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Above: Angel Ortiz in the stdio with collector Marilyn Davis. Left: Burnished black pottery cross by Tonala artisan Angel Ortiz. Opposite page: Burnished platter with hummingbird motif.

Language of the Land:
Angel Ortiz's Burnished Pottery

by Hector Rodriguez

Thursdays and Sundays are market day in the town of Tonala, Jalisco. Twice a week, city block after block after block disappear under a blanket of local wares. Pottery, wood carvings, paper mache, painted tin, nativity scenes, flowers and plants vie for space next to imported and more mundane plastic articles and electronic goods. The opposing doctrines, that of globalization verses preservation of ancestral traditions, runs like a brick wall through the center of this town. The battleline between the two has been drawn.
Stoic, with faces to the sun, hands and feet firmly planted in the soil, many of the craftsmen from this part of the world live perched precariously on that battleline. Lifes hardships have taught them a sense of personal harmony and fellowship not small lessons. And their art, from utilitarian to magnificent, reveals a background that stretches from before the Spanish conquest up to the very present. It is an art that the world craves, and a tradition that some modern artisans are struggling to maintain.
Potter Angel Ortiz Gabriel, a tenacious man of few words, has a studio-house-workshop located on the border of this twice-weekly market. As is customary, his calling as a craftsman is a family affair. His vocation, learned from and taught by grandparents Cruz Gabriel and Maria Felix Bautista, is part of an intrinsic ritual. It isnt just a livelihood, it is a lifestyle that is passed on through generations.
Ortiz recalls when work as a potter was seasonal. Unfired pieces must dry naturally before being placed in the kiln, otherwise they will explode under the ovens high temperatures. During the rainy season, from late June through September, greenware doesnt dry well due to moisture in the air. As such, artisans like Ortiz would dedicate their time to harvesting corn and beans during this period of the year. The remaining dry months were committed to the production of mainly utilitarian ceramics, pieces that require two firings before completion. (Modern conveniences now offer many potters the capacity to produce year round.)
Although Ortiz dabbled in several different mediums, including works in paper mache with the SelMel studio, his forte is burnished pottery-- where he has garnered several important awards on both the state and national levels. Examples of his work can also be found in the Fonart ceramics museum, Casa de los Artesanos, as well as museums in New York City and in important private collections in Mexico and the United States.
His son and best student, Angel Ortiz Arana, follows in the artists footsteps. This tradition of bequeathing ancestral disciplines is one of the casualties of globalization. Many children decide not to choose a life dedicated to the fundamental elements of earth, water, air and fire. Young Angel, however, has taken his birthright to heart. To date, he has received several awards of recognition from the State of Jalisco for his work in burnished pottery. (Take note, collectors: the father signs his pieces Angel Ortiz G., and the son signs, Angel Ortiz A..) Both artists remark that their work is an extension of who they are.
Ortiz Gabriel explains the process of creating with clay. First, he comments, one must pick a quality grade of clay. There are good veins of white and black clay in the town of Rosario, a few miles outside of Tonala. Ajijic, Coyula and Colimilla are also excellent sources. Once we have it back in the workshop, it needs to be mixed in proper proportion to accord it both strength and flexibility, so the material can resist humidity and heat.
Ortiz walks through the studio, signalling to an artist shaping an object. Here is where the clay takes form. When an item is finished, it is placed in the shade to dry. See, there are some examples. From here, it goes for a second drying in the sun, which is where it loses most of its moisture, becoming hard. The slight irregularities on the pieces surface are polished out with a river stone and water, he comments, waving towards his wife and daughter working in a corner. Using small amounts of water to wash one side of the piece, they deftly sand the area with a smooth stone. Then comes a type of whitewash, similar to varnish, which is brushed over the surface. Over this, we use earthtone paints to decorate the object. The designs come from our imagination and memories, he says, pausing in front of an orderly row of adorned pots. The warm luster, which is characteristic of burnished pottery, is achieved by rubbing the entire surface with pirite (a stone commonly known as fools gold). Now the piece is close to being finished. The next step is the firing. He walks towards the kiln, where his son has lit a 600 degree C. fire. It takes two-and-a-half hours to fire them.
Returning full-circle to the front of his studio-home, the completed pieces reflect the artists perspective on life and the world. These items, born from function, have evolved into works of art by the masters hand, like a sincere testimonial to humankinds existence on Earth. Images of farmers harvesting corn or tending animals, seasonal celebrations and processions, women kneading tortillas, a group of country folk wearing dark glasses and pointing to a solar eclipse, observances of life and of death, are among the narratives depicted on Ortiz Gabriels burnished pottery.
This artform is one which is shared by those who speak the language of the land, be they from Oaxaca, or Sonora, or some region in between. It is the story of Angel Ortiz Gabriel and of many artisans a tale of a group of people who are able to put their dreams and ancestral legends into tangible forms, of craftsmen delicately balanced between past and present. Outside of Angel Ortiz Gabriels studio, the Thursday market continues with its multi-cultural offerings. O
Note: International organizations, such as National Geographic, are working to help promote many of the worlds finest craftsmen. Pieces by Ortiz, and numerous others, can be viewed, and purchased, through the organizations website: Novica offers on-line information on artisans from Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, El Salvador, Ghana, Zimbawe, Indonesia, India and Thailand.