Fomento Cultural Banamex is a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and promoting Mexico's cultural heritage. It has played a part in the preservation and renovation of important historical buildings in, among other places, San Miguel de Allende.
The foundation has published a number of elgant coffee-table books all of which are worth reading and if you can afford them, owning. Perhaps the best known of the Banamex books is Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art. Sadly, it is out of print, but you can find copies on the used book market. Be prepared to spend something north of $200 for a volume in good condition. If you're interested in collecting Mexican folk art, you'll gladly pony up the money: It's the bible. You can't manage without it.
The very best artists and artisans are profiled in this book. Hundreds of exquisite photographs give an idea of their work. Perhaps those honored here don't quite rise to the level of those individuals honored as Japanese Living Treasures. Perhaps they do. These people are most accomplished and talented, and there are none better in Mexico. And most of them are still alive and working.
We who live here are privileged in that we can meet these masters simply by finding out where they live and work, and going there. On last week's trip, I met Salvador Vásquez Carmona, a potter living in the Guadalajara suburb of Tonalá. Here is the portrait photograph of Sr. Vásquez in the Banamex book, taken ten years ago when he was about 60.
And here he is today in his studio alongside Clint (who cannot abide being in the vicinity of an active camera without posing).
Sr. Vásquez is holding a blue pottery dog covered with smiling new moons. Clint is negotiating purchase of the piece. Prices of this work are surprisingly low. An object like this one, made by a Japanese master, would sell for 100 times as much.
Below are some pieces representative of Sr. Vásquez' work. Today's collection seems to feature cats, a favorite motif.
Sr. Vásquez' son Salvador Jr. shares his father's love of the art. Here he is removing pieces from a mesquite-fired kiln.
Looking into the interior of the kiln, we see two recently-fired pieces along with a thick layer of broken pottery, placed there to raise the level of finished work to within easy reach. That Sr. Vásquez achieves such fine results with equipment so crude seems astonishing.
Northern California potters I have known use thermostat-controlled gas-fired kilns capable of maintaining reducing atmospheres or other special conditions. They have motor-driven potting wheels. They buy clay and glazes from specialized suppliers. Sr. Vásquez digs up his own clay out of a riverbank, and makes his own paints from natural vegetable and mineral sources. He grabs a glob of clay, mashes it until it's the right shape, fires it, paints it and fires it again. Potting wheels are for wusses.
I don't think you can call the paints Sr. Vásquez uses glazes. Pieces acquire a matte finish after the second firing, as illustrated by this vase.
To achieve a shiny surface, he burnishes each piece with a chunk of iron pyrite, as he is demonstrating below. He's embedded the fool's gold crystal in a piece of clay to form a handle for his tool.
The result is a muted shine, less glassy than that produced by glazes.
The plate above depicts La Llorona (the crying woman), a mythical figure who searches the world for her lost sons, making spooky crying sounds all the while. It's a scary tale told to children to make them behave. Or to provide a ghost story thrill.
In the studio, mussy tables and shelves hold work in various stages of completion. A group of unpainted vases are carelessly piled up against a finished urn worth thousands of dollars. The artist doesn't care. If it breaks, he'll just make another.
Sr. Vásquez insisted I come into his house to see his "diplomas." He has lots of them. He is known globally, and has pieces in museums and important private collections.
Unaccountably, he manages to show great pride in his accomplishments, and simultaneously, the deep humility of a man whose life is his art. His home is modest: he's uninterested in the material things his notoriety could buy him. His house is open to any visitor who wants to drop by to see great art in the making, or to simply sit in conversation with an interesting old man.