Jose Luis Arzola Tovar lives in the famed pottery town of Tonalá, Jalisco, on the edge of the Guadalajara metro area. He is well-known among the artisan community here and has a following of collectors. He does not work in clay, but in tin.
The working of sheet tin is not traditional in Tonalá, but rather in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, a few hours to the east.
Four generations earlier, Arzola’s great grandfather worked in the 1880s by soldering metal items in the streets of San Miguel and neighboring Dolores Hidalgo, along with making items such as toys from sheet tin. His grandfather and father followed suit. The Guanajuato handcraft tradition extends into his mother’s lineage as well, with the making of beeswax figurines and highly decorated candles popular in the southern part of the state.
Upon entering Don José’s modest home on Madero Street, one notices immediately the collections that give historic weight to the work that the maestro does. One side of the living room contains tables filled with traditional tin toys from the 20th century up to 1980s, some of which have been made by Arzola and predecessors.
The main bedroom wall is filled with old tin folk retablos, naif paintings dedicated to a certain saint or other Catholic figure either as a petition or in gratitude for a favor received.
But the main surprise awaits lucky visitors in the back of the property. Here there is a very small two-room structure that used to be Arzola’s parents’ home. When his father died, the family turned the space into a museum for a multi-generational interest in collecting cultural objects, especially tin handcrafts. The collection was started by Arzola’s grandfather. It includes pieces made by the family over 100 years ago, such as tin frames, toys, and lanterns as well as soldered glass enclosures. From the mother’s side there are candles and beeswax figures and even one piece that is a mix of wax and tin.
The museum does not limit itself to work done by the family. Most of the pieces are tin frames surrounding religious icons which come from various parts of Mexico. There are also various wood pieces from all over Mexico, some pre Hispanic ceramics from Jalisco and other areas and more.
The two oldest pieces in the collection are both folk retablos on tin, one definitively dated to 1800 and the other likely from the same time, but too badly eroded to be certain. There is also an interesting collection of retablos depicting scenes from Mexico’s history, in particular the Mexican Revolution, noting suffering and escapes from death/injury by famous and not-so-famous participants in these events.
Arzola has been invited to exhibit the collection in museums in various parts of Jalisco and has even had one international exhibition in Buenos Aires. He says much of the interest in the collection is from foreigners, with most visitors to his home from the U.S. and Canada.
Don José’s work is based on the tradition demonstrated in the home and museum. He was born in Guanajuato, but when he was only three, the family moved to Monterrey and shortly thereafter to Tonala to the same block where he and various members of his family can still be found.
He began working metal with his father at age ten, starting with the soldering of glass enclosures then moving on to working in sheet tin. When he married, he specialized in tinwork, with one brother specializing in the glass structures.
Although he still makes tin toys, Arzola is better known for making the intricate frames for religious imagery. In the past, sometimes the family painted the images of the Virgin Mary and saints, but today Arzola focuses on the tinwork to enclose commercially produced images. (This is common for artisans of this type in Guanajuato as well.)
His frames are replicas or near-replicas of the pieces found in his museum, using the same materials and techniques for the most part. Exceptions include commercially made elements such as military buttons, but these are sparingly used. The tin is worked only with hand tools on a simple table in the living room.
Keeping the tradition alive here is proving difficult and it is very likely that don José will be the last in his family to continue the tinwork. While the family is interested on conserving and promoting the museum/collection, none of his children have decided to dedicate themselves to craft. He has received support from government agencies and some academics, but the frames and toys have gone out of fashion in Mexican culture. However, the support has translated into the teaching of classes in Tonalá and Tlaquepaque, and the maestro has hopes that one or more of the young students will continue on after him.
Interestingly enough, the most eye-catching thing in the maestro’s living room is not the toy collection but the colorful marionettes that cover nearly an entire wall. These figures represent an interest ofD José that began in 2012, after meeting marionette makers in Buenos Aires. He researched the tradition of marionettes in Mexico, and especially in western Mexico, finding people to teach him to make and handle the figures.
Arzola took what he learned and decided to form a small marionette company that specializing in stories from and about Mexican indigenous people. Arzola’s family is Otomi (a dominant ethnicity in Guanajuato) and has been involved in indigenous groups in Jalisco for some time, leading him to speak a bit of other languages such Nahuatl, Tecuece and Cora, which are important in the history of Jalisco.
Arzola’s home, workshop and museum are on Madero #295 in Tonalá
All photos unless otherwise indicated by Leigh Thelmadatter