Acatlán de Osorio is a dry, dusty town in the small desert that separates southern Puebla from Oaxaca. Calling itself the “Cradle of the Mixtec region” it is a good example of the hardscrabble and precarious life of these people.
Pedro Martinez comes from a pottery family with at least 4 generations of experience living and making pottery in Acatlán. The family’s pottery was basic and utilitarian, making itesm such as washtubs, water jugs, jars, plates, molcajetes (a type of mortar/pestle) etc. It was just one of various activities that the family did to survive, sometimes trading items just for basic foodstuffs.
Martinez began working very young, by age seven he was hired out to do farmwork and began to work with clay as well, making small figures of farm animals to sell in the local market. At first it was like play, and Martinez says he began by “crawling” in clay.
The making of decorative “trees of life here is part of the larger tradition that extends into neighboring Izucar de Matamoros and even to Metepec, State of Mexico. While thier origins are from the making of candelabras, with those made in Puebla still having places for candles, even if they are rarely used. Today they are more folk sculptures, with the transformation coming from emphasis on the branches leading to the candleholders and their decoration to form a tree shape, holding various small elements in clay and with decorative painting that can be intricate. In all three towns, the trees had become a kind of wedding gift, although this association was weakest in Acatlán. (See Trees in Puebla for more information)
In Matamoros and Acatlán the tradition of making and gifting these trees had nearly died out by the mid 20th century and was rescued with the construction of the highway connecting Mexico City and Oaxaca. The highway brought tourists who stopped by for provisions along the small two-lane road and sometimes something of local color.
In the 1950s, potter Heron Martinez Mendoza (no relation) began to revive the local version of this tree in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Pedro Mendoza was a teenager who became attracted to the making of these trees and had even begun to make some of his own, very crudely, he admits. He went to Heron Martinez’s shop looking to apprentice but was told no.
Undeterred, our Martinez continued experimenting on his own, reinventing techniques he was unaware of and a few that are completely his. Lacking equipment, he used local rocks, plastica, bottles and other throwaway items for purposes such as molding, injecting and burnishing. Some of his methods are distinct from other local potters’ because of this experimentation, such as the use of lead from old batteries to create black pigment instead of coal. (Today, his blacks are lead free because of market demand.)
Stores popped up along the highway, and one of these store owners, Don Nachito, took a liking to the teen, calling him “little cousin.” Martinez was permitted to sell the trees in the store on consignment to passing motorists, leaving trees Don Nachito liked and when they sold, returning to receive his share of the money.
This new market and the hard cash it could provide prompted the young Martinez to improve his trees and to experiment with new designs and themes. From then to the present, the most popular theme has been the traditional one depicting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But he also makes those depicting the local fandango dance, the tree as a peacock, farmworkers and farmlife, Mexican historical figures and more. Soon he was selling through 4 or 5 stores in town, his pottery specialized in these trees.
Much of his work respects the traditional colors of Acatlán pottery, heavily dependent on browns, grays, orange made from pigments made from local minerals. He has expanded the palatte somewhat, added white, black and pink, but still keeping with materials found locally. (Pink is created by mixing red earth with kaolin.) His modifications are an expansion off of traditional pottery, rather than a break from it. He is aware of the trees from Matamoros and Metepec and respects both traditions, but has no interest in integrating aspects of these styles into his own.
About 25 years ago, Martinez began to experiment with other kinds of decorative pottery, even sculpture in the medium. This began with decorative bowl with animals and the like. Like his trees, these pieces are the result of experimentation, with no formal training, but more than a few show influence from modern art. They vary from reliefs to standing pieces often with images of women, the devil, monsters etc, with messages about cruelty and marginalization. Although very proud of these creations, they are side activity, with the trees remaining the mainstay of the business.
By the 1990s, the highway passing Acatlan had become outdated and a new, faster one was constructed through a different route. It has meant the end of selling directly to tourists stopping by for the most part, but fortunately, Martinez’s reputation was well-established by that time. He sells his work to various galleries and other intermediaries in Mexico and abroad, and in fairs mostly in central Mexico. However, he has had a few special commission, such as a tree depicting the life of Emiliano Zapata and one depicting the harvesting the sugar cane which is at the University of Chapingo in the State of Mexico.
He has been interviews on local and regional television, given pottery workshops in various locations and was even a visiting professor at a local tech school in neighboring Oaxaca. However, Martinez says his work is far better appreciated abraod, with his works selling in at least 15 countries, especially in the US and Japan, where he work has won awards. He even gets visitors from these countries, both art/cultural professional as well as curious collectors.
The Martinez family lives in a modest, but well-built house just outside the town center. There is no air conditioning, despite the brutal heat, but it is a long way from how he grew up, in a shack, sleeping on a woven mat on the floor. Martinez is grateful for the opportunity that the trees have afforded him to raise his family’s living, including sending his children to college. Most of the family is involved in clay, be it the making of trees and sculpture with his wife and some extent children, to the making of basic items, the specialty of his mother-in-law. Martinez hopes that the making of pottery will continue in the family. His highest hopes are in his 5-year-old granddaughter, who is showing both interest and talent in the medium.