Jose Juan Garcia Aguilar comes from the world-renowned Aguilar family from the small town of Ocotlán de Morelos in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The family’s feat is no small thing given Oaxaca’s reputation for producing many of the best artisans Mexico has to offer in so many different fields. Ocotlán itself is home to a vibrant pottery tradition, as well as the making of fine knives and other blades.
The family’s fame began with Jose Juan’s grandmother, Isaura Alcantara Diaz. Although she died at the young age of 44, she managed to break from the town’s traditional utilitarian pottery to found her own tradition, the creation of decorative human figures, depicting life in rural Oaxaca with emotion. She was followed by her daughters including Jose Juan’s mother, Josefina Aguilar Alcantara, who reinterpreted these new figures. Josefina became known for creating sets depicting events such as baptisms and large female figures called “muñecas” (lit. dolls). These became famous after Nelson Rockefeller began adding them to his impressive collection of Mexican folk art.
The next generation continues to reinterpret the craft, but keeping with the idea of depicting life in and around Ocotlan. However, in this case the sons stand out, principally Demetrio and Jose Juan. Jose Juan is Josefina’s younger son, born in 1974. He began watching his mother as a child, and at age 8, began to work the clay himself. Initially, his work was influenced by Demetrio, but he has since gone on to create his own unique style, and is recognized as a premier folk artist in his own right.
Jose Juan generally works on his own, with only the help of his wife, who generally paints the primary colors. While Jose Juan does make some sets, most of his figures are solitary pieces. Much of his inspiration comes from religion, with images of saints, virgins and angels, but he is also known for creating almost grotesque insects and animals with skull heads. He states that much of his inspirations comes from his area of Oaxaca, but also from Mexican folklore such as naguals (a kind of animal spirit), alebrijes (fantasy creatures of different animals parts, with highly detailed painted designs) and his own imagination. His idea is to reinterpret the culture in his own way.
He works to make his works more fine, and less rustic than that of his mother and grandmother. He also works with watercolors and metallic paints (generally gold and silver) instead of acrylics. He also prefers darker colors and large quantities of details in his figures, giving them a Baroque effect.
Jose Juan’s work has been sold and exhibited widely in Mexico and the United States and can be found in a number of important public and private collections of Mexican folk art.