Traditional Mexican Art

February and March are hectic months for Liz. The Museum has two very large events, and of course we have the rodeo and Renaissance Festival to attend.

Colorful Oaxacan wood carvings

But this is one weekend that I really look forward to. Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition, what of it?

Mario Castellanos Gonzalez wood carving

Every year the Superstition Mountain Museum hosts a three-day event featuring the art of Mata Ortiz and Oaxaca. The artists and craftspeople demonstrate their crafts. The visitors stay at the homes of volunteers, and after the events we get together for dinner and drinks.

Mata Ortiz Pottery

Mario Gonzalez, from Oaxaca, drove to the states to the event. He brought along native wood to use for his demonstration. Unfortunately, wood is considered an agricultural item, as is clay, and hence prohibited and confiscated. I think our border guards could be focused on other priorities, but what do I know?

Lila hand painting

Also from Oaxaca is Porfirio Gutierrez. Porfirio is Zapotec, and now fluent in three languages. He is a traditional weaver. He rebelled at a young age and moved away from his home town, a farming community. After ten years, this prodigal son returned and learned the family art of weaving. All yarns are hand made, all dyes are hand made, all from local materials.

Hector Gallegos demonstrating his painting technique

From Mata Ortiz, a town in the state of Chihuahua, we have several artists. The process of creating pottery has been unchanged for centuries. They do not know how to use potter’s wheels, all pots are made by hand using the coil method, and all tools are hand made.

Hector and Laura firing pottery

Mata Ortiz only recently had a road built coming into the town. They do not have a Walmart or Super Saver.

A single small pot will take a week to create and paint. If the weather is not perfect, the pots will crack in half while drying. If they survive til firing, there is still a good chance they will explode upon firing. One broken pot can equal one week’s wages for the artist and family. That means one less trip to the grocery store.


Hector Gallegos and his wife Laura Bugarini have both won awards for their pottery. They use the traditional method of making and firing their pottery. They utilize traditional tools and paints for painting.

Hector and Laura relaxing after a long day

Their brushes are hand made, using human hair, usually from a young girl. The hair must be straight, and never treated with dyes. One brush will typically be made from an old ball point pen with the ink removed. Four or five hairs, about an inch and a half long will be taped to the tip. This brush will last for a year, and the artist will have to practice with a new brush for a week before they can use it on a piece.

Porfirio Gutierrez relaxing

The paints are also hand mixed using charcoal for black, white clay, and for red, iron oxide. These are the three traditional colors, although other colors may be used.

Hector and Laura depart from tradition in their designs, opting for a more contemporary look. Their designs are very complicated, and although a few artists have been able to replicate, none have attained an original motif.

Cervesa time!

The firing method is wrought with peril. A strong breeze can wreak havoc. If the fire gets too hot, it can ruin the design. The pot is pre-heated. Sometimes it will be “incubated” under a light in the studio. Hector built a small fire and placed the pot down wind to allow it to warm before firing. The “kiln” is any covering, usually a metal pail, or for smaller work a pot.  Pots from Home Depot do not work, they are made of inferior clay.

Hugh and Vickie, gracious hosts

The ground is heated with a small fire, and the pot is then placed on a pedestal, usually a piece of rock. The bucket or pot is then placed over the pot, on top of small rocks to allow air to flow beneath the cover. Then wood is stacked around the covering, and ignited.  The wood it allowed to burn until is is nothing but ash. The ash is scraped away from around the bottom of the cover to allow cooler air in. All during the process, we hope not to hear the “pop” that indicates the pot has exploded in the kiln.

The firing was a success, and the pot was auctioned off.

I worked on Friday, but was able to join the after party for excellent lasagna. Saturday I attended the event, and then the after party. It is difficult to talk with the artists during the event, and unfair to them when they should be talking with the public.

There is somewhat of a language barrier with many of the artists, but we make do. Hopefully one day I will have the chance to visit them at their home.

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