Little birds that make cinnamon pottery

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Flack by Jose Isabel Pajarito

Unlike in many part of Mexico, the pottery of Jalisco has mostly shunned the use of glazing, opting instead for burnishing and firing once, very reminiscent of pre Hispanic pottery. There are a number of types, mostly named after decorative styles, including “canelo” which means cinnamon. The name comes from the variations of the color of this spice, and it was particularly valued for its ability to keep water cool, as well as give it a distinctive, but pleasant taste. It is still one of the pottery decorative styles that are found in Jalisco and nowhere else.

Canelo pottery is made by a number of Tonala family, but one in particular, the Pajaritos (literally “little bird”) are noted for their work in this style.

The family has had five generations of working clay in Tonala, but most has been written about the current family patriarch, Nicasio Pajarito (b. 1935) and with good reason. Over a span of fifty years, the maestro reinvented the pottery his father and grandfather made, making it more sophisticated, detailed and innovative without losing a sense of tradition. This work won him numerous awards including the 2002 National Ceramic Prize and being named a Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art by the Fomento Banamex foundation. He is still active today, but younger generations do the heavy work such as mixing clay.

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Nicasio’s work developed from an innate artistic sense. As a boy, he learned watching his father Cecilio, thinking that the painting of the pots was “easy.” This was not exactly the case, but he took to it more so than his siblings, continuing to learn under his grandmother Martha Cantero after his father’s untimely death. Nicasio took what he learned and expanded on it, especially after he married wife Maria Fajardo. In particular, he expanded on the possibilities of canelo, which according to family lore was used only to make miniature dish sets for girls.

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Pablo Pajarito in his workshop in Tonala, Note the gray background of the unfired piece.

The color of canelo pieces is achieved through a mix of white, black and red clays from various sources. The mix is important to the family as they believe it to be reflective of Mexico’s mestizo heritage. The same clays, along with some minerals, are used to make the slips used to paint background and designs.

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Various pieces by the family on display

The basic process remains unchanged. Clay is broken up, ground into a powder and impurities removed. After mixing with water, the clay is left to “ferment.” Both molds and freehand techniques are used, even within a single piece, often made in parts. For example, large bottles with narrow necks are usually assembled in three parts: the base, the sides and the neck, with the last done freehand. The pieces are joined together and the seams smoothed over with a stone. The piece is left to dry, then sanded and cleaned before painting a background color with a slip. Most pieces are profusely decorated, generally with large elements first, with smaller details added later. Both paints and paintbrushes are made by the family.

Before firing, the piece is burnished with a stone. This seals the pores and eliminates the need for glaze. Firing takes about three hours. The firing changes the clay color from a grayish to the cinnamon tones, and the burishing leaves a matte finish. The change of color requires a certain amount of imagination while painting to ignore what the eyes sees in favor of the later result.

Maestro Nicasio is over 80 years old now, but there are generations after him who have taken up the tradition. All five children, José, Isabel, Zeno, Jose de Jesua and Pablo, are potters, learning to work the clay at a very young age and learning apprenticeship style. Their workshops continue to produce platters, large covered jars called tibores, jugs, and vessels in the form of bulls and horses. These animal-shaped vessels were developed by Nicasio.

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Painting fine lines on a piece

Several of the children have hadsignificant success in their own right, with pieces regularly exhibited at the National Ceramic Museum in Tonala and other venues.For Pablo, the generational aspect of his work is very important because of the history that it provides, and in his opinion elevates that work that he and the family does above that of hobbyists. He is also insistant that the work be called “ceramics” and not “pottery” as a sign of respect.

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Maestro Pablo with “robot” at the Museo de Arte Popular

In addition to making traditional pieces for handcraft competitions, Pablo has experimented with more artistic works, such as participating in the Arte/Sano biennial of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, which pairs artists and artistans. In this case, Pablo created a life-sized robot figure completely in canelo pottery. Pablo states that it is important to continue innovation as pottery markets change.

However, Pablo states that canelo pottery is in danger of dissappearing because the white and black clays used are found only in certain areas around Tonala, and these areas are in danger from urban sprawl. Another issue is that while his daughter , aged 9, is learning as he did, it is harder to keep her attention in the age of computers and electronics.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia
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