Reviving Aguascalientes glazed pottery

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Shard in a museum in Mexico City (credit:I. Puga)

The city of Aguascalientes was founded in the latter 16th century as part of Spanish efforts to expand New Spain northward. By the 18th century, it became a noted producer of polychrome glazed pottery (majolica). This pottery was fairly common in Mexico, generally of a off-white to light yellow tin-based background glaze with decorative elements hand-painted over it in one or more colors. The use of this as dishes, cookware and decorative tiles came to be known as “Mexican ceramic.”

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Examples of background variation in Mexican majolica

There are regional variations, such as those of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guanajuato and Aguascalientes is no different. Traditional majolica from this state tends to be simpler in design, less influenced by European and Asian pottery but there is definite influence from nearby Guanajuato. The designs tend to indicate movement as well. Color schemes tend to include some combination of blue, cherry red, orange, brown, black, yellow and green. The background color tends to be more yellowish because of local minerals.

Paiting designs (credit I. Puga)

At its height, Aguascalientes was important producer of everyday dishes and such, with production semi-industrialized and supporting large enterprises such as Casa Terán and San Carlos. While the dishware is rare, decorative tiles from this era can be seen on many colonial-era buildings.

The pottery went into decline in the first half of the 20th century, with the last of the old workshops closing their doors in the 1970s.

But that is not the end of the story…

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(Credit: I. Puga)

In 2010, Aguascalientes artist Ivan Puga Gonzalez became interested in the old wares through the ceramic work he learned at the Arts Center of Aguascalientes. This began an odessey of research and a process of trial and error, not only to bring back the making of the old styles, but to introduce new ones as well.

Puga’s research has consisted of reading, examening old pottery and talking to those who still remember the old workshops. It has not been easy. There are no major collections of the old Aguascalientes wares in Mexico, with items of any note at Museum of International Folk Art in New Mexico.  This research is ongoing, especially the search for intact pre 1970s pieces.

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Pieces with newer designs. The pattern on the cups on the left is inspired by a textile technique called “deshilado”

His work has focused on how the pottery was molded, glazed, decorated and fired, and is able to reproduce the wares fairly authentically. The use of locally-mined clay, molding and to a large extent, firing, is what was done in the past. The main difference is the glazes, which are industrially produced for economic reasons.

Sales of his pottery started soon after he began production through word of mouth. Today, he is still the only maker of Aguascalientes pottery, working alone with the exception of help from his family. Most clients are foriegn tourists, who he says have more appreciation for the work and are willing to pay better prices. However, he does make some local sales, mostly to restaurants, hotels and galleries.

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dsc_0301Designs of his pieces range from the purely traditional to new designs, based on patterns and imagery related to Aguascalientes. Most are utilitarian items, but he does make some decorative pieces as well as those which are purely artistic. All pieces/sets are unique, signed and numbered by the artist.As an artist, he believes there is a connection to handcrafts traditions, as both require full dedication of the creator. His artistic training influences his handcrafts, but his handcraft work, as well as rural upbringing, influence his art, be it in ceramic, painting or sculpture.

Despite his young age (34) and short time in production, he has become the main authority on Aguascalientes ceramics and has been invited to present his knowledge in Mexico and abroad. In 2015 the state recognized his work as part of preserving Aguacalientes cultural heritage and received support from them.

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