Izucar de Matamoros – Boring Town, Brilliant Art
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a contributing editor to the Mexico File and a Mexican folk art hound. Part II of this article will appear in the February 2006 issue.
About an hour and forty-five minutes southwest of Puebla lies the bustling, busy, ugly little town of Izucar de Matamoros. I’m not going to try to fool you – this is not a town that draws many tourists, nor does it pretend to want them. It isn’t even a real artists’ town since only a small number of its inhabitants are practicing ceramists. This is primarily an agricultural community with an energetic urban center where the sidewalks are crowded with people moving quickly (compared to most Mexicans) and the traffic is bumper to bumper much of the day. There is a large fleet of taxis, and buses run every fifteen minutes back and forth from Puebla all day every day. Also, I hear there is minimal interaction between the “urbanites” and the folks living in the fourteen barrios that make up the rest of the town.
So why tell you about this place? Because this grubby little metropolis is home to some of Mexico’s most outstanding and prolific artists, masters of the honored Izucar tradition of painted ceramic tree of life sculptures immortalized by the late Aurelio Flores and carried on today not only by his son Francisco, but also by a couple of other families that have made this style famous worldwide. I have never known anyone who has ever traveled to Izucar for any reason other than to visit these artists, but I have also never known anyone who was ever disappointed in the unique and amazing art they found. This past November, in company with a group of fellow art-hounds visiting Mexico during Day of the Dead, I was lucky enough to get back to Izucar after several years’ absence, and was struck all over again with the plethora of treasures produced by the few artists in residence there.
The art coming from this area is totally distinct from any other in Mexico and is enjoying wide popularity these days. There are three towns in Mexico known for their Trees of Life candelabra and incense burners – each very different from the others – but Izucar is widely considered to be where the tradition of the tree of life began. At its origins, the Tree of Life incense burner was given as a gift to young couples getting married by the godparents of the groom, and the candelabra was presented by the bride’s godparents as a symbol of hope for a “good harvest” throughout the couple’s life, both in terms of number of offspring as well as general prosperity. As the designs painted on the trees became increasingly ornate, the forms evolved to include simple candleholders, figures in popular Mexican cultural life, and any other manifestations of interest to Izucar’s artists.
I’m not sure why these pieces are so highly regarded by collectors – they are not made from high-grade, finely molded clay and they are very fragile, breaking at the least bump or jostle. However, the design patterns used to paint these sculptures, while being distinct from any other, are also intricate in the extreme and among the most colorful of all the highly colorful folk art products of Mexico. In addition, considering the size and high degree of embellishment of many of these pieces, they can be relatively inexpensive compared to the Trees of Life from Metepec and Acatlan, depending on the artist, his relative renown in the Mexican Folk Art world, and yes – dare I say it – his level of arrogance.
The art objects of Izucar are generally made of single-fired redware, purchased from clay dealers in and around Puebla. (Izucar’s local clay sources have been converted to agricultural fields, highways and building sites.) Depending on the artist, the trunks and branches are formed and attached to one another with wire around which the clay is wrapped, and the tree is laid aside to air dry until the clay is strong enough to support itself. (According to the experts, only Alfonso Castillo does not use wire to hold his trees together, but I have broken a couple of pieces from Casa Balbuena that have not had wire running through branches.) At one time, two firings were common, but these days, most artists consider one moderately low-temperature six-hour firing enough, although with or without wire, the pieces are extremely fragile and seldom emerge from firing without breakage. After firing, the breaks in the pieces are repaired with varying materials, again depending on the artist. Some use natural products; others use acrylic glues. The pieces are then coated with a thick white paint and all breaks disappear. At this point, the varying styles of the artists are expressed as each has developed his own style of painting and design. A few of Izucar’s working artists still use some naturally-made colors (namely Alfonso Castillo on some of his work, but not all), but most have switched to acrylic paints, although some are still reluctant to admit this (Franciso Flores remains secretive about his paints, but the general consensus is that he uses acrylics). After the design is complete, most artist use a manufactured furniture varnish to keep the colors from fading, although they often fade anyway if exposed to any amount of sun.
Our little group – consisting of folk art dealer Phil Saviano from Boston, Mexico File subscribers, Steve and Linda Cziraki of California, Dave Keenan from Amherst, Massachusetts, and myself – arrived in Izucar mid-morning on the bus from Puebla after a ride that was not quite long enough to get all the way to the end of that movie with Jodie Foster where she loses her daughter on a plane. There is one hotel in town – the Hotel San Pedro – where you can pay $25 a night for a clean single room with a private bath and no air conditioning – but only my good buddy Phil has ever had enough nerve to stay there. He says it’s not much but all he could find and, aside from the heat, was comfortable enough. Most everyone else I know who travels to Izucar prefers to stay in Puebla and do a one-day excursion. Most of the artist families in town live within walking distance of each other, so a quick cab ride to Callejon del Partidor will put you in reach, even though one side of the street is Barrio de Santa Catarina and the other side is Barrio San Martin.
Probably first on most people’s list of famous and respected ceramists in the Izucar style would be the charming Francisco Flores. In his seventies now, this son of Aurelio (considered the father of the traditional Izucar-style Tree of Life) is an energetic little man who doesn’t look his age. He is a hugely successful creator of these magnificent trees, while at the same time a sweet and funny man, friendly and at the same time, a little sad. He has many children, but all are formally educated so none are interested in carrying on the family business, which makes Francisco the last of his line. His work is very obviously in the Izucar tradition, but is also unique in form and painted design. It is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to distinguish his work from his father’s except that the older Aurelio pieces tend to be slightly rougher in texture with the colors somewhat muted and faded. Favoring bold color combinations and seemingly impossible shapes for his trees, the Flores style is in a class by itself.
On a par with Francisco in creativity and skill while working with totally different motifs is the Great Master Alfonso Castillo Orta, one of the four Castillo siblings famous for their contributions to the Izucar tradition. Alfonso and his wife Marta live in possibly the most extravagant home in Izucar with spacious, lusciously decorated rooms and a courtyard redolent with frangipani and bougainvillea that also houses Alfonso’s work space. Alfsonso drives a vintage Jaguar sedan and has the dignified demeanor of the fine skilled artist he is. In spite of his relative celebrity, Alfonso is pleasant if a little shy, and while he greets guests warmly, Marta takes them into the gallery to show current items for sale and conduct any business. However, Alfonso has been known to disperse an interesting little aperitif of some kind of fruit juice guaranteed to elevate one’s mood and loosen the wallet. At the end of a visit in 2001, I left his home none the worse for wear after a spirited discussion of the miniscule brushes he uses to achieve the incredibly tiny lines in the designs on his pieces. Most famous perhaps for his Frida candelabra, Day of the Dead figures, and what he calls his “ecology pot,” Alfonso’s work is, I believe, the most expensive coming out of Izucar today, due most likely to his inclusion in the Great Masters exhibition and book.
Across the street from Alfonso is his brother Heriberto, the oldest Castillo sibling, whose home and workspace is the polar opposite of the brother he so closely resembles, but is much more characteristically Mexican. While on an equally large plot of land, Heriberto’s home is more typically rural and visitors need to dodge the chickens, dogs and goats (and everything that goes along with having such a menagerie, if you get my drift) running around the dirt yard, as well as the laundry lines hanging everywhere. These days Heriberto is creating a series of what have been referred to as hysterical sirenas – mermaids with electric hair flying in every direction – as well as many female figures in varying states of undress, but in the past, he has done some very fine trees and candelabra distinct for the aged golden backgrounds behind very bold colors. While his current work is not high on my list of things I can’t live without, Heriberto is nevertheless a kind and welcoming man and a stop at his home is always an adventure.
The lone female in the Castillo hierarchy is Isabel whose home is a few steps down the street from her brothers. I love to visit Isabel’s studio as it is a real family affair – two of her sons, Jorge and Hugo, are continuing in the family ceramic tradition, daughter Isa has taken charge of the business end and her husband Gustavo can often be found wrapping purchases and stocking the shelves that are always overflowing with beautifully painted figures both small and large. This time, the whole family was there, including Isabel herself, which doesn’t happen all that often. Everything here is very reasonably priced, even the large one-of-a-kind pieces, and shopping is always fun as you juggle for space with other buyers and several generations of Isabel’s family milling around. Although she is not well these days, in the past Isabel has been generous with her time and talent, holding workshops in colleges throughout the US. The first time I met her, she was up to her elbows in clay conducting a demonstration at Dartmouth. She is as tiny as her brothers are large and is perhaps a little reserved, but nevertheless a charming woman prolific in her art. In my view, her extravagantly painted Day of the Dead candelabra reflect her most distinctive work, but lately she is also doing lovely Virgen of Guadelupe figures as well as smaller typically Izucar-style trees with hanging fruits and vegetables. We spent a good hour with Isabel and her family as we waited for each other to complete purchases.
Most of the best-known artists in Izucar are older, with children contributing in one way or another to the family enterprise, but one of the nicest surprises is a younger woman named Virginia Morgan Tepetla, most distinctive in the Izucar tradition for her charros. She also does trees and candelabra, but it is her catrina figures of cowboys and senoritas that I find the most noteworthy of her work. A short walk down the street from Isabel, Virginia’s home is teeming with small children and animals, and Virginia herself is a sweet, quiet woman, but more than willing always to discuss her painting techniques. I think because of the many demands of her family, Virginia is not as prolific as some of her colleagues, but I like knowing that she will be around for a long time, working and creating her special little figures. While we were there, Steve separated one of Virginia’s dogs from a lizard he was carrying around in his mouth, just in time for one of her cats to then give chase. It’s a chaotic, funny little space, but Virginia and her children are terrific at making even big groups feel at home.
Part II of Lynne’s article on Izucar de Matamoros will appear in the February 2006 issue.
Izucar de Matamoros, Part II
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a contributing editor to the Mexico File and a shameless Mexican folk art hound. Part I of this article appeared in the December 2005 / January 2006 issue of the Mexico File.
Among my favorite artists are the many members of the Castillo Balbuena family, creators of some of Izucar’s most interesting and complicated trees of life candelabra and incense burners. Closer in style to Aurelio Flores, this family, headed by Maria Luisa Balbuena Palacios, is famous for the imaginative shapes and themes of their pieces. This group does everything, from the huge multi-arced trees that are almost impossible to get home in one piece to the tiny animalito candle holders popularly used on children’s birthday cakes and every size and style in between. They are also firmly in the 21st century, with their internet café next door (which you can use for free if you buy from them) and their web catalog from which purchasers can order pieces to be custom made. Where all this technological advancement falls apart is in the time table – it can take months to receive a catalogue-ordered piece, and while whatever it is will be gorgeous, it often will have little beyond shape in common with what is pictured in the catalog. Once, when I questioned the difference between the piece I received from the piece I ordered, Maria laughingly explained that pieces are often painted depending on her mood and whatever jar has the most paint in it, though I’m not confident enough of my Spanish to be absolutely sure whether this was said seriously or not. Also a frustrating contribution of their ordering system is that often, there will be little in the studio that is actually for sale, as most of it will be previously ordered or purchased.
Also worthy of note is the Balbuena Alonso family, notably Joaquin, whose use of bold colors is in a class by itself. Joaquin does not sign only his own name to his work as he considers each piece a joint family effort, which it is as his wife paints and his children help to conduct business. A tall, handsome, quiet man, Joaquin’s large and small pieces are representative of the Izucar style, both in composition and in painting, but are also reasonably priced and carefully done – and there are always lots of items for sale. All of us were delighted that there were so many pieces to choose from on this trip and we all bought pieces here.
A little further down the street is Augustin Castillo (another brother of Alfonso, Heriberto and Isabel) and his wife Teresa. While they often have no pieces for over-the-counter sales, Teresa was most helpful to us this time in demonstrating part of the firing technique used in the manufacture of ceramics in Izucar. She escorted us throughout all the work spaces and then showed us how she cools the kiln after a firing. As are most of the artists in the town, this couple is friendly, helpful and unfailingly polite to unexpected visitors, even when they don’t have anything to sell.
One last artist to mention is Tomas Hernandez Baez who, while very talented, is definitely not one of my favorite people. Located a little further from the others but within Barrio de Santa Catarina, he is very successful and does some amazing work, but I have not found him to be a very nice person. To begin with, his pieces are such direct copies of the work of his sister Marta’s husband, Alfonso Castillo, that it is positively eerie. To confess my ultimate hypocrisy, this was okay with me years ago when his prices were far below those of Alfonso, but now Tomas’ prices are equal and in some cases above Alfonso’s, so my feeling is that if you are going to pay that much, you might as well get the original. Also, during our visit when I was researching this article, Tomas was the only artist we encountered who objected to my photographing some of his pieces, and was quite vocal in his objections (perhaps afraid I was going to copy them?) Later, he attempted to amend his behavior by buying Cokes for our group, giving the ladies little sculptured bugs, and eventually giving us a lift back to town in his truck, but for me, his efforts were too little, too late. I can honestly say he is the only artist I have ever visited anywhere in Mexico who was not completely cordial, patient with questions and tolerant in the extreme with his guests’ varying degrees of skill with Spanish. If they were all like Tomas, it is my view that the American enthusiasm with Mexican folk art would die on the vine.
Perhaps pertinent here is that since returning from this trip, I have learned that – contrary to most of the artists’ communities I have visited in Mexico – among these few artists, there is a great deal of competition and mistrust, even between family members. For example, I couldn’t understand how Alfonso Castillo would permit such blatant plagiarism of his work by his brother-in-law, but with Mexican law being what it is, there is little he can do to prevent the highjacking of his designs by Tomas Baez. It is for this reason that in Izucar, there is no artists’ cooperative or market and therefore, there is poorer distribution of the work of the artists than is usually found throughout Mexico. I couldn’t work out any particular reason for this anomaly except perhaps the fact that the entire town isn’t employed in pottery-making, and town leaders have no involvement in how business is conducted, resulting in no community cooperation. It seems sad to me that this should be the case, as it severely inhibits both production and distribution of wares, thereby making it much harder for collectors to find the work. One might think that the result would be much higher prices for the work that does manage to get produced, but with the exception of Alfonso Castillo, most of the artists are not charging what they probably could, considering the relative rarity of their pieces.
Before we headed back to Puebla, we stopped at the second-story Restaurante Atoyac Plaza, located on the side of the zocalo directly opposite the cathedral. While pleasant enough with its wide windows overlooking the street, I had the worst arrachero I’ve ever been served in Mexico. On the upside, however, the beer was cold, the rest rooms clean and no one got sick. After a leisurely lunch during which I attempted to find some picturesque view to photograph, our hot and exhausted little group walked to the bus station for the ride back to Puebla, during which we saw the same part of the same movie offered to us on the way in. (We still don’t know how it ended.)
So there you have a feeling for the essence of the art of Izucar de Matamoros in a very small nutshell. I have tried to keep the verbal aspects of this article to a minimum, as in my view the photographs tell the story much more effectively than words ever could. Very occasionally, some smaller examples of this art form can be found in the market El Parian in Puebla, and sometimes in the markets of Mexico City and the most popular tourist areas, as well as on the internet, but the best and most impressive pieces can be acquired only from the artists of Izucar themselves or from the higher end dealers and purveyors of Mexican folk art. Since I discovered and began collecting this particular style of design in the early 90’s, its popularity has picked up considerably along with its prices, while availability seems to ebb and flow in no particular pattern. However, as most of the people who have been lucky enough to see and handle this incredible art form can testify, it’s worth the trouble to seek it out and you don’t have to sell your first born or re-mortgage your house to own some of it.
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