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Antonia Cruz Rafael: the ceramics of Ocumicho, Michoacan

Travis Whitehead

They crept and crawled, oozed and slithered from the clay, prickly spiders and sneaky snakes and pesky lizards darting from the dark wet dough, turtles swimming to its surface, bug-eyed devils rising from the mud, all brought to life by the magic touch of Antonia Cruz Rafael.

"This is a borregito (sheep), or chivito (goat)," she said in her home and workshop in this small village between Paracho and Zamora in western Michoacan. Antonia, dressed in a beige top with tan embroidery, cut a mouth and nostrils into a ball of clay, then hollowed out the eye sockets for this comically bizarre figure of a goat sitting on a chair.

"A piece this small I can do pretty fast, but the bigger pieces, I have to fasten a lot of things. It takes a lot longer. We're always forming, always painting, lizards, rosaries, lots of things. Here there's nothing else to do."

Ocumicho is part of a cluster of villages in western Michoacan known for its clay crafts (see Michoacan map). Nearby Cocucho produces stately decorative pots, Patamban makes attractive ceramics suitable for eating and drinking, and San Jose de Gracia continues to build its reputation for glistening pineapple pottery. The artisans of Ocumicho, however, have distinguished themselves with their creations of bird-shaped whistles, winged serpents, topless merma-ids, and zany devils that ride bicycles and drive buses. Other, more tame objects include gentlemen on horseback and women in flowered dresses.

Antonia's creations had thoroughly intrigued me when I met she and her family at the Palm Sunday Crafts Fair the previous March; I eagerly looked forward to seeing the bubbly cauldron where she cast her magic spells and brought her bewitched creepy-crawlies to life.

I arrived at the village late one August morning, but my queries yielded little information about her whereabouts until I finally found a relative. He was the driver of one of the small vans waiting for the next load of passengers traveling to surrounding communities. He gave me directions, and I quickly found the house, but a neighbor said they were gone and would return later that afternoon.

The woman disappeared into the house for a moment, I assumed to make a phone call, and she returned to suggest I come back at 3 p.m. When I returned, Antonia came to the door. She took a moment to recognize me, and then said she had just arrived at her house and could I come back at 4 p.m. when her husband was home.

He still had not arrived when I returned, but she invited me in anyway. Reed baskets, metal buckets, and a guitar hung from the rafters, emblems of a simple life with no hint of the magic nurtured in this cavern of mysterious incantations. Brushes splattered with paint lounged lackadaisically from cups in a tray on an ironing board. Her daughter, Lupita Estrella, 15, lolled about on the bed watching cartoons with her 11-year-old brother, Beto. The family's small black dog sat in the doorway, church bells clamored for attention, a rooster balked at the struggling storm clouds.

Antonia's brows squeezed together as she brought the goat slowly to life, her lips thickening as she clenched string between her teeth to remove excess clay. She leaned forward, rolled more dough and attached it to the head, then moistened her fingers and ran them up a curved horn. Small flattened balls of clay went into the eye sockets, Antonia's hex now conjuring a macabre expression on the creature's face.

"My mother-in-law taught me. I started doing little things, some animals. Everything was difficult, when I would start to make them, the animals and everything. When my mother was younger she used to make them, and then my father told her not to do it anymore because he said 'Your hands are not going to be okay.' He didn't like it. We used to live farther down the hill, but we moved here ten years ago when my father died."

The children don't make barro.

"The truth is, I can't," said Lupita Estrella. "It dries too quickly when I'm working the clay."

"Her hands are too hot," explained her mother. "The clay gets too dry when she kneads it. They (Lupita and the boy) help me with painting and making the silbatos (whis-tles) and simpler things. When they come from school, they don't paint because they go to school. They don't have much time to make them."

She tapered the end of a strip of clay and used a piece of green straw to make furrows for fingers, then attached rather awkward-looking legs. Bending the limbs slightly, the way a child shifts the arms and legs of a doll constructed over wire, she smoothed the clay around the joints. Now she set the figure on a pedestal, a blank-faced, bulgy-eyed little goat gazing into space, its wide stubby tail sweeping over its back while it grasped a large baseball in its hand; a sort of ghoulish beauty now emanated from the figure.

Suddenly her husband arrived, a robust, animated fellow with a wide sculpted face radiating energy who eagerly spoke about the family legacy. He credited his parents with starting the tradition in the family, producing a picture taken in the 1970s of his mother working with clay on the same board upon which his wife now labored.

Jose himself picked up the painting side of the craft by observation. "I started at age 12, just painting," the artisan said. "We began working with my mother, my father."

Antonia moistened a piece of green straw and poked holes in the tail of a bird she'd just released from the clay's captive embrace. A tart whistle awaited its emancipation from the muddy fortress by way of a cavity she fashioned.

"You have to have a special stick to make the hole just right," she said as Jose handed her a paintbrush.

She ran it through the tail but still couldn't get the hole just right. They discussed the problem in Purepecha, and he then went into the back yard to retrieve a stick, whistling softly as a rooster yacked. He brought her the stick, and she began peeling away wooden slivers with a knife before gouging it into the bird. She blew on the mouthpiece and shook her head as the bird returned empty air, her mouth stiffening in frustration.

Finally, after more poking and gouging, her face warmed into a smile as the bird delivered a festive whistle. She worked some more on the bird, rubbing the legs into a smooth polish, but the bulk of the work was completed. The piece was now infused with the power of music, the clay's encroaching reach held in check now by the artisan's liberation.

After quickly coaxing a spider from the clay's clutches, she flattened the body of a lizard, pasted bulbous eyes, fastened fatty legs, and twisted the body in a mild arch. The legs stuck out like sticks, but she guided them forward to give an impression of life.

Ocumicho's artisans, eagerly emancipating the devilish apparitions roaring through their imagination, pour their creative energy into a playful merry-go-round of fantastic images. Antonia and her family have written their own visual dictionary of otherworldly shapes and forms spontaneously evolving from their own dream. Theirs is an artistic life resplendent with red and blue devil masks with delirious eyes and piercing horns alongside men on horseback, two-tailed mermaids, and maidens in flowered dresses. Absorbing the vigor of that extravagant imagination empowers them to create fantastic physical manife-stations that haunt and delight those bedeviled by their unrestrained enchantments.

Published or Updated on: November 7, 2009 by Travis Whitehead © 2009
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