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In Metepec, feats of clay in an enclave of artisans

An hour west of Mexico City, potters interpret legends in imaginative designs and create modern ceramic pieces as well.

November 14, 2004|Suzanne Murphy-Larronde | Special to The Times

Metepec, Mexico — Exotic trees grow in Metepec, with thick trunks of clay and branches crowded with birds and flowers, saints and goldfish. God sometimes hovers over the boughs.

I've collected Mexican pottery for many years, so I was delighted by this enchanted forest I discovered in Metepec, about 50 miles from Mexico City. Artists here have created a ceramic world populated by exuberant suns, guitar-strumming mermaids, dancing skeletons and all the animals of Noah's Ark.

On weekends, shoppers from Mexico City and Toluca crowd into hundreds of stores in the town's compact historic center. The more adventurous seek out the potters on their own terrain -- modest workshops tucked into the maze of cobblestone streets -- where the public can browse, buy or order a custom piece.

I planned my first visit to Metepec during a stopover in Mexico City, where I visited my friend Beatriz. I easily convinced her that some handsome terra-cotta pots would be just the thing to smarten up the terrace of her new apartment overlooking Chapultepec Park. If she would drive, I would buy lunch.

Waiting out the capital's legendary rush-hour traffic, we didn't head west on Highway 15 until about 10 a.m. We arrived in Metepec's historic center an hour later, picked up a map for pottery shoppers at the tourism kiosk downtown and followed its directions to Tiburcio Soteno's modest studio, a five-minute walk.

We arrived as the potter was putting the finishing touches on "Paradise on Earth," an intricate, 4-foot-tall tree of life paying tribute to mankind's ingenuity. At the gnarled base, a slumbering child was lost in dreams that emerged in the winding branches above as life-enhancing inventions and discoveries -- eyeglasses and lightbulbs, jets and cellphones, miracle drugs and nuclear power. Topping the sculpture, disembodied hands reached for even loftier heights and accomplishments. A bearded Almighty, clad in white, benevolently presided over the scene.

A prolific storyteller, Soteno, in his early 50s, has tackled similarly ambitious themes including tree-of-life interpretations of Dante's "Inferno" and an epic titled "The Conquest of Mexico." The long hours of research plus the laborious hand molding of individual pieces can push prices for these elaborate, multi-hued creations as high as $5,000.

Soteno's mother, Modesta Fernandez, was one of the pioneering potters whose work bridged utilitarian ceramics of the early 20th century to the modern decorative creations Metepec is known for today. Soteno's business, like most in this town, is an intergenerational affair, and his two teenage sons can sometimes be seen at the workshop pursuing their own projects or filling orders for creche figures or other ceremonial objects associated with Christmas, Easter or Dia de los Muertos.

With more shopping before us, Beatriz and I decided on easy-to-tote glazed incense burners, about $2 apiece, and continued on our way.

Maintaining craft traditions

Spread across a vast, fertile valley at 8,800 feet and edged by towering mountains, Metepec lives in the advancing shadow of Toluca, its industrial powerhouse of a neighbor barely four miles away. On Metepec's northwestern edge, the two cities intertwine across blocks of suburbs and American-style malls.

Other craft-producing villages lie close to Toluca as well, including Santiago Tianguistenco, known for its basketry, and San Mateo Atenco, where leather goods are the thing to shop for.

Following our map of Metepec's historic center, we walked several blocks to Taller del Sol, where another of Metepec's stars, Teovaldo Hernandez, produces vibrant terra-cotta suns, flower-festooned table wreaths, crosses and figurines. Martin, one of Hernandez's four talented sons, put his brush aside and explained how he makes the limited-edition collectors' pieces using traditional firing techniques and plant-based paints.

The result was striking. He showed us a just-finished tree of life barely 2 inches tall, and Beatriz and I exchanged expectant glances. It was a week in the making and was perfect down to the last detail with subdued earthy colors. The asking price was, alas, $1,500. And he already had a buyer. Beatriz settled instead on a yellow clay sun wearing an expression of mild surprise, which cost about $4.

Battalions of wobbly skeletons, instrument-toting saints and terra-cotta suns populate the home and workshop walls of potter Adrian Luis Gonzalez. Even the dome of his sturdy brick kiln, on an adjacent patio, sports decorative ceramic trim.

Gonzalez, who is in his mid-60s, showed us around the ground floor, and when summoned to the phone, motioned for us to take a look at his upstairs showroom. The display pieces were elegantly proportioned and exquisitely finished, and it was easy to see why this prolific potter has gained an international following. Among my favorites were his jaunty Dia de los Muertos revelers and a large Noah's Ark with robed shepherds and a contented menagerie.

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