Although not as well known to tourists as places such as San Bartolo Coyotepec, Mata Ortiz and Tonalá/Tlaquepaque, Metepec in the State of Mexico is an important producer of pottery. Its making dates back to the pre Hispanic period. Bowls with legs called “cajetes” are a common archeological find here, used for ceremonies on the hill that still overlooks the center of the town. A number of the decorative elements on these pieces can be found on modern ones.
The making of these ceremonial pieces was forbidden by Catholic authorities, and production of utilitarian items became important. Even today, local markets are filled with locally-made bowls, plates and “cazuelas” actual cooking pots made of clay, which range from those holding only a few cups of food to giant ones requiring two or more people to lift and put onto a charcoal stove.
But the need for something ceremonial/religious did not entirely disappear with the evangelization efforts. Sometimes during the early colonial period began the making of Trees of Life, originally representations of the story of the Garden of Eden, which over the centuries became a traditional wedding gift and more recently, a tourist and collector item. More about these trees can be seen here.
There are several families who dominate the making of these trees, having developed reputations over 3 or even more generations. One of these is the Hernandez family, the proprietors of the El Sol Family Workshop.
The roots of this family extend back in the Metepec area well back to when this area was farmland and wetlands, before the urban sprawl of Toluca overran Metepec with shopping centers and housing developments for commuters both to this state capital and Mexico City.
But the family works to preserve what they can of old Metepec. They still live and work on the family homestead, although it is now limited only to the family house. Economic pressures forced the development of all of what was the surrounding farmland. But inside the house, things are pretty much the same as they were a couple of generations ago. Extended family lives and works together and one is surrounded with representations of traditional Metepec culture.
Like traditional artisan families of this type, the transmission of knowledge from generation-to-generation is important, as well as having a patriarch who represents the family to the outside world. Today, this role falls to Hilario Hernandez Sanchez, despite the fact that he is only in his forties.
Hilario began modeling clay as a small child, learning from his father and grandfather. He began as apprentices do, learning to work the clay from the initial stages, spending years on preparation tasks such as grinding, kneading and mixing. The maestro insists this experience was extremely important, as it gave him a basis in understand how the three clays of the Metepec area feel and work alone and mixed.
At that time, however, the family’s production was limited to the making of pitchers for pulque and other utilitarian items. But the making of the pitchers, with their decorative heads of farm animals and personages from popular culture, gave young Hilario a creative outlet, which led to more. He began painting simple designs when he was 8 or 9 and despite having absolutely no formal training, his decoration was soon noticed. He was invited to enter a piece in a competition for young artistans, which won second place.
The experience encouraged him not only to learn absolutely everything his family could teach him, but also to seek out other maestros (who he reverently calls “señores) in Metepec, including those in their 80s and 90s who had been doing this themselves since they were children. They taught him many of the philosophical attitudes towards his work that he maintains to this day.
The outreach to other local artisans also resulted in his personal shift from utilitarian items (which are still made by the workshop) to Metepec’s iconic trees of life. These trees not only present more financial opportunity, but artistic opportunity as well. The señores taught him the basics, but his techniques and style have been developed over the decades to pieces that are clearly that of the Hernandez family.
One aspect is to conserve as much of the old techniques and designs as possible. For Hilario, Trees of Life are not just decorative objects or collectors’ items, but rather representations of Metepec’s history and culture, and need to be respected as such.
He is rather romantic about work and artisans of the past. While he admits that the work was done primarily to make a living, he believes that the artisans of the past had a more emotive and spiritual connection to the working of clay. To him, this relationship is extremely important. He talked at great length about the need to “caress” the clay and even ask its permission before adding foreign elements such as the wires used to suspend small decorative elements on Trees. While there are many machines to help with the preparation work, he has resisted their use because he feels it disconnects the artisan from the clay. Hilario will also not work on days he feels bothered or angry because he believes his feelings are transmitted to the clay, with sub-optimal results.
The family does what it can to preserve the old technique, but modern realities have forced some changes. Wood-fired kilns are now prohibited and brushes made with animal hair are impossible to purchase, so gas and synthetic brushes are standard. Hilario states that he avoids orders for mulitple copies of a design and design he feels are not respectful to tradition. But there is some flexibility here as well. While no two overall pieces will be exactly alike, many of the tiny elements on trees, etc. such as birds and flowers are created with the use of molds.
Absolutely traditional Trees of Life represent the Garden of Eden, but other themes can be found, such as Day of the Dead, Mexican handcrafts and aspects of Mexico’s history. These he does gladly as they honor Mexico’s heritage. He has refused orders for more commerical themes, such as a request for a Pokémon Tree, but he has done ones for Mexican companies (the Toluca area is home to many factories), even putting company logos on the tree if he is permitted to interpret the design in his own way.
Hilario’s role as the face of the family workshop means that he himself is limited to making 3 or so pieces per year, but these pieces tend to be the best the family produces for national level competitions and very special orders, such as a Tree depicting the life of Pope Frances, given to the Vatican by the Mexican government.
The rest of the production is by other members of the family, under Hilario’s supervision. This work includes other detailed decorative pieces such as (Noah’s) Arks. These tend to stick more to the traditional Biblical story but there are signs that this two is seeing a similar development as the trees of life. Pulque jars, some with elaborate decoration can be found, as well as figures of dolls, Metepec’s “mermaids” (in reality a water sprite said to have inhabited the old wetlands) and even cazuelas still made by his mother.
Despite their insistence on tradition in production and design, the family embraces modern technology in both the promotion, marketing and administration of the business end. They generously allow photos of their work online, with the knowledge that the more the work is known, the more it is recognized as their, whether or not their clients and resellers document this fact or not. Several of his children are involved in this aspect of the family business.
Hilario believes in the future of this family business, not only because several of his children and grandchildren show promise as artisans, but because the family has been able to manage the various aspects of the business in house, keeping costs down and allowing them to maximize their ability to make a living. As of now, nine are involved full time in some fashion over 3 generations. The youngest generations are trained as Hilario was, but they start a little later than he did because of compulsatory education.
Another reason he belives in the family workshop is that it distinguishes their work. The growing popularity of Trees of Life means that the younger generations of artisans in the town include those who are not from multigenerational artisan families, but rather those who learned techniques in classes when they were in their 20s or so. Hilario dismisses the work of these artisans, stating that while a number do have good technique, they do not have the same connection to the clay that he and his family have. Their products lack the “soul” of pieces made by multi-generational workshops.
Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia except those with a *, which used with the permission of the El Sol Workshop.