It’s not easy to find José Antonio García, the master ceramicist who lives in a small village called San Antonino near Ocotlán, Oaxaca. Fortunately, friends of mine gave me these directions: drive to the end of the main street toward the church, turn right (the wrong way down a one-way street) and left again. Look for the large ceramic lions sitting on top of a wall and pound on the metal gate. I did just that and soon José García’s daughter warmly welcomed me into her family’s compound where everyone is involved in the business of ceramics.
José García was born on August 10, 1947. He was only seven years old when he first discovered his love—and extraordinary talent—for working with clay. Without any formal instruction, his first creations were animals, including horses and giraffes. However, he soon discovered that he loved combining the female form with the natural world by making sirens. According to Greek mythology, the sirens were dangerous and beautiful creatures that lured sailors to their rocky island with their enchanting voices and songs, usually resulting in shipwreck. José García has produced sirens in all sizes, including sculptures large enough to adorn a courtyard or garden.
Don José’s wife Santa Teresita Mendoza Reyna Sánchez was born in 1961 and the two were married in 1987. Their daughter, now with children of her own, brought me into a simple building constructed from wood, brick and corrugated metal, passing what felt like an entire city of clay figures along the way. Inside everyone was busy at work, including the grandchildren who, instead of playing with toys, were shaping creatures out of a mat of fresh clay that lay on top of a sheet of plastic on the floor. I found José García working on a large figure of a woman with her arms raised over her head. He told me that she would hold a clay pot that could be filled with flowers or other plants.
Years ago, Don José encountered problems with his sight and is now nearly blind. In spite of this disability, he refuses to stop doing the work he loves and, using his memory and his hands as his eyes, manages to continue to create beautiful pieces. This genteel man stopped long enough to shake my hand and tell me he was glad I had come before settling back down on a low stool to continue molding the clay. His wife and daughter took me all around the workshop, both inside and out, presenting work in various stages of completion.
I learned that the clay could be found in an area nearby, just under a layer of soil. Using the traditional methods, it is then cleaned of impurities and crushed into a fine dust. It can be stored in its dry form or water can be added until it is the right consistency for sculpting. It is then wrapped in plastic to stay moist until the pieces are finished. At first they are allowed to dry slowly indoors and later, in the sun. The pieces are then fired in a pit in the ground, which is located just outside their workshop, where they must remain until they are once again cool to the touch.
His wife also makes male and female ceramic figures. His daughter proudly displayed a lamp she’s been working on that has a baseball theme, from a batter for the base to the round pom-poms of clay baseballs that dangle from the handmade lampshade. Most of Don José’s pieces are left in their natural red clay color, though a few are painted. His favorite pieces continue to be the sirens, though he will also sell practical pieces such as pots or bowls, or special ornaments for seasonal celebrations such as Christmas, or Day of the Dead. Many of his figures draw upon the clothes and faces of the indigenous people of the region, from the Tehuanas along the coast to the Mixtecas near the city of Oaxaca.
I am envious of friends who’ve filled their garden and terraces in Oaxaca with the work of José Antonio García and his family. I had to settle for a small siren that I could wrap securely and bring back home in my carry-on luggage.