A framed photograph that has moved from apartment to apartment with me for 20 years in Oaxaca reminds of my first visit to a pueblo. A shy girl, kneeling on a dirt floor, is forming a chunk of clay into a sculpture of a woman adorned with delicate, tiny petals. I have often wondered where the artisan is today, what she is doing. So I set out recently in search of her, thinking it would be like hunting for a needle in haystack and I might not find her. I didn't even know her name!
During that first visit, cerca 1997, I had wandered around the narrow dirt roads of Santa María Atzompa, known internationally for its potters of green ceramic dinnerware, and who have since expanded into colorful designs and shapes-- candle holders, planters, wall hangings, religious ornaments, and whimsical figures. I chose this village because it is only 20 minutes from the city and easily accessed in a colectivo taxi.
Twenty years ago, each homestead seemed very rustic to me, with all kinds of animals co-habiting with families in fenced-in yards laced with gardens and fruit trees. As I passed one house, a rustic gate swung open, and an aging man motioned me inside. Ready for an adventure, I followed him through a courtyard into an open-air workshop. A young woman sat on the dirt floor sculpting a clay figurine about three feet tall. She didn’t lift her eyes or acknowledge me. It was obvious the man was proud of her.
I was uncertain about what to do; how I should act? I offered to buy some pottery near the in-ground kiln in the courtyard. No, he said, they weren't finished. I notice some small animal figures on a nearby table--three miniature octopi playing band instruments. I offered to buy them, but the man insisted on giving them to me.
As he wrapped my gift, I asked if I could take the young woman's photo. That is the framed picture that has moved with me from place to place in Oaxaca City.
In my attempt to locate her, a friend, Marc Wilkinson from Puerto Escondido, accompanied me. All I had was the photo--no name, nor recollection of the location of my long-ago encounter.
We began our search at the Mercado de Artesanías on the village's main street. I have frequented this cooperative of potters several times through the years. The articles on sale range from simple pieces formed by children to very intricate, sophisticated works of art--all remarkably affordable. Up and down the aisles we strolled, then I spotted a display of whimsical animals, the same style as my trio of octopi. A sign with the name, Leticía García Blanco, ceramista, and the address of her gallery was posted on the shelf.
I showed my photo to the attendant in the cooperative and, sure enough, he said Leticía was the artist I was looking for, and he directed us to the road I had strolled along years ago. Even though the road is now widened and paved, the scene was familiar. The rustic gate, however, is a shiny metal one and next to it stands a new white stucco, two-story building.
We were welcomed into a modern, brightly lit gallery by a handsome young man, Fernando Peguero, her son. Standing shyly by his side was his daughter, age 8. When I gave Leticía the photo and reminded her of my long ago visit. She remembered me. I am sure she did. We had a round of hugs, and much to catch up on.
The gallery walls helped bring us up to date. Framed certificates and awards highlighted Leticía's recognition as a foremost potter in this valley of famous potters and artists. Her long list of achievements includes a 2007 Great Prize in the 32nd National Contest of Mexican Nativity Sets, and a First Place for Contemporary Ceramics, a national prize. She has exhibited in local and national museums and recently, with her son, was featured in the Marshal M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw Valley, Michigan.
During my visit, she continued working on a three-foot-high sculpture in her signature style of delicate petals covering the gown of a stately woman. Of particular interest to me was a large, intricate nativity scene on a nearby table. In addition to the usual characters (baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the three wise men) an Aztec warrior was also kneeling in front of the manger. Leticía's creative well overflowed in designing this scene.
I had my book “Oh Oaxaca,” with me and asked if any of their friends or family members read English. No. So I hesitated to give them my book, fearing it would be a rude gesture. Even after 20 years, I am unsure of proper etiquette. However, just before we left, Leticía asked where she might buy my book! In exchange she gave me a wonderfully sculpted woman tortilla vendor. Braids cascaded over her shoulders down to her waist, meeting an apron decorated with flowers in her signature delicate style. This six-inch clay sculpture is much more valuable than my book!
The two photos above are examples of Leticía García Blanco's recent work. The two photos below are of Fernando Peguero's recent work.
As we exited the gallery, a herd of cattle and goats passed by on their way no doubt to a greener pasture. An aged, bent woman with rod brought up the rear, keeping stragglers in line with others. Such pastoral scenes draw me to the villages throughout this southern Mexico state.
After our visit, we took a moto to the cemetery adjacent to the church, backdropped by green fields blending into blue and purple mountains. Neatly trimmed hedges and flowering bushes surrounded the fountain-fronted agencia (government buildings). Children romped in the tree-shaded courtyard. The adjacent church, which was not open, has a rounded roof, a design typical in many pueblos.
The day spent in Santa María Atzompa ignited memories I’ve carried for almost two decades. It provided a continuity of my travels into the countryside just a few kilometers outside of Oaxaca's bustling city streets.
Editor's note. The Gallery of Leticia García Blanco and her son Fernando Peguero can be found at: Galería de Arte Perguero García, Av. Juarez #109, Santa María Atzompa, Oaxaca. They also have a facebook page, Galeria de Arte Perguero Garcia. Their phone number is 01 951 558 9556.
Photo of the countryside just outside of Santa María Atzompa.