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Mexico’s fun folk pottery featured at Gallery open house

By Susan Page

The naïve, exuberant and humorous pottery of Santa Cruz de las Huertas will be spotlighted at Galeria Atotonilco’s fall open house on September 1 and 2 from noon to 5pm both days. “This pottery comes as close to the true heart of Mexico as any other folk art,” says gallery owner Mayer Shacter.

Open House
Galeria Atotonilco
Featuring the pottery of Santa Cruz de las Huertas
Sat & Sun, Sep 1 & 2, 12-5pm
Directions to the gallery in our ad in this issue

The story behind the development of this work is a precious piece of Mexico’s history. Pottery making in the general area, which are 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 handmade sewer pipe and roof tiles. But 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. Eventually, Medrano developed his own unique style and a wide range of sculptural items, with almost no end to his imagination. 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.

Candelario’s son Serapio and his grandson Juan Jose Ramos Medrano, who has won a number of national competitions for his work, actively carry forward the family traditions today with an even greater range of items, often with a humorous edge, like pregnant chickens, people riding in the back of a pick-up truck, a whimsical stack of dogs, a fat saucy mermaid, or a friendly little monster. In contrast to the finer glazed art of nearby Tonalá, this work is more sculptural, is brightly painted, and is finished with a patina originally made from the resin of a pine tree called betus. The ware gets its name from this finish and is called barro betus.

The other family in Santa Cruz which also followed the lead of Acero and Medrano is the Otega family. Gerardo Ortega is extremely successful with his work. His designs are clever and original, and he has high standards of quality. He is bilingual and travels to the States to market his work, and he employs a dozen or more of his siblings and cousins to keep his work flourishing.

This lighthearted barro betus work has never become precious or pretentious and remains extremely affordable. An animated chicken or whimsical stack of dogs fits in with any décor and brings the flavor of Mexico front and center.

“I visited Santa Cruz in 1981,” said Shacter. “Many families in the town were still making the handmade sewer pipes, and it was common to see pick-up trucks stacked high with piles of pipe. I visited the workshop of Candelario Medrano and was able to purchase some pieces of his. Today, since betus, or pine resin is harder to find, some potters are finishing their work with a synthetic varnish, but the result looks exactly the same. The synthetic varnish may even be more durable. Another difference is that, 40 years ago, potters were burning old tires in brick kilns. 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 at least four generations.”

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