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DESTINATION: MEXICO

Guanajuato, a city with an old soul

Sift through the history of this unassuming, ancient town and its rich artistic heritage emerges.

October 09, 2005|Stephen Franklin | Chicago Tribune

At the edge of the Jardin de la Union, I find the Teatro Juarez, an elegant four-story theater that was opened in 1903 by President Porfirio Diaz with a performance of "Aida." It is a shining example of gaudy late-19th century designs and obsessive attention to small details. It still is used for performances, especially during Guanajuato's Cervantes Arts Festival, which began Wednesday and continues through Oct. 23.

At night, the front steps of the theater turn into an outdoor foyer, mostly packed with students, who sit and talk.

A few steps from the theater on the same cobblestone street is another place that captures my imagination: the Museo Iconografico del Quixote. The message of the literary Spanish dreamer and hero of the downtrodden is captured in dozens of paintings, sculptures and murals that span several decades.

I cross back through the Jardin and come across another pleasant surprise, a museum marking the birthplace of artist Diego Rivera. The modest four-story home, where famed muralist Rivera was born in December 1886, is full of sketches and paintings, most of them from his early years.

I discover there is a payoff for patiently strolling through the museum when I arrive at a large fourth-floor room, which is taken up by a copy of his mural of a day in Mexico City's Alameda Park. It is a stunning summary of Rivera's leftist politics and lyrical embrace of Mexican history.

Stories behind the art

THEN, I set out in search of the home and workshop of Gorky Gonzalez, Guanajuato's most famous ceramist.

My directions take me close to the city's historic center, where I go past Guanajuato's baseball stadium, down a quiet side street beside a cluttered, muddy stream and up to a dark, uninviting, windowless building.

Bad idea, I tell myself. If nobody answers, I'm ready to head on. Exploring doesn't always work.

I knock on the thick, old door, which opens by itself, and climb a winding metal stairway to a second-floor store. Here I find the master's son, also called Gorky, with his very young son, also named Gorky. For my own sense of clarity, I dub the two adults Gorky Junior and Senior.

Gorky Junior, a soft-spoken man in his mid-30s, is also a potter, though his eye is on sleeker, more modern styles of ceramics than his father's. Without much prompting, he explains his father's love of Guanajuato's pottery.

Gorky Senior's father, Rodolfo, a sculptor and antiques collector, named his son after Russian writer Maxim Gorky, the founder of social realism. One day, Gorky Senior was struck by some stunning ceramics that he had never seen before in his father's antiques store. Rodolfo told his son it was a rare item and that the art of making such ceramics had long been forgotten in Guanajuato. Its beauty stayed with Gorky Senior as he studied art in Mexico and then, thanks to a scholarship, went to Japan in the 1960s to study ceramics.

There, he learned the ways of ancient Japanese potters and fell in love with a Japanese woman. When the young married couple returned to Guanajuato, Gorky Senior decided to rescue the majolica style of ceramics, adding his own distinctly Mexican imagination. And using the same clay that the first Spanish-trained potters used when they came to Guanajuato.

"My father says the paint of the work is made greater by the fire," Gorky Junior tells me, "but the soul of the piece is the wheel."

Success came. The exhibits have been many, and artists and buyers from Mexico and elsewhere came to meet Gorky Senior. Beyond the store and workrooms, the house opens into a large courtyard with a leafy garden and tall, dome-like rooms with massive glass windows that make the greenery feel like a part of the rooms.

The son's story ends, and I am invited to meet Gorky Senior, who is sitting in the living room of his house. The air is filled with the music of tropical birdsong from the garden. Thick, white walls are covered with photographs and paintings, many by well-known Mexican artists. There are rugs and ceramics everywhere.

We sit across an enormous table carved from mahogany and mesquite, talking about his love of the traditional ceramics. "I can look at an old piece and I don't need somebody to tell me about it. The work teaches you."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mexican charm

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Alaska and Continental have connecting service (change of planes) to Leon, which is 15 miles from Guanajuato. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $258.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial the international dialing code (011), the country code (52), and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Quinta Las Acacias, Paseo de la Presa; 473-731-1517, www.quintalasacacias.com.mx. Built more than 100 years ago for a wealthy family, it was restored several years ago with a 19th century European ambience. Three new rooms have a Mexican flavor, as well as Jacuzzis. Doubles start at $180, breakfast included.

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