In a corner of Durango city’s main cultural center, the Casa de Cultura, works a quiet man whose humble appearance belies the impact he has had on this state’s handcrafts and art, especially ceramics.
At seventy years old, Trinidad Núñez Quiñones (generally known simply as maestro Trino) appears a good 15 years younger. Long hair streaked with gray, he was often be either stooped over a batch of clay, or working with students from ages seven to adult.
Unseen by the casual visitor to the workshop is maestro Trino’s long history and contributions to his home state. This career is due in part to a twist of fate. Núñez was born into a solid farm family in the tiny community of San José de Gracia in the municipality of Canatlán (famous for its apples). The youngest of six children, Núñez had a very traditional family life, which included taking care of family livestock. However, in 1953 this was turned upside down when another farmer came to kill Núñez’s father over a dispute about horses. The result was that the farmer laid dead and his family took revenge, burning the family home, forcing his father to flee to the mountains and the rest of the family to the outskirts of Durango city to start over. However, it was in public school here that Núñez discovered his talent and passion for creating. He says that no matter what else happened in his life, his art was always first… he true “mistress.”
He prefers that his work speak for him. As an artist, Núñez was trained in various fields of visual arts, but has specialized in ceramics and ceramic sculpture. He has his own workshop and gallery, Taller Toltecatl, where he works with his wife Norma Elizabeth Campos Galindo and one of his sons, Gerardo. His work ranges from souvenir-type pieces produced serially to one-of-a-kind artworks. The line of handcraft that stands out most are covered vases and other decorative items that have been painted with a slip, usually burnt orange, blue or green then a primitive but finely-detailed sgraffito scratched into it. Like Mata Ortiz pottery, the decoration is inspired by the Chalchihuite culture (of historical significance to Durango) but unlike the pottery to the north, the vessels and their making are modern.
Núñez says the vessels do not have a long history in the state, stating that they are his creation and to date only he and students he has trained are making them. Núñez makes two styles of pottery using acrylic paints. One line uses bright colors and bold designs and other uses a combination of colors to imitate the look of copper and bronze pieces. These imitations are surprisingly realistic, especially considering that acrylics are used and the piece is not fired again after decoration. The last straight-up handcraft line that the maestro does is a line of black pottery pieces that are inspired by the barro negro done in the southern state of Oaxaca. However, the work done is completely his own, designs are either local to Durango and/or modern imagery and the black color is achieved by causing an excess of smoke in the wood-burning kiln during the firing process, so that the clay absorbs the black. It cannot be washed or rubbed off after the firing process.
Núñez is an artist as well as an artisan. Most of his artistic works are ceramic sculpture, often with a sexual or kind of a nightmarish appeal. These are followed by mixed media works combining painting on canvas or wood along with ceramic elements. He also does some purely paint-on-canvas pieces.
His career as an artist, artisan, teacher and researcher spans over four decades. A stint in the army interrupted his formal artistic training in the late 1960s, but he completed this and started teaching at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts, part of the Juarez State University of Durango. In 2012, after almost forty years, Núñez retired from the university.
He estimates that he has taught over 8,000 students in various capacities. He is proudest of the students he has taught and mentored who have gone on to promote Durango traditions inside and outside the state. He has worked with extremely poor communities such as La Guajalota in Mezquital to teach pottery and ceramics techniques with the aim of making more and better pieces, both to use and to sell. In 2001, the federal government sponsored a project to teach the Tepehuan in several communities better ceramic techniques. Núñez had success in doing just that; however, changes in the government since then has changed the focus in these same communities from ceramics to textiles, particularly blanket-making, converting many of his ceramic workshops to this purpose.
Today, Núñez may be best known for the workshop with bears his name at the city cultural center. He founded this workshop in 1980 and it still the primary instructor here, teaching students by setting up projects for them and letting them come in and out of the workshop anytime between 3pm and 9pm Monday to Friday. Not content to teach only ceramics, although this still occupies most of his time, about four years ago he began making and teaching cartonería (paper mache) in particular the fantasy creatures called alebrijes. He considered several options for the second craft in the workshop but decided on cartoneria as it is very economical, making it accessible to more people.
Núñez has numerous awards for his work over the course of his career, mostly from the Juarez State University of Durango and the city of Durango. His biography “Clay, paper mache and Life” was published by Durango’s publishing house. The maestro has been exhibiting his artwork since his was 25 years old, mostly locally and in the state of Durango, but also with important shows at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City and the National Museum of Ceramic Handcrafts in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco.
Credit for the fantastic photos (all but the one at the museum) to Anthony Arena.