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A clay (barro Betus)

Candelario Medrano

by Allyn Hunt

Wise people, often unschooled, frequently possess a composed playfulness that many younger, jumpier people would like to enjoy but often don't. This playfulness seems to grow out of a profound sense of personal harmony, though these wise folks wouldn't use such words.

Thirty-some years ago, an uneducated fashioner of hand-made clay sewer pipe in the nearby pueblo of Santa Cruz de las Huertas became widely renown in the art community north of the border when New York and Los Angeles acclaimed his rustically surreal ceramic Noah's arks, churches, merry-go-rounds, jet planes and boldly imaginative animals.
Though someone once bought him a poster announcing a show of his work of the Modern Museum of Art, Candelario hadn't much of an idea where New York was, and had no desire to find out.

Once, I tried to broach the concepts of wisdom and playfulness concerning his work. He wiped his nose with a callused, wrinkled hand and suggested it was time to send one of the niños playing in his patio down the street for a couple of beers.

Medrano's wise use of his playful imagination was easily observable in the unique ceramics he was producing then a considerable time before the fantasy work of Ocumichu and Oaxaca appeared in market places. But he wasn't interested in talking about such stuff. Instead, he'd take a sip of beer and grin at the troop of children whirling through his patio, stumbling over freshly formed clay shapes drying in the sun.

Whose children are they? I asked one day, after a ragged-shirted kid tripped, cracking open a moist clay form.

"Nietos", Medrano said. "Grandchildren".

"All of them yours?"

"Sabe". He shrugged. Who knows? They come here and play. They stay for comida. They go off. Some come back for cena. They're from the neighborhood. It's hard to keep track of who they belong to.

Medrano spent most of his life turning out hand-made clay sewer pipe in the dusty, then tiny village of Santa Cruz, now a suburb of Guadalajara's relentless metropolitan sprawl. Simultaneously, for years, he created amazingly inventive pieces of ceramics which he sold wherever, to whomever, he could, in Tonala and Tlaquepaque.

Lavishly cuplaed and colonaded arks inhabited by images of the Virgin Mary escorted by charros and mariachi bands, burros and pigeons, festooned with ceramic Mexican flags; many-steepled, multi-tiered churches, populated with similar figures and flags; surrealistic owls, lions and horses-all painted in brilliant, visually rattling colors. In the late 1960s, Medrano gradually quit making sewer pipe to devote himself full-time to the surprising offspring of his ebullient, protean imagination.

If his recognition as a creative craftsman had been slow in coming, it abruptly spread almost everywhere. Museums, ranging from Tlaquepaque's Museo de la Ceramica (a branch of the National Museum of Popular Arts and Crafts) to New York's MOMA, began exhibiting his work.

Collectors, ceramicists, artists in unrelated fields, art critics, architects and historians, anthropologists and intellectuals from throughout the world came to purchase his individualistic work from the hands of the "Maestro" himself.

Emphatically unpretentious, slight, with a full head of dark hair, a quiet voice and a sly sense of humor, Medrano, though born February 2, 1918, was a man of publicly ambiguous age. In the company of becoming female students, he would trim his age to, say, 50; with older folks his age would creep up to the mid-70s. Most of the time he had little to say about himself. Most frequently, he expressed mild dismay at people's desire to talk and see, and simply be near, him.

Pos, students come and stay a while, he said. "But they always go back to wherever they came from". He would grin and wave a hand at the cobbled street in front of his door, indicating Europe, the U.S., Japan.

"They come here to study!" His eyes would crinkle and, laughing, he would shrug at this extraordinary behavior. "Then they fly away."

Politely, he might now and then briefly explain, often to young female students, the methods he used to produce his startling, irrational representations of buses, yets (jet planes) and condominios (a brief infatuation with apartment living, which he found interesting) all crammed with people, animals, birds and musical instruments.

He used clay from a local quarry- the reason for the centuries old cottage industry of ceramics in the Tonala-Tlaquepaque area- which he crushed with a pick. This, he mixed, wet, with what he called liga, a harder clay. Both clay and forms were black before firing. His kiln was a simple brick hole covered with old tiles. He used wood laced with rubber tires to fire his forms, then mused several days before painting them- invariably a stunning combination of what many called "comic-book" hues.

But he did not "discourse" on any of this in the manner of so many artists. Whatever theories he had, he kept to himself, applying them to the clay which he turned into art.
He would smile when showing guests his three-sided adobe workplace, pushing a path through the children and chickens filling his patio and kitchen, and refused to take his role as an artist solemnly.

For all his international renown, Medrano never changed the extreme modesty in which he lived. At one side of his bodega, where he stored his finished pieces, was a tarpaper canopy under which he worked at a small table in the midst of children's shouts, his family's household gossip and chores. His tools were few: a jug of water, a home-made knife, a rag, a broken piece of pottery. And, of course, his fertile dreams, his unpredictable imagination, his audacious sense of playfulness.

The modest disorder in which Medrano resided and invented provided heteroclitic evidence of that personal harmony which he did not care to even acknowledge. The profound equanimity with which he apparently viewed the world (his years molding sewer pipe and the later success of his personal art posed no settling oppositions for him, provided no basis of pinched regret) was the seat of his playful response to life's intricate puzzles. In short, Candelario Medrano, who died in October 1986, found his life and his art amusing. That, of course, is one of the rewards of wisdom.

Work of a

 

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