Figure 1: Birds candelabra by Agustin Castillo, Izucar de Matamoros.
Mexican trees of life are an enduring art form, long sought-after by collectors of folk art. These elaborate clay structures are products of an inspiring tradition that can be traced back to pre-Columbian days. Molding clay was the greatest of all New World crafts, demonstrating a remarkable array of imaginative skills. The trees evolved from the ceremonial incense burners and candleholders of the early potters in the village of Izucar de Matamoros, south of Puebla. Fitted with candles or small bowls for burning incense, the trees rise from an anchoring base with ropes of clay that form arched branches. Placed among these branches, in modern times, are scenes reflecting a range of beliefs and activities – biblical characters, day of the dead figures, even whimsical circus performers.
There are now three villages with which the Mexican Tree of Life is associated: Izucar de Matamoros and Acatlan de Osorio, both near Puebla, and Metepec, near Toluca. Each of these villages has long been known for their potting traditions, and each has notable artists as well as a distinctive style.
Perhaps most renowned is Izucar de Matamoros, located in the southwest corner of the state of Puebla. It lies in a fertile, green valley, surrounded by parched, brown deserts and white limestone cliffs. This was once the main trade route between the Colonial cities of Puebla and Oaxaca. Remnants of pottery dating back to 2500 B.C. have been excavated from the area. Prior to the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, the area was settled by the Olmecs, the Zapotecs, the Mayas, and finally the Aztecs, for whom Izucar was an important urban center. The undercurrent of pre-Columbian and colonial beliefs and practices is still very much alive there today.
Scholars believe that the Tree of Life form evolved out of the tradition of “incensing” newlywed couples as a form of purification. Polychrome (painted in three or more colors) candelabras, said to ensure progeny and successful harvests, were also given as gifts to newlyweds by the godparents Today, Tree of Life incense burners remain an important feature of the religious life of the barrios in Izucar.
The traditional form of the trees shows Archangel Gabriel with Adam and Eve at the center base, with the serpent, angels, Lamb of God, birds and flowers perched on the branches. Trees have now evolved to also feature nativity scenes, nature themes such as birds and farm animals, or Day of the Dead figures.
In Izucar, the pottery family that still does the most traditional work is that of Francisco Flores. Francisco’s father, Aurelio Flores, who died in 1986, is a legendary figure in the world of Mexican popular art. Like his father, Francisco is a potter, but also farmer and musician. His Tree of Life candelarias and incense burners are prized by collectors.
The other main pottery-making family is the Castillos. The matriarch of the family, the late Catalina Orta Urroza, taught the potter’s techniques to her six children who today form a dynasty of renowned artists. The oldest son, Heriberto Castillo, has been known the longest for his work, but he is joined in fame by his brother Agustin and sister Isabel. Isabel has traveled widely to teach and exhibit her work which is brightly-colored and imaginative. She is warm and approachable, and has great pride in the century-old tradition that she is carrying on.
The next to youngest brother, Alfonso, is the 1996 winner of the national prize for art and popular traditions. Perhaps most renowned for his day of the dead figures and Frida Kahlo candelarias, he has revived the use of natural dyes and mule-hair brushes to create authentic and wonderfully detailed designs on his pieces. Of all the ceramic pieces coming out of Izucar today, his is the most expensive.
Tomas Hernandez Baez is brother of Alfonso’s wife, Marta. In addition to towering candelaria, he makes stunning decorative pieces noted for their finely detailed painting. These include sun and moon wall hangings, Day of the Dead scenes, and various tributes to Frida.
Virginia Morgan Tepetla is the wife of one of Isabel’s sons. She does extravagantly painted day of the dead candelabra, charming nativity scenes inside clay apples, pears and strawberries, colorful angel ornaments, and traditional Adam and Eve trees of life.
For the potters in Izucar, most of the clay comes from San Andres Ahuatelco, where men dig it up and bring it to Izucar in their pickup trucks. Potters break up the clay chunks with wooden mallets, then strain it through a wire screen to separate the stone and impurities that would cause it to explode during firing in the kiln. Then they put the clay in small tanks with water, letting it soak for weeks to months, so it develops a smooth, sticky consistency. The final stage is to stamp it barefoot, or knead it by hand to force out any air bubbles. Tomas Hernandez achieves this task by driving back and forth over the clay with his pickup truck.
The large, principal parts of a tree are made by hand. The trunks and branches are formed and attached to each other with wire, around which the clay is wrapped. The smaller details, the attached birds and flowers, are made with molds that have been passed down in pottery-making families from generation to generation.
The firing kiln is typically primitive and simple. Stones and bricks are piled up to form the walls, and a piece of galvanized tin covers the top. Thirty years ago, potters used bark for fuel; today they use kindling. The Castillos have a beehive shaped oven with a gas line and a place to put wood underneath it. They fire for an hour with the gas, then continue for three hours more, with just wood. Today, most artists consider one firing, at moderately low temperature, to be enough.
After cooling, the fired red clay is then coated with white finish, so the colors of the final painting will be true. Traditionally, artists applied calcium carbonate in power form, mixed with zinc oxide and animal glue (cola), then fired the piece a second time to make the white coating adhere to the clay. Nowadays, they just use white, water-based paint which has proven to be more durable.
The polychrome paints are usually commercial acrylic paints, but some artists still use paints from natural sources. These include the plants indigo for blue, palo de Brasil for red and muicle for purple. Cochineal insects provide the dye for purple red. Natural dyes fade, so pieces were coated with a varnish to preserve the color. The traditional, homemade varnishes yellowed over time and changed the colors of the pieces. Most of the old Izucar trees have a yellowish cast. Potters today are using commercial furniture varnish which is more durable and stays transparent.
We hope that pottery making will remain a durable way of life for these families, and that they will continue to receive the accolades and respect that their made-by-hand artistry deserves.