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Feats of Clay in Hand-Painted Mexican Plates : A traveler finds the source of colorful new pottery in the village of Zihuatanejo, near Acapulco.

February 23, 1992|RITA ARIYOSHI | Ariyoshi is a Honolulu free-lance writer.

ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico — A young Indian girl in immaculate pinafore sat amid the oiled, nearly naked bodies on the pool deck of the Westin Ixtapa. She was shy and prissy, perhaps 14. Arrayed before her on a folding table were entire worlds--complicated, peopled, vibrant and full of color and whimsy, painted in minute detail on large clay plates.

Enchanted, I asked her the price. She wrote it down: thousands of pesos that came out to approximately $60. When I tried to bargain with her, she smiled sweetly--and wouldn't budge a peso. I was saved from the sale only by my husband, who was hungry for the poolside buffet and a "Mexican I.V."--club soda with lime in a salt-rimmed glass. "Get it later, get it later," he said, smiling through gritted teeth. Later, she was gone.

I have not devoted my life to the study of Mexican arts and crafts, but in my travels from Tijuana to Cozumel, I have never missed a market, and I had never seen plates quite like those. They were painted in brilliant colors with a Rousseau-like attention to detail, every square inch a revelation. Each plate seemed to have a central theme, like a wedding with a bride in a long white train heading for a cathedral that looked like it belonged in Disneyland's "It's a Small World" attraction.

Around the bride motif there would be scenes from village life: dancing, a cockfight, a bullfight, planting or harvesting of crops. All involved crowds of people in little hats and bright clothes. There would be long-legged rabbits, lop-eared donkeys, plumed birds, angels, flowers and entire forests. Presiding over the plate was usually a big orange sun that looked like a cross between the Aztec deity and a contemporary happy face.

Symbolism has always been intrinsic to Mexican art. Most of what is portrayed centers around religion, the ceremonies of life and the seasons of the fields. The clay plates were no exception. In addition to the great smiley-face Aztec sun, most plates had a church, and many had a cross tucked amid the feast of color. The cross would invariably be draped in bright flowers and attended by hosts of tan angels in Day-Glo gowns. Layering this new symbolism on the old, it seems that the Indians are hedging their bets, for they know from experience that life is fragile and deities must get their due. I could already visualize such a marvelous crowded plate in my dining room.

The next day, a Mexican friend, Hortensia, took us into neighboring Zihuatanejo. To keep peddlers from pestering people on the beach, the town fathers have provided stalls and set up a tourist market across the street from the Catholic church, Iglesia Guadalupe. There, among the rows of vendors, among the serapes, sombreros, puppets, T-shirts, papier-mache toucans and silver earrings were those plates, pulsating with color and life. At several stalls, artists were working on the plates, sitting on little wooden stools, hunched over the lusty scenes, fathering entire populations with tiny paint brushes.

We paused at the stall of a young artisan, whose work seemed, if possible, brighter than the others and executed with a particularly delicate hand. She had the same shy, innocent manner as the girl by the pool. With Hortensia translating from Spanish, we learned that the artisan has been a painter for eight years, and that she learned her skill by watching others. She said she works alone, and that it takes her a day to paint a large, densely populated plate such as the one I had already mentally purchased.

She was obviously both pleased and embarrassed to be the center of our attention. With only a moment's hesitation, she agreed to pose for our cameras, then quickly went back to work. When I asked, through Hortensia, about the themes in her art, she replied that she had no idea where her ideas came from. They were "just what I see around me and in my mind. I never know what I am going to do next. I just take a plate and get to work."

She had painted every plate and dish in her stall. I pointed to the one I wanted and asked how much. It was less than half the poolside price. I was so pleased and she had been so cooperative, I didn't bargain, but simply paid.

Elated at my madness, she wanted to give me an extra smaller plate as a gift. Hortensia was to have her pick, too. We protested, she insisted. We each settled on a tiny dish just big enough for a single brightly painted bird. We were very touched that she wanted to spontaneously give away the only things she had to sell to earn her living. She lived, Hortensia learned, in the poorest of the Indian villages surrounding Zihuatanejo.

I asked her to sign my plate, but with downcast eyes she confessed to Hortensia that she could neither read nor write. Then, with the brightness that shone through her work, she called over a fellow painter, Manuel, and handed him a brush.

He carefully wrote on the back of my plate, "Juanita Jimenez."

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