Earth, bright colors and shape-shifters

The Vazquez family is one of Tonalá best-known families of traditional potters, specializing in barro brunido, but that does not mean that they shun innovation.

The best-known family member now is award-winning potter, Arnulfo Vazquez, but the story begins with his paternal grandmother, Encarnación Carmon. She began making traditional barro brunido, focusing on traditional utilitarian pieces, but she did put significant effort in the making and decoration of her pieces, making them and the family name stand out in the market. Vazquez’s father, Salvador Vazquez, continued his mother’s work. But it has been Arnulfo who has made the pottery nationally and internationally known.

Vazquez’s began working with his father when he was about seven year old, learning all aspects of the craft, including even the digging of clay and determining its quality. To date, the maestro has accumulated around 40 years of experience.

Vazquez pottery is mostly traditional but does have several unique features. Tradition mostly resides in the clay and how it is worked. Like the generations before him, all clay is mind locally, and Vazquez knows very well which mines produce the clay he looks for.

There are two main types “barro blando,” which is a whitish color and “barro tieso” which is black. The two are mixed in certain proportions to take advantage of the properties each has. The shaping and firing of the clay has not changed much since his grandmother’s time, which the process still very individual.

But modern times have made a difference. Unlike his father, maestro Arnulfo no longer has to go to the mines himself and load a donkey with the raw material. He can either use a truck or even pay someone else to mine, clean and deliver the clays he needs. He also has some machinery to make the grinding, and sorting of the clay, along with wetting it, much easier. However, the shaping of pieces is done has it was two generations ago.

The Vazquez family specializes in barro brunido, one of the state of Jalisco’s traditional pottery styles. Its matte shine is not from glaze, but rather from burnishing, much the way indigenous pottery was made. Although other potters take imagery from Jalisco’s myths and legends, none give it such prominence as this workshop.

The hallmark of Vazquez pottery is the appearance of a nagual somewhere on the piece. Naguals are Mesoamerican shape-shifting animals that can do good or harm depending on their personalities and have various incarnations both in pre Hispanic lore as well as a number of Mexican handcrafts.

In more than a few pieces, a nagual appears as a main element, but even when it does not, one is on the piece somewhere, acting as a kind of family signature. The focus on the stories and culture of the Tonala area is important to the Vazquez family, which believe it gives the pieces meaning for buyers and promotes the region’s culture. The importance of the nagual for Arnulfo is such that he has now taken to painting images of naguals on canvas, based on the images he puts on pottery.

While tradition remains important in both technique and design, this does not mean that the pottery is stagnant. In fact, there are nods to both tradition and innovation in the production and often times in a single piece. Purely traditional pieces are made, still using traditional earth pigments… which produce colors such as black, red, white, terracotta and sometimes pink.

But the use of commercial pigments has introduced brighter and new colors, especially blue and green. The main drive in the use of these new colors comes from the markets, particularly from younger buyers who prefer the brighter, stronger look. Vazquez considers it part of the natural evolution of the craft, comparing it with new models of cars. The newer color schemes seem to be taking over the Vazquez production, but Arnulfo states that there is still a strong market for traditional pieces, especially from older and more conservative buyers.

Many of the basic forms are traditional, with plates and bowls dominating along with large covered jars called tibores. None of the pieces in the home/workshop were utilitarian, all were decorative. Almost all were medium to large-sized but the maestro says he creates pieces of all sizes. Arnulfo has done many custom pieces up to tibors 2.2 meters tall. He has also done tile murals, including a 4×3 metre mural which is located in Ajijic, Jalisco.

 

As a business, the workshop has had its ups and downs as demand fluxuates. On the plus side, the workshop is well enough known that many of the clients come to him either visiting or through the Internet. Many are from the United States and some from Europe. Currently another advantage is the very strong dollar, which make his pieces more affordable to foreign markets.  But price is not the basis of his market; quality of design and execution are. As upper-end handcrafts are a niche market, Vazquez depends much on his and the family’s reputation, one that is mostly spread through word-of-mouth and other forms of recommendation.

To this end, Vazquez family work can be seen in various museums and other important collections in Mexico and the United States such as the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, various museums in Guadalajara, the Banamex folk art collections and several museums in the United States.

Arnulfo personally has over 60 prizes and other recognitions including the Galardon Nacional of Folk Art in 2015 and the National Prize of Arts and Sciences, Folk Art Category awarded by then President Vicente Fox.

Arnulfo’s son Jaime Eduardo is the fourth generation to take up the craft, following family tradition, but developing his own mark as well. This is significant in an age when it is becoming harder to pass on handcraft tradition to younger generations, especially in this rapidly urbanizing town outside of Guadalajara proper.

Despite this, maestro Arnulfo remains optimistic of barro brunido’s future, being highly active in local efforts to promote traditional Jalisco pottery, especially in schools to give students pride in their heritage. Despite his own training being so family-oriented, stating several times that pottery “is in his blood,” he is also active in training young people from Tonala, whether or not they are from families involved in pottery or any other kind of handcraft.