Yesterday, after thinking about it for two months, I sat down to practice the techniques I learned in a sculpting lesson. I wish I had done this sooner as my carefully studied & practiced skills are now a distant blur. My fingers struggle to comply with the instructions shouted by my brain. The skills are rusty, but, the experience of learning them is a more lasting & vivid memory. I had the rare opportunity to spend an entire day with famed Mexican potter Angelica Vasquez Cruz. She is just a little bit of a thing, but that tiny body houses an enormous spirit and immense talent.
Her studio is quite large, in a village where whole families live in a room of the same size. In the center is a monstrous gas-fired kiln. It was a gift from President Calderone to encourage her to continue her work. Two walls display the many awards, accolades, and distinctions earned in a lifetime with her hands in mud. The studio is strangely empty. Where is all the stuff? There is no junk, no jars, plaster, piles of paper, ware boards, you know, STUFF, none of it . It’s a big empty room with the giant kiln looming like a ghost & one shelf. Her work station consists of two pillows on the floor, a turn table, a small bowl of water, a cactus thorn, bent-over nail, and her hands. That’s it. Her son drags a table & chair into the studio for my use as I was unable at the time to easily get up & down from the floor. Here I was, already needing special accommodations and appearing to be the over-indulged American that I did not want to be.
Angelica takes me outside ….. AWWWWW…. here is her stuff, I knew it was here somewhere. In her garden are endless containers of dirt. Yep, dirt, that is what she has. La Maestra has to make her own clay. As she walks me through her process of transforming rock-hard lumps of earth into silky-smooth clay. I remember thinking “this is ridiculous”. I tell her she needs to find a young apprentice to do the prep work & heavy lifting for her…. she turns to me with a look of “that’s ridiculous”. It wasn’t until later that I realized how transforming that dirt into art infuses every molecule of a finished piece with the spirit of this beautiful human being…. but still, pounding rocks into powder, sifting, mixing, straining, kneading… for HOURS….. on your knees in the dirt, is not my idea of fun. I mean let’s get busy, when are we going to touch this stuff & make something? The tour continues to the section of the garden housing many small cans & containers holding colored powders. These are all naturally pigmented earth that Angelica has collected & uses to color clay. She tells me stories about where she found them, sometimes stopping abruptly along the highway after seeing a good “color” in the distance. There was also a tale of some extensive negotiation done to get a small sample of clay from a potter in the Yucatan. Clay preparation techniques are closely guarded secrets. Each pottery producing village is known for their unique product and protecting the lively hood of all who live there is important.
Angelica produces a black clay which fires to a buff color. She prepares three different formulations of it. A groggy mixture for sculpting the large supporting structures of her work, and two smoother, more refined clays. She uses the one called “pure creme” to sculpt the tiniest of tiny elements. I don’t know what is so special about this clay, because it is, of course, a secret…..and it is special. She has designed it to perfectly suit her needs. I want this clay! Nope, she won’t sell it. It’s too hard to make. Each one of the clays has a feel different from the commercially produced products that I use. The one thing that made it so incredible to me is that you can handle the clay extensively, even tiny bits of it, and it remains moist & plastic. When I tried the same thing with my favorite stoneware it became dry & cracked in short order.
Her village of Santa Maria Aztompa is well-known as the production epicenter of the familiar green-glazed utilitarian pots. These items are sold everywhere and used extensively throughout Oaxaca. There are many potting families here and the streets are lined with their wares. Amongst the functional pottery are some more inventive decorative pieces with colorful glazes. Angelica uses no glaze in her work, only colored clay.
Her pieces are fired in a brick lined pit using wood, her state-of-the art gas kiln has never been used. “I can’t read the manual because I don’t speak English” she tells me, well I can help with that. But she is also worried about the cost of the gas needed to fire that monster….. but President Calderone has provided you with two huge tanks full of gas I helpfully point out… nope, not gonna do it.
Finally we get down to potting & she shows me how she makes several different varieties of cacti. She makes it looks so easy, it is, of course, much harder than it looks. I spend several hours trying to build something minimally acceptable, disappointed in my abilities. I thought I was better than this. I like birds & they appear in everything that I make. I decide that I am going to add 5 birds with human faces to my piece. “Oh you’re adding some Naguales (na’wall’ays)” she says. Naguales are human beings who can transform themselves into animals. Believed by some to be shape-shifting witches, but by others to be protectors of the people, the natural resources, and culture of the community. They are highly revered, and also feared. I learned all of this later and missed the opportunity to learn their meaning in Angelica’s work. She does not speak a word of English and I did my best to “get the jist” of what she was trying to tell me.
I struggle with the face on bird numero uno and Angelica shows me how she sculpts teeny-tiny eyes, lips, and noses using her cactus thorn. Re-do after-re-do does not produce what I want, a face. A face has to have a quality that transforms it from just a thing into a someone. I accept that this is not going to happen in my one-day internship and allow myself one just “ok” Nagual. Angelica kindly tells me that I am a good student & did nice work. She politely admires my piece gives me some helpful feedback. She will fire the piece for me and, hopefully, I will get to see it during my October visit. She unnecessarily makes no promises that it will survive the firing…. this I already know.