San José de Gracia is a small traditional agricultural village, but one family there has given the town an international reputation.
The town is located in the northeast of Michoacan with a population of about 9,000. It would be forgivable to think that the area is famous for the growing of pineapples, but in reality, its main economic activity is dairy. Pineapples do not grow here.
And yet, it is the image of a pineapple done in clay which has made San Jose famous, producing one of the most recognized handcrafts from the entire state. They have been sold and exhibited in museums all over the world.
These pieces are done with traditional techniques, as a low-fire, glazed pottery common in central and part of southern Mexico. What makes them unique is the design. Most truly are forms of a pineapple fruit, complete with crown. The “skin” of the fruit is intricately decorated with tiny hand molded pieces of clay in a technique called pastillaje or appliqué. Originally, this was to mimic the fruit’s rough texture, but today other patterns are also used even while keeping the same basic pineapple shape. The top and crown almost always comes off, using the leaves on the crown as a kind of a handle. The interior is hollow and the whole thing is glazed. The most common color is a dark green, but other colors appear as well, and sometimes there are attempts to make the piece look like a real pineapple. These pieces are almost always decorative, especially the large ones, can be as tall as a meter or more.
The making of these pineapples is only decades, not centuries old.
Their invention is credited to the Alejos family, really to one woman named Elisa Madrigal Martinez. She was a potter who moved from Carapan, Michoacan to San José de Gracia. She decided to do something different than the town’s traditional saucepans, instead making pineapple-shaped punch bowls. As these became popular, she began applying the pineapple idea to other items.
She taught all her sons to work in clay – Jose Maria, Emilio, Bulmaro and Hilario Alejos Madrigal, but it is the last the made the craft nationally and internationally famous. Initially, he made utilitarian items, but interest in handcraft competitions led him to explore what he could do with his mother’s pineapple idea. He continues creating new items, such as bowls, but perhaps the most innovative was a completely non-pineapple shape – candelabras. Most of his work is done with a green glaze, but he does some in yellow and blue. Another innovation is to create completely different textures for the skins of the traditional pineapples. He is best known for applying biznaga (barrel cactus) and conchita (small sea shell) patterns. All of his work is still considered “pineapple” which may signal a shift in meaning from the fruit to the applique and glazing combination.
Hilario has gone on to win many competitions in Mexico, leading to his inclusion in the prestigious book Grandes Maestros de Arte Popular published by the Fomento Cultural Banamex. Today, three generations of the Alejos family has produced pineapples, going on the fourth. Hilario himself works with his wife and children (Elizabeth, Gabriela, Osbaldo, Andrea and Lupita) at the family studio, and the family maintains its prestige with continued wins in Mexico and abroad. The most popular pieces by far continue to be “traditional pineapples,” are highly sought out by collectors all over world, including venues such as the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.
The family states that no two pineapples are exactly alike. Prices for their work range from 150 to almost 4000 pesos, depending on size and the complexity of the decoration.
The Alejos family success has spawned many imitators, but also quality artisans bringing their own reinterpretation to Elisa Madrigal’s initial idea. The new emphasis on appliqué and glazing over the pineapple shape means that many more forms and motifs are being experimented with. State and federal cultural authorities have supported this evolution in part with an annual pottery competition in San Jose de Gracia, with in 2019 attracted 64 artisans.
Featured image: Pineapples by Hilario y Emilio Alejos at the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala