The Master Potters of Tonala:
We open doors for you in this potter's gold mine of a town in the state of Jalisco, Mexico
Tonala, Jalisco; A Potter's Gold Mine!
This small town on the edge of Guadalajara is an absolute goldmine of potters and pottery and has been an important pottery center going back 3,000 years. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived on the scene in 1530 they promptly named Tonala the “Factory of Paganism" as it was then a center of production for the clay idols worshipped in surrounding villages. It still produces clay items worthy of worship, and that, in a nutshell, is what this tour is about.
The recent landmark book on Mexican folk art, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, lists some 180 of the most accomplished traditional artisans of Mexico. It is a glorious who’s who list of potters, weavers, feather artisans, metal smiths, etc. from villages throughout the country. Any given village might be represented by one Great Master artisan, and in a few cases a village has produced two, or rarely, three artisans that merit placement in the book. But no other village is as well represented in the book as Tonala, which proudly counts in with SIX Great Master artisans, all of them potters.
For six days we will immerse ourselves into the world of Tonala master potters, visiting their workshops, spending a day with brushes in hand learning the decorating and burnishing methods of master potter Angel Santos Juarez, touring the National Pottery Museum and immersing ourselves in the vast folk art markets.
While eleven different styles of pottery are practiced in Tonala, from majolica to black sgraffito and ornately glazed highfire, perhaps the most spectacular, unique and ancient is the polychrome burnishware. We will visit with master decorators such as Angel Santos Juarez, Nicasio Pajarito Gonzalez and Florentino Jimon Barba, all of whom are featured in the Great Masters book. In their workshops we’ll feast our eyes on their stunning work and see how this pre-Hispanic pottery style adapted itself to Spanish colonial tastes and became highly sought after by the elite of Mexico and Europe in the 16 and 1700’s.
We will also visit workshops of potters who do the meticulous ‘petatillo’ style decoration, see amazing miniature vessels and visit the highfire workshop of Ken Edwards. We will be staying in the neighbouring town of Tlaquepaque, a lovely town of shops, shaded parks, mariachi musicians and THE center for wholesale export of Mexican folk art (so you will be able to ship it home from here!).
And as long as we are in the neighborhood we’ll take a peak into nearby Guadalajara, homeland of two Mexican legends- mariachis and Tequila. We’ll sample both, including a visit to a rural Tequila distillery. And to give us some perspective on life beyond the potters’ world of Tonala, we’ll take a two-day trip into the countryside with a visit to a small village in the shadow of the Colima volcano to meet an indigenous potter who makes comales (the essential platters on which tortillas are cooked). Our overnight away will be spent in a lovely hotel in the sweet little town of Sayula, known for great goat’s milk caramel and skilled knife makers. So skilled are they, in fact, that one of them was also featured in the Great Masters book. We’ll stop by his workshop for a visit.
This trip will be guided by Nansee New and Angel Santos .
Day 1. Arrivals from the US to Guadalajara international airport. In the evening we will meet and get acquainted in our lovely little B&B hotel just a couple blocks off the town square in Tlaquepaque.
Day 2. Today we head to Mercado Liberdad and immerse ourselves in this fabulous market filled with a million goodies and gifts for sale. The offerings range from very cheesy to fascinating, hilarious true treasures. You may just decide to refurnish your house (yes, furniture for sale) and refill your kitchen with new hand blown glasses, decorated plates and handwoven napkins in bright colors. Plus a papier-mâché pink flamingo for the front yard! The great news is that since this is the center of folk art export to the U.S. you can get your goodies packed and shipped for reasonable prices. We will eat in the market and then escape its glorious insanity for a visit to the quieter realms of the Museo Cabanas. Here we get a perfect overview of the types of pottery made in the area. And, better still, we will be accompanied by Angel Santos, both master potter and historian. He will tell us the stories behind the pottery we are seeing, explaining, for example, how Arabic and Indigenous Mexican influences come together in the pottery of Tonala.
Day 3. Our first visit this morning will be with Jesus Alvarez, a Tonala potter who has won the prestigious national ceramics prize several times with his amazing slip decorations. Then we stop by the shop of Great Master potter, Jose Bernabe, to see his mid-fire “petatillo” style pottery and family factory. After lunch we will visit the workshop of the Ken Edwards pottery line to see the beautiful highfire glaze work and line of fabulous tableware. Some free time in the afternoon to put your feet up, stroll in Tlaquepaque, go hang out with the mariachis on the town square. Evening in Tlaquepaque.
Day 4. Today in Tonala we will visit two potters, Nicasio Pajarito and Javier Lucano. Nicasio works in one of Tonala’s oldest polychrome styles, called canelo that involves a complex process of slip layering to achieve the tonalities. Javier is working with lead free lowfire glazes and mixing traditional with more contemporary designs both in his vessels and decorations. There will be free time in the afternoon and we recommend exploring the Regional Ceramics Museum in Tlaquepaque. Evening in Tlaquepaque.
Day 5. To really appreciate the skill, creativity and patience that goes into the Tonala decortive work, one has to give it a try. That is just what we’ll do today. We meet up with master potter, Angel Santos, in his home and go to work decorating small vessels or tiles with slips and burnishing them with special mica polishing tools. We will also let our mouths water over the work of Angel’s family and enjoy his personal collection of pottery. In the afternoon we will have time to explore Tlaquepaque’s shops as well as practice pronouncing the name (Tlah-kay-PAH-kay). Evening in Tlaquepaque.
Day 6. Pack your bags this morning for we are going on a field trip. But not after first dipping into the gold mine of Tonala one more time. We will visit a potter who is pushing the boundaries of traditional Tonala pottery with experimental designs and decorations as well as visit yet another Great Master, the very personable Florentino Jimon. Here we will see both wonderful burnish ware as well as delicate miniatures, also meticulously painted and burnished. We’ll also enjoy a home cooked meal at Florentino’s house. Then we hit the road and travel west into the mountainous countryside to the farming town of Sayula where we will spend the night. In the afternoon we will visit Great Master knife smith, Jose Ojeda, and see his beautiful wares. Those with a sweet tooth will also be directed to the shops that make delicious goats milk caramel, known as cajeta. Evening in beautifully restored colonial mansion in Sayula.
Day 7. This morning we head out early to visit a tiny village on the foothills of the Colima Volcano and visit a country potter who is worlds apart from the ornate and colorful pottery of Tonala. Here the pottery is made to work day in and day out over the cooking fire. We will see a demonstration of the making of a comal, or tortilla cooking platter, and, hopefully, see a demonstration of one at work, which would mean fresh hot tortillas for us! Then we will visit a rural Tequila distillery in the region and learn how cactus is turned into this famous Mexican firewater. You are invited to give it a try. Then relax for our return trip to Tlaquepaque where we will head out for a nice final dinner together.Day 8. After breakfast (or maybe before for some of you) it is time to head to the airport and catch the flight back home, loaded with memories, and probably pottery, from this journey through Tonala.