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Turning out the perfect pot: Part III: Douglas Favero completes his tour of Santa Maria de Atzompa.

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UP THE HILL FROM IRMA GARCIA BLANCO'S HOUSE, along devil's road, an uneven dirt track dead-ending at a half-unearthed Monte Alban satellite city, lives the potter Angelica Vasquez. According to many, Vasquez is "one of Mexico's most talented and inspired potters". She is featured in Oaxacan Ceramics by Chronicle Press but you won't find her in folk art books--a theme revisited later. An artist with no formal training, she said, "I always liked the exhibitions in the city, because we could talk and learn from each other. That's my education, not from school but from the street: who are you, what do you think?"

And now an artist herself whose work has appeared in exhibitions in many cities internationally, a participant in the 2007 International Ceramics Festival in Wales and recognized with over 35 national and state honours, she told me that the most important award she received was the National Ceramics Award, given by the National Ceramics Museum in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. She said it is an award given to 'the masters of masters', to those who have passed all the other categories'. It is considered the highest honour in the country, given to only one ceramic artist per year.

Like the above-mentioned potters, Vasquez's tools are few. "[I use] a cactus spine, leather from my husband's wallet, a bamboo-like piece to make edges sharp, a piece of wood, a piece of a pen, that's all ... And this phone card [for scraping]," she said with a wry smile. "It's name-brand, see?" She fires in a classic and common adobe updraft kiln, used by Atzompa potters for over a millennium.

Before introducing her to the group, Eric Mindling described her by saying she was "a sweet little woman, but also tough as nails". I thought of that when she later described one of her pieces as being "about the fierceness and the tenderness". It was a figure of a conjoined couple whose nahuales or spirit animals--one fierce as a devil, the other tender as a fawn--were breaking through their stomachs.

In a display room in her home, full of figures of women, mythical creations, animals of all kinds, ensemble dreamscape pieces, sweet farmer couples, angels and saints and much more, all with a signature fluid and finely detailed style; Mindling began describing the pieces on the shelves. "This one depicts an ancient story here in Mexico. A story of a woman who kills her children. But it's a metaphor. It's a story about a woman called La Malinche, the lover of Cortes, an indigenous woman, who is considered in Mexico a traitor. In her soul she killed her children, her children being the Mexican people ... Here are the Spanish conquistadores, here is death swooping down ..."

There is a harmony within her pieces. She has captured her animals and people in their most graceful movements--a craning neck, a gentle bow of the head. The liquid lines and fantastical images suggest magical realism, a world in which spirits naturally coexist with and are visible alongside their physical companions: spirit animals flowing out of human forms, flowers curling out of animals; in one piece a woman's face and prayerful hands (holding a white, petalled flower) emerge from within a dress shaped like angel's wings, adorned with vibrant flowers; atop the dress a plump crown with a cross on top, suggesting an angel-queen.

He went on to another piece, "[This represents] the story of the spirits of the forests, the spirits of cactus lands ..." About that one, an impossibly intricate landscape of several highly individualized cactus species on a desert mound with birds and animals, nothing seeming to clutter it up, nothing out of sync with the rest, Vasquez said, "It's easier to do a new one than to repeat it, because it's difficult ... It's the kind of thing that lends itself to re-creation in different forms."

To begin the demonstration for the students, she held a vote on which piece they would like to see her do and the mermaid won out. She set to work talking about a new clay she found here in the pueblo. She had been showing around a couple of pottery masters students when she came across it. Another new clay came from a friend who discovered it while digging a well for his home.

She guesses she has found about 35 new clays, all of different colours, with which she experiments. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don't. She described one which exploded with the slightest raise in temperature.

"She works within a tradition," Mindling said as the mermaid took shape, "but she's very free within that tradition." A story may have been around for centuries, he said, "but her creating it in clay--no one [in the present age] has done that... [But] there's a long and rich history of presenting pieces in this way, [which you can see] if you go back to look at the most ornate pottery made in the classic period of the Zapotecs and other civilizations down here, highly adorned clay vessels with a facade that was depicting one god or another. And you also see it in church facades here. So her pieces are influenced by both of those histories. Growing up in Mexico, seeing the churches, seeing the old figures in the museums, hearing her grandma's stories, it was sort of a natural fusion of these ideas, and being from a village of potters who were actually making those pieces that are now in museums. I call her a new ancient master because there was a world in Mexico 1000 years ago that really allowed high development of the arts, and that has come back again.

"Irma also could only be doing this kind of pottery in this current era of wealth but the difference is that she is still much more traditional in that she is a trade potter, she produces things because they sell." Vasquez, he said, produces things not only because they sell but "because they're stories she wants to tell. And in this sense she becomes a lot more like western artists who are creating pieces because they have something they want to say. It's a process of creative expression, it becomes more individual. The difference between her and most western artists is that she has a very deep inherited tradition to draw on, she can work with those elements owned by her ancestors."

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When Vasquez began her mermaid piece, Mindling had said, "There's an old myth in this village around mermaids. About the consequences of singing. But for Vasquez the consequence of singing is liberation."

Now, still forming the mermaid in her hands, she told us this story. "I left clay for years, when a friend came from New York and got upset with me. 'Why aren't you doing your pottery?' My in-laws said she was a devil. But we'd known each other for years and she knew all about my life. She arrived in the afternoon. I was mixing up some clay, sitting on the ground. I didn't realize when she showed up, I was lost in thought, I felt her touch my shoulder and seeing her I was shocked. I had to clean my face, I was crying. She said, 'What happened?' I said, 'Oh, this work I'm doing makes my eyes water.' She went to my in-laws and tore into them, with words I don't want to repeat. In strong words, she said, 'What a shame, the man you've got won't help you with your four children. Find a man that's worthwhile. Stand up, Vasquez. Where's your work?' 'I don't do it anymore.' 'Why not?' 'Because there's no market for it.' 'Change your clothes, I'm going to take you to meet a friend of mine. She's opening a gallery. She'll buy your work and maybe she can sell it. Is that what you're going to wear?' 'The thing is I don't have another dress.' 'Are you going in those shoes?' 'It's that I don't have any other shoes.' And that's why I consider her like a sister, a spiritual sister. That's how she is. I was there in the first year the Magic Hand opened in Oaxaca [a successful art store in the Historic Centre of the capital]. She taught me a lot, and I thank her with all my heart. "She continued seamlessly, addressing Mindling and then the students as well.

"The figure I have in my mind to do next, is that waterfall we saw when we were at the gorge outside of Portland. The impact of the image, can you imagine how many nahuales and how many duendes [elves] are up in there between the waterfall and the stones and the ferns? And the other one I'm thinking about (and believe me I don't know why these strange thoughts enter my head) [is] the image of a blind man. A blind man doesn't know colours, doesn't know forms except through touch. I'm trying to understand this in my mind: how would it be to be born blind? I'm very active in my work, but [10 years ago] suddenly I couldn't move, even to my fingers and couldn't speak and I felt anguished and I thought I was paralyzed and it wasn't pneumonia like they told me. [This paralysis] hit me when I was firing the kiln and a hail storm came through. The heat and the cold. It was terrifying for me, to lose the ability to move. I felt a despair I can't describe. A horror. I didn't know what I had. My mouth was full of blood, like a dog rotten three days. I couldn't wash myself and I was desperate, I couldn't call the doctor, I was trapped in despair, I had to escape, so I thought, because I couldn't escape any other way. I began to think how I could play mentally and in my mind a figure was born and when I could work again, that was the first piece I made. I called it El Ruido del Silencio [The Noise of Silence]. Sometimes it's difficult: I really like mythology but I also like the feelings that come out of each person. And so now I'm thinking about this blind man. These challenges I give to myself ..."

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She finished the mermaid saying, "I've got three clays here. When it's fired, you'll see three colours." Then she smiled. "I like this figure [the mermaid] because I can make it without even thinking and talk with you."

She continued her demonstration with this segue: "As a girl, when my father taught me how to work, we did simple things. He showed us how to start playing with the clay. I've got a grandson now who comes and helps himself to the clay like I did, taking the clay like this, making little pots, baskets, casserole dishes, whatever we thought of. Take a little string [to cut it off] and there it is." She held up a palm-sized pot with handles. "These were the first pieces I learned how to make as a kid. I don't remember when I began, my dad said I was four. I was fascinated, to think a chunk of clay could be made into something. The clay is my victim," she smiled, "I can make whatever I want out of it. I like it because it doesn't complain."

Earlier, she told me where some of her characters came from. "[They] came from the stories [my grandmothers] told me and the imagination of a child. My grandmothers came from different regions. One was Mixtec, and the other they say was Zapotec but her blood was foreign, Italian I think. She had curly hair and blue eyes. Their stories were very different from each other. They filled my head with their various myths from their different regions. I grew up imagining all these things and learning to make them. My head is full of these stories, of gods, nahuales. There are still a lot of stories [I haven t put into clay]. I have a lot of material.

"Their stories were very interesting to me because they were very real and in some places they still have these beliefs, for example with the nahuales. Now they go to a Catholic church for the Baptism but before it was with an animal. This animal grew up with the boy or girl [that it came to protect]."

Asked what the difference is between art and folic art, she replied, "Art is something new, creative. It's not something that we always do. It's a new form that leaves from your mind, not something you see from outside. In my work, I've talked about how we've lost the language in this pueblo. With my work, I'm saying, 'This is our origin and for those that don't know, that they come to know.' At the same time, for you, a tourist that comes and doesn't understand [the history represented in] the figure, you say, 'It seems like this woman is screaming or something,' and for my part I say, 'This woman is talking, but without a voice.' So I also like art that speaks for itself: Although you don't understand the history, you can still draw something out of the work.

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"When we were kids, we sat with our grandparents learning how to work the palm leaf to make air for the fire to make tortillas. My Mixteca grandmother taught me how to work this way. And while I was doing this they'd be talking and talking and my mind was flying: They were filling my mind with stories. And now they're dead and maybe they never knew, or maybe they did, the enormous richness they left me."

Asked if anyone inspires her these days, she thought a moment and said, "There is a man from Veracruz who works with wood," and she got up to show him to me in the book called The Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, which, as mentioned, also features the work of Irma Garcia Blanco. Looking for the woodworker from Vera Cruz, she stopped at a page showing a vibrant clay pot and said, "This is very colourful but it doesn't inspire me, because--what do you think?--it's made from moulds. These pieces aren't made by hand..." Forgetting the woodcutter, she stopped at another page in the clay section and said, "Here, this makes me mad." It was a traditional pot. "The price se lastima."

She isn't in the book because she doesn't fill the requirements. Certain fine points. Could it be they don't consider her work part of the tradition?

"Yes," she said, "That's it. One time I lost a competition to a traditional pot, because it's traditional. I've been a judge many times myself. I've had to choose [between pieces] from the entire country and it's sometimes hard, because you're one of 18 judges choosing between four, 500 pieces and 'what do you think' [the other judges] tell me? They're architects, engineers, anthropologists and me--I'm an artesan--I'm the one who does this work. I have a bone to pick with them. Let me put the question to you, tell me what you think. What do you think sculpture is? Does it have to be of a certain material? A sculpture can be of rock, clay, paper, cardboard, wood, of who knows what and it is a sculpture. This is what I believe. But you see this?" She pointed out one of her women figures nearby. "They say it's not a sculpture. If it's not a sculpture, what is it? They say it's not a sculpture because it better be of high temperature or of rock. My God. These are the architects and engineers. Then what is it?

"What is pottery?" She then showed me another woman from the book who won a prize she covets. The woman won the prize with a traditional piece. "I don't make the grade," she said.

Because they don't know where to put you, in what category?

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She nodded. "This is one of those things that..." She shook her fist.

Asked where she sold her pieces, she replied, "Only here from my house."

I said, "Not on the Internet?"

"No."

"Not in boutique shops?"

"No."

"Co-ops, markets?"

"No, no. My clients come from word of mouth. And sometimes they tell me who recommended them and I don't know who it is. I remember faces but the names, who knows? One person came telling me that they found out about me from a paper in Washington. And they showed me there in the paper, in a photograph holding one of my pieces. And I don't even remember that happening. They came looking for me and showed me that and I thought, I must have a clone walking around down in the village."

CONCLUSION

After leaving Vasquez's house, having split from the tour, I took the 'only 20 minutes' hour-long hike up the small mountain to that ancient satellite city only just now being unearthed. I took a look around at the ruins sitting there under the sun as if they were no big deal and then descended to talk more with Irma, who had said she was always around and to just stop in and then on to Dolores Porras's house, where one of her sons, Ronaldo Regino Porras, talked with me at length, although I'd interrupted their lunch hour, about his mother and father's admirable climb out of ordinariness to true artistry and personal expression and how gratifying it was that at the summit of that climb was national recognition as artists and economic success not only for them but for others throughout the village who copied them.

And I got to thinking about what Mindling called the return after 1000 years of a great era of pottery, about the generation of pottery-making that was skipped between Alberta Sanchez's great-grandmother and her mother, about the three-year-old girl in that household affirming that she will 'do the clay', about Teodora Blanco's visits to a museum inspiring the revival and reinvention of a technique dormant for centuries and about the possibility that on the streets of Atzompa there is a clone of the inimitable Angelica Vasquez.

All of these things led me back to the question I had put to Eric Mindling days earlier as we pulled out of San Marcos: Are we looking at one of the last generations of this ancient technique? For the moment I'm not worried about the answer, just as he isn't and Alberta Sanchez isn't and Irma Garcia Blanco isn't and so on. Because so long as the past is present and it usually is--a fact Mexico often makes obvious--something tells me the ancient pottery techniques of these villages, whether they may skip a generation or a century, will somehow make their way back into good hands before it's too late.

Asked where she sold her pieces, she replied, "Only here from my house."

I said, "Not on the Internet?"

"No."

"Not in boutique shops?"

"No. "

"Co-ops, markets?"

"No, no. My clients come from word of mouth. And sometimes they tell me who recommended them and I don't know who it is. I remember faces but the names, who knows? One person canes telling me that they found out about me from a paper in Washington. And they showed me there in the paper, in a photograph holding one of my pieces. And I don't even remember drat happening. They carne looking for me and showed me that and I thought, I must have a clone walking around dozen in the village."

Became so long as the past is present and it usually is--a fact Mexico often makes obvious--something tells me the ancient pottery techniques of these villages, whether they may skip a generation or a century, will somehow make their way back into good hands before it's too late.

And now an artist herself whose work has appeared in exhibitions in many cities internationally, a participant in the 2007 international Ceramics Festival in Wales and recognized with over 35 national and state honours, she told me dart the most important award she received was the National Ceramics Award, given by the National Ceramics Museum in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. She said it is a award given to 'the masters of masters', to those who have 'passed all the other categories'. It is considered the highest honour in the country, given to only one ceramic artist per year.

Up the hill from Irma Garcia Blanco's house, along devil's road, an uneven dirt track dead-ending at a half-unearthed Monte Alban satellite city, lives the potter Angelica Vasquez. According to many, Vasquez is "one of Mexico's most talented and inspired potters".

Douglas Favero is a writer and photographer living in Mexico. Eric Mindling is founder and principal tour guide of Traditions Mexico Hands-On Tours in Oaxaca.

Photos by Douglas Favero.
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Author:Favero, Douglas
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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Turning out the perfect pot: Part II: Douglas Favero continues his tour in Santa Maria de Atzompa: Folk Art versus Fine Art.

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