Blurring the line between handcraft and art

Manuel Reyes at the Feria Maestros de Arte

Oaxaca is one of Mexicos’ powerhouses both in terms of handcrafts AND art. Those who have experience in both worlds easily blend the two, with no apologies.

It is this blending of fine art with traditional ceramics that allows Manuel Reyes of Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca to stand out in a state where amazing handcrafts abound. Believing very firmly (Manuel’s word is”stubbornly”) that Mexican handcrafts must evolve in order to stay relevant, his work is heavily influenced by Mexican modern art as well as pre Hispanic imagery. These influences include the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but he does not copy their works onto his pieces, but rather creates his own interpretations. He also makes masks, both as a part of his sculptures and has artistic pieces in their own right, paying homage to their role in Mexican popular culture. Like other artists, some of his works are protests, not meant to be beautiful such as one dedicated to the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero.


His works have been exhibited as both handcraft and art (sculpture) both in Mexico and the United States, in institutions such as the Museo de Arte Popular and National Museum of Popular Culture in Mexico City and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.


The creation of works with non-traditonal themes, techniques and motifs is somewhat controversial, as it does not imitate or seek to imitate the traditional Oaxacan pottery. Reyes’ works range from almost life-sized human figures to utilitarian pieces such as plates and cups, with decorative motifs ranging from primitive designs (generally related to those found on local Oaxacan pottery shards) to sophisticated polychrome in various styles. He uses a gas kiln and fires in at higher temperatures (900-1200F) than traditional pottery. His pieces can just as easily be painted with acrylics and oil paint as well as the more traditional mineral pigments.  Reyes was born into a Oaxaca family which has roots in ceramic production (his father and uncles had a small factory which made dishes), but Manuel himself was born and raised in Mexico City. Following a sculptor uncle, Reyes studied fine arts at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas (today Facultad de Arte y Diseño) in starting in 1990, then moving to Cuernavaca to study under artists suchas Roger Von Guten, Joy Laville, Francisco Lastra and Juan Soriano focusing on seriography, sculpture and painting.


Reyes’ main influences are pre Hispanic art and the work of sculptor Maribel Portela, who he studied under in Mexico City. However, he considers his work “completely Oaxacan” because after he moved to the state in 2003, he immersed himself in the various ceramic tradition there, especially those of the local Mixtec artisans in the Nochixtlan district. Despite this, his work is generally sold outside of the city of Oaxaca, the state’s main handcrafts market.

Backyard, Manuel Reyes Home
At the home studio in Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan (Copyright 2016 Marc Sitkin )


Reyes lives with his wife, Marisela Gomez (who is an artist in her own right) and their children. Both parents involve the children in their creative activities making small clay figures and painting on canvas. He is particularly proud of his daughter Natalia talents in drawing, and her works regularly sell.


Video about Reyes (in Spanish)


Both Manuel and his wife can be contacted via

Featured image is Banda Mixteca by the artist on display at the National Musuem of Folk Cultures in Mexico City



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