One of our favorite forms of folk art comes from a tiny village in the mountains of Michoacán, so small that it is not on any of the road maps. Located on the north slope of a pine-covered mountain that rises to nearly 3,000 meters, San José de Gracia shares this slope with the famous artesania villages of Patambán and Ocumicho, the latter, famous for the wild and mythical caricatures molded of clay and finished with brightly colored paints. Still, San José holds its own.
The history of glazed ceramics goes back to the colonial times. Bishop Quiroga, fondly known to the locals as Tata Vasco, or grandfather Vasco, brought the art of glazing pottery from the old world back in the early 1500s. Tzintzuntzán, the ancient capital of the Purepecha culture, was the original ceramics center, which spread throughout Michoacán. The Sierra Volcanica, famous as the home of the Monarch butterflies, is still today the home of the Purepecha people. The Purepecha language is still the primary language taught in the school in San José, Spanish being second. That is the way in many of the villages scattered through these mountains, tradition and culture never having changed much since before the conquest.
In the early 1970’s, a potter named Hilario Alejos moved to San Jose from Carapán, further up the valley of ‘Onces Pueblos’, where his mother, famous for her ‘Piñas’ had taught him the art. She was selling her work in Guadalajara and Morelia to use for ‘poncheras’, or punch bowls, to serve the popular ‘tepache’, a fermented pineapple beverage. The traditional style often had a row of hooks below the rim of the pot, from which hung a set of small cups.
Taking advantage of the available clay, the Alejos family and soon their neighbors, were carrying on in her tradition. The Hernandez Cerrano and Alejos families have been creating ‘piñas’ here for 40 years now. They have recently opened a co-operative, named ‘Tsitsiki’, or Flower of the Forest behind the school where their art can be viewed and purchased. The Hernandez Cerrano family was instrumental in obtaining from the official ‘Denomination of Origin’ status for the Michoacan piña makers. This group copyright is granted by the Mexican federal government to protect against piracy, the artistic and intellectual properties of the original artists & producers of Mexican products considered to be ‘artesanal’
The work begins at a deposit on the mountainside near the village. Clay is mined for the making of the ceramic pots. It is then washed clean in the creek that runs close behind the house. Most of the design work is molded separately from the pots themselves, and applied to the surface while still wet. Some times a small mold will be fashioned and used to create a repeated decoration, but for the most part, everything is done by hand, to enable the potter to know that the clay has the proper moisture content and consistency to mold the main pot body.
When the pots have been constructed, they are placed in the sun to dry and harden. Once hardened and completely dry, depending on the design, some of the areas on the pots are coated with a thin layer of white clay found in the bottom of Laguna Cuitzéo a land-locked lake 100 km. to the east. This provides an underpainting that glows through the glaze. Then once again they are thoroughly dried in the sun.
Now they are ready for the first firing, done in an open pit off of the kitchen. The pots are placed on special clay pedestals in the center on the pit. A fire of oak and pine is built up around the pots and kept blazing for over six hours, depending on the size and number of pots being fired.
After cooling in the open air, the pots are ready for the glaze, which is often simply drizzled over the pots surface, then fired once more. This accounts for the unique blending effect on the pots with multiple colors. The two original colors used for the glazes, the green and the yellow, contain lead. Though the pots are not toxic unless heated (or if someone were to actually eat a pot), attempts were made by U.S. potter societies to introduce non-toxic glazes to San José. The results were, at best, less than satisfying as far as the greens and yellows are concerned. The unique richness, depth and brilliance of the traditional glazes proved impossible to even come close to. The Hernandez Cerrano family and the other families who still create this art form, went back to their original methods. Simply, these pieces are display pieces, not dinnerware and not toys. In recent years, a rich blue and a chocolate brown have been added to the spectrum. Both of these colors are lead-free. This new variety and the ever present quality and constant innovation by the Hernandez family members, bring them many awards. First and second place ribbons adorn many of the larger pots on display, won in prestigious State and National competitions. Collectors and gallery owners from all over the world venture into these mountains in search of their art and thankfully, they keep the tradition alive.
Three generations are now active in their production, much of which is done in the open courtyard behind the display room. In the back, under a shed roof, is the main kiln. It looks much like an old well. The wood is stacked up, with the raw pots setting on clay stands. It is then covered and fired up. Heat is controlled from a flu beneath the fire and through the seasoned planks and plate metal that serve as the lid. Firing takes all night, with temperatures rising to about 500 C.
But, alas, times are changing. Berry farms and herb and spice hothouses are filling the valley floor. Jobs in agriculture may not pay that well, but the work is steady. More and more, the young people are drawn away from tradition to the world of TV and smart phones. We hope the work at the co-op will continue. This is a truly unique and beautiful art form. It would be sad to see it perish.
TSITSIKI, THE PIÑAS OF MICHOACAN by Tom Swanson and Marianne