A Nagual in Tonala: Jorge Wilmont
by Juan Jorge Wilmont Mason
Potter Jorge Wilmont has the spirit of a nagual, that legendary shape-shifting creature the citizens of ancient America believed was the transmutation of a gifted and perceptive person. Symbolizing the poetic action of creative thought, it is widely held that this mythical being was responsible for solving problems concerning the survival of the community, much in the same way Wilmont is credited with revitalizing pottery production in modern day Tonala. Born more than 72 years ago, Wilmont's terrestrial soul has traversed much of the world, but like the ageless nagual, is perhaps most at home in this Jalisco town of traditional earthenware arts.
A native of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Wilmont began working with high temperature ceramics at the age of 22 while employed for a company that created porcelain fixtures for utilitarian use. Inquisitive by nature, the artist began experimenting with the medium to craft not only bathroom fittings but artistic works as well. He began studying the techniques used in Oriental enamel ceramics and became hooked on the art form.
Wilmont's inquisitive nature led him to travel throughout Europe during the following several years. There he studied ceramics, graphic arts and design with renowned artists such as Geo Coluchi in Paris, France; Richard Bampi in Germany's Black Forest region; and potters Lindberg Kige and Lundgren in Gustavsberg, Switzerland. He also spent time in Afghanistan and Burma exploring different religious philosophies, architectural elements and fine art techniques. Wilmont notes that much of his artistic inspiration was incited from his travels and from studying the workmanship of prehispanic sculpture and architecture, medieval European cathedrals, and from the designs, glazes and compositions of ancient Oriental arts and ceramics. He also credits the literary works of Stanislaw Lem, E.M. Cioran, Jean Baudrillard and the teaching sof Lao Tse and Tao Teh King as being influential elements in his creative endeavors and outlook on life.
Around the age of 27, at the insistence of clergyman Felipe Pardinas, Wilmont returned to Mexico to head a course on ceramics at the Iberoamericana University. While living and working there he discovered numerous examples of Tonala pottery in area markets and museums. Marvelling at the craftsmanship and affinity many of the pieces had in relation to ceramics from the Old World, he jumped at the opportunity to visit the western Mexican town where his father invited him for a stopover to nearby Guadalajara. Wilmont fell in love with the village at first sight.
The Nagual Awakens
Isabel Marín de Paalen, perhaps one of the most cardinal stimulis in revitalizing interest in traditional pottery making techniques in Tonala, gave Wilmont housing at the Museo Regional de la Ceramica in Tlaquepaque while he searched for a permanent residence. He purchased a vacant lot near the town's center and began building his dream home in the early 1960s. The construction is a metaphor of the artist's life, its incredible winding halls opening into unexpected rooms and lofty areas full of light and harmony. Wings have been added and changed over the years as inspiration called and as the craftsman matured. The architectural design is loosely based on the artist's impressions of a convent in Actopan, Hidalgo, but it also exhibits Moorish and Oriental elements, influences which have been paramount in Wilmont's creative training.
Wilmont remembers being surprised at how little most Tonala artisans valued not only their work, but also their cultural heritage during the 1960s. He comments, "I realized that with a little direction and support, these artists could be inspired to create important pieces which would, in turn, increase the demand and value of Tonala pottery and their lifestyles." Shortly after his arrival in town, Wilmont approached master potter Amado Galvan with a tumult of ideas for enhancing the city's creative output. Galvan found the deluge of details for new projects and techniques overwhelming. He sent Wilmont to see his nephew, Simeon Galvan, and the history of ceramic creation in Mexico metamorphosized nearly overnight.
Wilmont began working with potters Jose Palacios, Eusebio Covarrubias, Antonio Ramirez and Salvador Vázquez, the latter of whom he believes is the finest contemporary potter today producing in Tonala. They began combining traditional Tonalteca motifs and designs with high-temperature ceramic-making techniques, adding heavy crackled glazes and using more industrial based foundations, such as stoneware, to produce time-and-wear enduring pieces. Wilmont had noticed that the finishes using more traditional techniques, such as low-fired burnished pottery, were often damaged by constant use and thus less desirable to the general public. Often an individual piece would be the creation of two, three or more artists, with one designing the form and others adding the details and glazing.
Although Wilmont views himself more as an innovator of others rather than an independent artist, his work has gained international recognition in Europe, the United States and Japan. He has garnered numerous awards nationally and abroad. For him, however, perhaps the greatest distinction comes from being a catalyst in spearheading a new posterity of creators of one of Mexico's most traditional art forms ceramics.
Today, Jorge Wilmont reminds one of a timeworn nagual. Semi-retired in his Tonala home, he passes much of his time reading and meditating. Although he is currently not producing masterpieces in ceramics, his door is still ajar for creative spirits and poetic reactionaries looking for guidance and inspiration on imminent endeavours.