José García Antonio is a master ceramicist, creating sculpture from clay that is produced from his village soil. He is best known for his large sculptures that resemble Zapotec women and mermaids. His family is instrumental in his craft, with his wife acting as his muse (many of his pieces resemble her) and his two children supporting the continuation of this craft. Despite being almost blind (having lost much of his eyesight due to cataracts), Jose Garcia Antonio continues to produce these magical pieces by touch and feel. We chatted with this master artisan about his life, his craft, and how he stays inspired during the pandemic.
You started as a kid without formal instruction in sculpture. What were some of the first things you created?
I made animals; you know it’s common for children to love animals, so I created the animals that I see here near where I live: bulls, donkeys, and horses.
I remember once I made an elephant, and it was a solid figure (not hollow), and my younger friend loved it so much that she asked her mother to buy it for her! So her mother called me and asked me how much I wanted for the elephant, and I said “Well…40 cents” and in those days, 40 cents was a lot (and it was a lot to me as a kid!) so I sold that elephant. It was not a fired piece, I sold it as dried clay, but it was my first sale!
And how did you know where to get the material?
The beautiful thing about earth is that it creates my material. As a child, I used the clay from the plains, and it is really important how far you dig. For example, the earth changes after 1 meter, so you have to use the clay that is there – it’s finer, harder, cleaner. I would remove the thicker stretchy mud and use that which is below.
Today, I go to the fields for my material. In Oaxaca, they use this clay to make houses, so it’s great soil. We buy the clay from a nearby area, and then we remove bits of the clay from the ground and carefully bring it home in sacks. Afterwards, we soak the clay in water for a week or 5 days, and then we take it out and spread it and pack it with our feet. From there, it’s stored in plastic. Honestly, the clay is so well-preserved this way. It doesn’t dry out and we’re able to use it. You know, I can’t see, so I do this all with the sense of touch, and this sense is just so beautiful. It is all I need, to be able to feel the clay to know how my work is transforming.
And you have continued this tradition despite not being able to see, and I wanted to know, what do you attribute that to, like that positivity, where does it come from and how did you not lose your hope, or how did you remain positive?
I’m so lucky in that my children have followed my work. I have three children, two daughters and a son. My son is a sculptor and he does great work; all of my children have surpassed me in their artistry. They draw in the clay and create things. Honestly, my inheritance is this art and my talent. I leave them with this. I believe all humans have talents, everyone has some sort of talent, whether it’s becoming a doctor or being an engineer. And what we have is great, this great talent of creating art from clay, changing it, transforming it.
I feel very lucky that my children want to continue my work. Often people ask me, “Jose, will there be young people doing this work?” And I tell them “Very few” because of this generation we’re living in of science and technology. You can put your finger on a button and reveal twenty facts, but for me, I move my ten fingers to create something, and yes, that’s why it’s art. For me, this is truly beautiful.
Oh I love it! And about how many hours a day do you spend making pottery?
I go to bed very early, maybe 8 or 9 pm, so I wake early, at 3 am. I get up and begin my work then. I love taking that time, the fresh air, the silence of the early morning. This is when I dedicated all my talent, my commitment, and my effort to make clay figures. Then it’s 9 am and I take my breakfast, but by then I feel as though my day is already well spent. I love working at dawn.
And how have you been with the pandemic, have you been able to get out or how are things?
Well, we certainly could not have expected this plague. We are fine here; some have left and some have become sick and some have passed. But we are taking care of ourselves. Honestly, in quarantine, the confinement was hard, and because of my blood pressure, I found that not walking was not good. So I would gather my family and tell them to come walk with me into the fields. It’s just beautiful because we’re close to the town, so we walk in the fresh air close to town. It’s all one needs, that fresh air.
That’s wonderful. Thank you very much for your time, is there anything else you would like those who buy your pieces to know?
Yes, I have spoken about my children, but my wife is also a big part of my art. All the feminine features that a woman has she makes for my creations [details of faces, etc.]. And many of the pieces we make of women have a mole on their forehead (because my wife has a mole on her forehead). It’s sort of our seal; if the woman has a mole on her forehead, it’s from our workshop.