Friday, January 2, 2009

Tonala folk art Part 3: The Master Potter

Ferocious cat seems ready to spring off this damaged pot.  The pot, created by master potter Salvador Vazquez Carmona of Tonala, sat in a corner of his rustic workshop waiting for repair of a crack. In spite of the flaw, the work shows the liveliness and originality which mark his work.

This  is the third and final posting in my series on Tonala, Guadalajara's folk art center. For information about Tonala and various free and paid tours you can take to the many folk art workshops and showrooms, check out Part 1 of this Tonala series.

Salvador Vazquez Carmona at work in his shop. An internationally known potter whose work appeared in the book Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, Sr. Vazquez' work is also exhibited in Tonala's National Ceramic Museum. Even so, his shop and studio are humble.  As is the case with many Mexican artists, his shop is part of his home. The entire front of his property facing the street is a small sidewalk Mexican restaurant run by family members. To enter, we walked through the restaurant, into the small courtyard in his house, and upstairs to the workshop.  He was at work at the time.  Sr. Vazquez is a small man with a soft voice who exudes a deep, quiet dignity.  His family obviously reveres him, as do his fellow Tonala potters. The picture above is not entirely my own, but is my photo of an unknown photographer's work hanging on the wall of Sr. Vazquez' studio. My thanks to the unknown photographer. 

Working on the details.  As  we watched, Sr. Vazquez painted fine details on a large pot. Although a man in his 70s, his eye is keen and his hand steady.  He is teaching his craft to his sons and also has instructed numerous apprentices who later became significant ceramic artists in  their own right. One of these, Juan Antonio Mateos, showed up at 7:00 AM for his first day as instructed. After two hours Sr. Vazquez showed up and opened the shop. This same scenario went on for several days. Finally the apprentice asked why he was told to come at 7:00 when work didn't begin until 9:00.  Sr. Vazquez told him that it was a test of his seriousness. Sr. Mateos later became a gifted potter in his own right.  
Doing it the old fashioned way. Sr. Vazquez and his work are distinguished by techniques that pre-date the Spanish Conquest.  Tonala was a great center for religious ceramic art when the Conquistadors arrived in the 1500s. Above, Sr. Vazquez uses a stone to smooth and burnish the surface of a pot. This technique is called brunido (burnished style). By training his sons and other apprentices in these practices, he is attempting to keep alive a form of art that is truly ancient.  

Animals play a big role in Sr. Vazquez' designs. As you will see in the work shown throughout this posting, cats and birds are recurring figures. Such animals have deeply symbolic meanings in the pre-hispanic mythology of the indigenous people.  A nahual is a being who shape-shifts between human and animal form.  Sr. Vazquez often decorates his work with nahuals in the form of smiling cats. 

Story of an  angry wife?  When I first took this photo, I was mainly attracted by the warm earth tone colors not only on the plate, but on the wall in back of it. Later, as I looked at the photo in preparation for this posting, I began to see that the plate actually tells a story.  A man with glassy eyes drinks from a bottle while he lies by his agave field.  Agave was used by ancient indigenous people to make intoxicating mezcal. This was later refined into tequila by  the Spanish. A figure, perhaps his wife, stands over the drunken man with an angry expression while waving a small sickle. I regularly see campesinos carrying a similar tool while they climb into the mountains to tend their small agave fields. Meanwhile, the nahual overhead grins in amusement.  There is an old saying in Mexico: "Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, tambien."  "For everything bad, drink mezcal; and for everything good, you also should."
Another nahual peers out from a palm jungle. The long-necked cat with the body of a snake is surrounded by vegetation in the form of spirals.  I have examined ancient Mexican petroglyphs carved into the rocks near sacred sites which exhibit these same spiral shapes. 

Almost ready to take flight. These doves sit in realistic postures as they peer toward the light. Birds are another symbolic animal appearing regularly in pre-hispanic mythology.

A shape-shifting owl takes wing.  Owls which become witches are called lechuzas. This one appeared on a large pot, perhaps four feet tall.

An eastern influence? This delicate portrayal of perching birds with long black tails reminded me of ancient Chinese ceramic patterns I have seen. 

The Mexican national emblem came from Aztec mythology.  The design on this large pot shows an eagle, sitting on a nopal cactus, clutching a snake in its beak.  The ancient Aztecs believed that their ancestors, who came from the north, had been told by their god that their wanderings would end when they found a place with an eagle devouring a snake while sitting on a cactus plant. Aztec legend says that place was the Valley of Mexico, which became the heart of the Aztec Empire. The use of this symbol demonstrates the complex political and social relationship  between the decendents of the Spanish conquerors and the indigenous people. The emblem was adopted in the 19th Century in an attempt to achieve political unity.

This completes Part 3 of my series on Tonala.  If you ever visit Guadalajara, please make every effort to visit Tonala, one of the most fascinating places I have found during our Mexico Adventure. 

Hasta luego!  Jim


  1. HI Jim and Carole. Peter gave me your blog information. I have started one here too. Would you like to trade links with me?? Patricia Walker

  2. I left a comment but it says I have to do something else here. I don't know what. This is all new to me. Thanks, Patricia

  3. Well done blog! My parents retired to Ajijic in 1985. I visited often while they were there. It's amazing how the structures are all the same; only the names have changed! So good to see new North Americans discover Ajijic as the older ones move away and pass on. This area is absolutely gorgeous and the locals are friendly too!
    Here's hoping you enjoy the area as much as my Mom and Dad, Phylis and Charles Mercer.

  4. Jerome Venneman/jvpots@hotmail.comJune 25, 2013 at 7:54 PM

    Hello Jim and Carol,
    I really love your blog. I stumbled upon it when I was searching for Salvador Vazquez, master potter of Tonala. I have some questions about him and his work.
    Could you please get back to me at your convenience?

  5. Hello I am Joseph Scerri from Balzan - Malta the sunshine Island I have bought a Salvador Vazquez Carmona Folk Huge Vase from C.B.S.
    I admire his work. I will now need to ask for it.s history., & I am very please wiyh it.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim