Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pottery Tour in Tonala -- April 10 - 13, 2015

Our next stop during our Tour de Truck of Central Mexico: Durango Zacatecas - Aguascalientes - Tlaquepaque/Tonala - Tequila - Tepic - Mazatlan:

Tlaquepaque y Tonala

We've blogged about the Guadalajara suburb of Tlaquepaque and our favorite little hotel there, Casa de Las Flores before. We're happy to report that when we arrived for this stay, we found that not much had changed either at the hotel or in town. But this visit was different - we arrived in The Truck, which meant we had more room for purchases of the wonderful folk art that Tlaquepaque and the nearby town of Tonala are known for. 

Yes, we've yammered on about how life on a smallish sailboat is, by necessity, a minimalist lifestyle. But our dirty little secret is that we have two big storage rooms in California full of stuff - including Travel Treasures from previous adventures. And after this trip we have even more Travel Treasures. 

Our hosts at Casa de Las Flores arranged for us to visit several artists' studios with a local guide. [A warning about Casa de Las Flores: We now call Stan and Jose "the Folk Art Pushers".] We got lessons in three of the many pottery styles Tonala is famous for: barro betus, brunido and petatillo. And for our storage rooms, we purchased a representative piece of each type. 

Barro Betus

Our first stop was the studio of Gerardo Ortega and his brothers, the 4th generation of a family working in barro betus, sometimes called "Ceramica Fantastica". 

The Ortega Brothers At Work

The brothers first kneed (tortillando) the clay that comes from a nearby mine into pieces for their fantastical creations.

Including Little Pieces Attached to Wires . . . 

That Are Added to Bigger Pieces

These are completely dried in the open air, then rubbed in the birch oil (betus, somehow derived from the Spanish word of Birch - el abedul) that defines this process. The dried and rubbed pieces are then fired in a low-heat kiln heated with scrap wood they purchase from furniture makers. 

The Kilns

  The fired pieces are assembled and painted in vibrant colors. 

Dogs and Roosters and . . . 


We purchased a wonderful new Rooster to bring luck to our kitchen someday. 

Our New Kitchen Appliance - 400 Pesos

If you want to see the Ortega Brother's work in the U.S. or Canada, try looking for Gerardo Ortega (their spokesperson and traveling ambassador). The brothers' art is carried by a number of stores in both countries, and we have even seen it on eBay. 

We stopped at the studio of another barro betus master, Juan Jose Ramos Medrano, the grandson of one of the founders of the barro betus pottery style. Sr. Ramos was not home when we stopped by, but his family showed us the few pieces for sale in the corner of their living room.  We chose a delightful little car to remind us of our journey in The Truck. 

Barro Brunido

Barro Brunido (a literal translation: burnished mud) is another of the pottery styles of Tonala. We visited the studio of one of this style's most famous artists, Jose Luis Cortez Hernandez. 

We watched as Sr. Cortez explained that in the brunido style the pottery is formed, painted, burnished by hand with a stone (usually pyrite) until it is shiny, and only then is it fired in a wood-fired kiln. Any loss during firing becomes a huge loss of time and effort to the artist.

Jose Luise Cortez Hernandez At Work

The Paints He Crushes For His Brunido Ware

The paint is applied with delicate, hand-made brushes. Each brush has different properties - some make better straight lines, others bend better to make rounded figures. 

A Delicate Paint Brush

Each Brush Has It's Purpose

Sr. Cortez has two assistants. This assistant showed us how she burnishes the painted plate before firing.

We enjoyed the shop behind the studio and talking with Sr. Cortez. Many of his designs include the nahual character that is traditional to Tonala. A nahual is a shaman that is capable of shape shifting, and in Tonala is represented by a cat-like character.  

We appreciated the tradition of the nahual character, but finally chose two beautiful, geometrically designed flower vases that included a more armadillo-like creature. We figured that if a nahual can shape-shift, why not as an armadillo?

Someday they will be liberated from our storage room! 

The Artist, His Art and His Satisfied Patrons
(Bryce Is Just Worrying About Storage Space)

Pottery can be ordered directly from Sr. Cortez through his internet site.


This style of pottery denotes the meticulously drawn cross-hatched design on these pieces, said to represent the woven sleeping mats (petates) used by the rural poor in Mexico. We arrived to find the artist working in a different type of "mud" - he was concreting a walkway next to his studio.

He took a hurried break (not wanting the concrete to set until he was finished) to give us a brief description of his process. These pieces are formed (usually in a mold), painted, fired once, glazed and fired a second time. He uses a gas kiln. 

We saw the few items he had for sale and chose a lovely pot - much smaller than the piece shown in the picture below (it is all bout storage space!).

Petatillo Artist and Concrete Artist

We thanked him and left him to his concrete work!

We'll close with an invitation to visit Tonala and its artists. You will be amazed at the delicate work that they do, and how generous they are with their time when visitors come to call unannounced (unless they are pouring concrete). But be careful - you may run short of display space.

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