From charms to artistic works: Trees of Life from Izucar de Matamoros

Getting to Izucar de Matamoros (sometimes simply called “Matamoros”) from Mexico City is a long, circuitous trek basically because it requires getting to the other side of the massive Popocatepetl volcano. Swinging around the north though the city of Puebla is longer, but the shorter southern route through Cuautla mean poorer roads.

Santo Domingo Church and former monastery

It is a regional town/small city in southern Puebla state, whose indigenous heritage is Mixtec, although the city is now mestizo. Colonial architecture remains in the historical center and the former monastery some blocks away, but there isn´t the same level of charm as in other colonial towns. In fact, despite the surrounding farmland and the seeming preference by local women for skirts, the city bustles more like larger ones. The city is on what used to be the main highway between Puebla and Oaxaca, but that changed when a newer highway was built to the east.

The town has had a pottery tradition extending back long before the Spanish conquest and while basic utilitarian wares are still made, what draws attention are the decorative pieces, especially those called trees of life. Unlike the better known variety made in Metepec, State of Mexico, the Izucar version have retained their function as candeholders, with each piece have a place for at least one. With images of Adam and Eve, the elaborate pieces were originally made as traditional wedding gifts to wish the couple happiness … and fertility. The intricately designed pieces that are sold today are due to changed that began in the second half of the 20th century.

Catrina candlesticks by the Alfonso Castillo Orta family

The origin of modern Izucar trees can be traced back to the family of Aurelio Flores in the mid 20th century, who began experimenting with new designs and decorations. However, after the son’s generation, the family stopped working in this occupation. However, the center of Izucar’s pottery traditions now is that of Catalina Orta Urosa, who revived her parents’ pottery traditions after she married and had her six children. The family made pieces for local markets until the 1960s, when an art collector named Sanmaniego discovered their work and ordered pieces to sell in the city of Puebla. Finding success with the pieces, he ordered more and encouraged them to innovate, especially in decoration.

Isabel Castillo Orta with some of her pieces at her home in Izucar de Matamoros

Like their Metepec cousins, Izucar’s trees have small elements attached to the base, such as people, flowers and other vegetation, insects and more, made of clay and integrated before firing. However, in Metepec, the decoration of the trees is limited to this “pastillaje” with paint applied to provide more-or-less realistic color, if paint is applied at all. In Izucar, three branches and other empty spaces are covered in tiny, finely painted lines, cross-hatching and geometric shapes. The popularity of both the pastillaje and decorative painting can now be seen in a number of other decorative pottery that is now produced.

Four of maestra Catalina’s children became potters: Heriberto, Agustin, Isabel and Alfonso, all with the surnames Castillo Orta (as per Spanish tradition). All make the trees of life, but some have branched out into other areas. Heriberto make female and mermade figures and Isabel makes Catrina and Virgin of Guadalupe figures.The family has introduced new themes to their works such as Day of the Dead, and the decorative motifs have also incorporated influences from other areas of Mexico, as they have been exposed to them from their travels promoting their products.

Of the four, Alfonso became the most recognized, with his works in museums and other collections in Mexico, the US and Europe. Named a master craftsman by the Banamex Foundation, he also won the 1996 National Prize of Arts and Sciences in the folk art category. He died in 2009, but his home and workshop is still operated by his wife Marta and five children. It is possible to visit, with two rooms of the complex set aside to display pieces made by the maestro and the rest of the family. However, it seems that this branch of the family has moved away from making trees of life.

Exhibition area in the home of the Alfonso Castillo Orta family in Izucar

Isabel is still dedicated to them and is best known for her delicate painting. Up until relatively recently traveled in the United States giving workshops and exhibiting her work. Despite being 80 years old, she still actively paints, including the very fine brushstrokes that require good eyes. After winning FONART’s Grand Prize of Folk Art in 1999, she was named a “living legend” in the Galardón Nacional en el Certamen Grandes Obras Maestras, and is recognized nationally, but does not quite have the same status has her younger brother. Most of her work now is in support of the workshop she runs with her children and grandchildren.

According to Isabel, all of the workshops in operation today either have a connection to the family or were otherwise taught by them. Casa Balbuena and Arte Casbel were founded by Heriberto’s ex-wife and their youngest sons respectively.



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