”

As Spencer began to promote the work, its popularity grew. Other members of Quezada’s family began making pots also, and then neighbors, and more neighbors. The pots were “discovered” by collectors, and by the 80s, began to command high prices, substantially more than beautiful pottery from other Mexican ceramics villages.

The “miracle” of Mata Ortiz is not just that Quezada taught himself completely from scratch and recreated an ancient tradition in modern times. Equally miraculous is the astonishing skill that now runs through the entire village. How can so many people in the same town be so unusually talented? Over two hundred families now make a living selling these pots all over the world. Potter after potter turns out stunning original designs, rendered with great skill and with modern innovations but still within the ancient Paquimé tradition. They hand build each piece from locally dug clay and use only locally sourced mineral or plant pigments for color. They fire the pots on the ground using wood and cow dung for fuel.

The children in Mata Oritz grow up playing with clay from a young age, knowing that they can be artists if they choose to! They are descended from the ancient tribe, and talent seems to be in their DNA!

As is true with most Mexican folk art, this style of pottery is created only in one village, nowhere else on earth, and every artist in the village works within the tradition of that village. Mexican folk art is still entirely regional.

“Our visit to Mata Ortiz was an adventure,” said Galeria Atotonilco owner Mayer Shacter. “It’s a humble town with dirt streets and the usual exposed brick homes. But inside, we saw kitchens finished with cabinets from Home Depot, and fine pick-up trucks parked outside. This once poor town is now unusually prosperous. When the word spreads that a visitor in town is buying, artists pour into the streets with arms full of gorgeous work for sale, spreading it out on the ground. ‘I have more in my studio. Come see!’ The choices are almost impossible to make.”

Chihuahua is a long drive north when most of our village destinations are south. So in recent years, Mata Ortiz artists have been bringing work to our gallery for us to select. We have trained them so they know to bring us only the finest quality pots.

Mayer Shacter on Mata Ortiz Pottery

Before becoming an antique and folk art dealer twenty-five years ago, gallery owner Mayer Shacter had a distinguished career as a ceramic artist himself for twenty-seven years. His experience as a craftsman gives him a seasoned eye for quality and aesthetics.

In an interview about Mata Ortiz ceramics, Mayer said this:

When I started working in ceramics in the early 1960’s, the studio pottery movement in the States was in its infancy. There was very little for us to see as examples or to work from. We looked at Japanese and European traditions. But by the 90s, a second generation of potters was already emerging, building on the early pioneers. The second generation started out with a greater vocabulary of styles and with many more tools than we had. They expanded by developing new firing methods, using new materials, and inventing new techniques.

I find it exciting to see the second and third generations of Mata Ortiz potters now experiencing the same phenomenon. I love buying pots from these younger people. Their work has an exuberance and polish that comes from their eagerness to innovate, and they are in fact developing ideas that could not occur to the first generation of potters, who were busy refining basic techniques. They have the skill and the freedom to push the boundaries of their predecessors. For example, several families have taken black pottery to new heights by combining graphite powder with diesel oil, painting it on the surface, and then burnishing it to give the pot a luminous almost iridescent quality. These gorgeous pots are the result of imaginative experimentation. I like works of art that make people ask, “How did they do this?”

In addition to exhibiting an expansive vocabulary and showing great innovation, pots made by the sons and daughters of the masters are more affordable. It’s possible to buy a really good piece for a few hundred dollars instead of several thousand dollars for a piece by the old masters. I buy at a level that most people can afford, but I never sacrifice quality for price. I insist on work that is masterfully crafted. I always like having some true masterpieces in the gallery also.

Mata Ortiz potters, like Mexicans in general, keep close family ties. If I am dealing with one potter, he or she will usually be showing me pots by a brother or sister as well. I am fortunate to be able to see the wide range of work being created in Mata Ortiz today, and to select for quality and price.

Galería Atotonilco
An Unforgettable Experience of México