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In Metepec at the Workshop of
JAVIER RAMIREZ & ALFONSO SOTENO

February 17, 2006

ABOVE:  A View of the magnificent folk art commission, “The Tree of Mexican Folk Art”, to be installed in the new Museo de Arte Popular (MAP) in Mexico City.  The giant tree was principally created by Javier Ramirez and Alfonso Soteno over a three-year period.

In a nation of talented folk artisans, MAP came to the village of Metepec.  And within the village of Metepec, brimming with artisans, MAP came to the Ramirez-Soteno workshop.  The new Museo de Arte Popular (MAP) opening in late February 2006 in Mexico City, will feature a magnificent clay tree, 18-feet in height, created by this famous taller.  And, the directors of MAP knew the Ramirez-Soteno workshop could more than deliver.

 
ABOVE, Left & Right:  MAP’s tree in progress.  On the right, wires securing two parts of the tree, are clearly visible.  The tree was created in three parts.  The above photos were taken in February 2005.

 The Ramirez of Ramirez-Soteno is JAVIER RAMIREZ, married to the daughter of maestro, ALFONSO SOTENO.  The Soteno is ALFONSO SOTENO, the eldest surviving son of the great Don Dario Soteno and Modesta Fernández.  Together, they toiled on the MAP tree for more than three years.  There are some that would say that they have toiled on the tree for more than 75 years, and correctly so, for many credit the creation of the “Metepec tree” to Modesta Fernández, Alfonso’s mother.

As recounted in the book, Ceramic Trees of Life, Popular Art From Mexico¹, Modesta was first motivated to create clay works as a young mother providing for her family.  Her creative style gained the notice of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo who began collecting Fernandez’s pieces (many of which are displayed at the Frida Kahlo “Blue House” in Coyoacán).  Rivera’s fondness of Modesta’s clay figures led him to request that she create a depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, circa the late 1930s or early 1940s.  Fernandez’s early trees were not trees at all, but rather a single pole wrapped by a serpent, with Adam and Eve on each side.  With time, there was a yearning to tell more complex Biblical stories through clay and to incorporate more figures and decorations into each piece, and the entire Soteno family rose to the challenge.

Around the late 1940s or early 1950s, the Sotenos added clay “branches” to each side of the simple pole, making more of a true tree form, and candles holders were also added.  Did the tree became a candelabra, or did the candelabra become a tree?  No matter because the new super-structure, with its several arches (branches), could now support many more decorations.  It is this new tree form that eventually found its way into Mexican hearts and history.

The Soteno family continued to work together, and by the mid-1960s, the “Metepec tree” had exceeded three feet in height.  Young Alfonso was fascinated by the idea of creating giant trees, but his large creations continued to shatter in the oven.  Modesta told her son not to waste his time, but Alfonso was undeterred in his quest to create even larger clay trees.  In the 1970s, Mexican president, Luis Echeverría, commissioned 52 giant trees to be created by Alfonso Soteno.  The trees were to be placed in the most-important Mexican embassies abroad.  Alfonso began tackling the technical problems in earnest (assisted by his father and brothers), at last creating a bottle shaped kiln, 13 feet in height, which successfully accommodated the larger trees.  The collective efforts of the Sotenos, and Alfonso Soteno in particular, are remembered and praised throughout Mexico for creating the presidential commissions that became a true symbol of Mexico, worldwide.

ABOVE:  Javier Ramirez (left) and Alfonso Soteno proudly explain the process by which the nearly completed giant “Tree of Mexican Folk Art” was created.

The current MAP commission was created in three separate sections, each standing approximately six to seven feet in height allowing for successful firing and to facilitate transport.  A variety of techniques were used to form the two-sided tree, including molding (to form the large trunk and branches), the molding of small adornments (which include thousands of flowers and leaves), and hand sculpting of other details and adornments.  After one firing, each section of the tree was ingeniously attached with wire, holding the tree in place to accommodate painting and completion.  The entire tree next received a white wash to which the brightly colored acrylic painting would be added by the maestros.  An important feature of this commission is the addition of clay shelves to each side of the tree.  These shelves are to display clay examples of every type of Mexican artesania from mask carving, to weaving, to tinwork, to pottery.

The respective components of the “Tree of Mexican Folk Art” will carefully make their way from Metepec to Mexico City, February 18-21, 2006, on large trucks.  Straw will be used as a bed of protective cushioning for the tree’s journey.  Once at the museum, the three components of the tree will be rejoined, this time, permanently.  Finishing paint touches will next be applied.  Finally, the detailed representations of each folk art form will be placed on the tree’s many display shelves.  The “Tree of Mexican Folk Art” will surely be a focal point at the museum’s grand opening, tentatively scheduled for February 28, 2006.

For the new Museo de Arte Popular, history and experience dictated that the giant tree be created in the workshop of Alfonso Soteno and Javier Ramirez, but how did Javier become part of the Soteno clan?

ABOVE:  A close up of the exquisite San Miguel Tree.  Unlike other examples of work in this taller, this tree was painted completely in earth tones, referencing an older painting style when paints were actually made from colored soil.

 

LEFT:  Surrounded by many of his clay tree creations, Javier Ramirez has certainly earned the distinction of “maestro”.  RIGHT:  A view of the work space where the Javier artfully applies colorful paint.

Javier’s own story intertwined with the Soteno saga long ago.  At approximately 14 years old, Javier began assisting Tiburcio Soteno in the workshop.  Seeing that young Javier had considerable talent, Tiburcio carefully taught the apprentice the secrets of the famous Soteno trees.  But love and fate intervened.  With time, Javier Ramirez fell in love with the young Modesta, daughter of Alfonso.  Tiburcio still jokes about his workshop’s loss and Alfonso’s gain.  Today, Javier Ramirez has emerged as an award-winning maestro in his own right, and represents “the best” of Metepec’s next generation. 

 

LEFT:  A close up of the Tree of Mexican Dances showing the detail of the Dance of the Viejitos performed in the region surrounding Pátzcuaro.  RIGHT:  A full view of the Tree of Mexican Dances.

In true, innovative Soteno fashion, Javier Ramirez is again challenging the art form in order to tell bigger and better stories.  In addition to taking the clay tree to new artistic heights, Javier has made the ubiquitous oxen cart his own vessel for story-telling.  In this vein, Javier now includes the Nativity Cart and the Cart of Death in his repertoire.  Again, in keeping with completely Mexican modes of transportation, he has similarly used the colorful boats of Xochimilco to contain all manner of clay, Mexican fiestas.

 

ABOVE, Left & Right:  Known for his extremely intricate clay carts, Javier shows off the sculptural quality of these pieces by finishing them in a natural, clay color.  The photo to the right shows the Christmas Nativity Cart now owned and displayed by Banamex. 

ABOVE:  A visitor admires one of Javier’s wonderful trees.

 

RIGHT:  Making a sale!  LEFT:  Javier’s wife, Modesta (behind her husband), helps pack purchases.  As is the case in many artisan families, clay work is a family affair in the Ramirez-Soteno workshop.

Consider this workshop’s ties to presidential commissions, to Mexico’s most-famous painters, and to the history of Mexican folk art itself. 

  • Today, Alfonso, son of Don Dario and Modesta Fernandez, is working in Metepec along side his son-in-law, Javier.
  • This same Alfonso created 52 giant trees of life at the request of a president through sheer persistence, although many said it could not be done.
  • Ironically, Alfonso’s future son-in-law was first trained by his maestro brother, Tiburcio.
  • Furthermore, Javier Ramirez is married to young Modesta, namesake of Alfonso’s mother, who inspired Diego and Frida to collect her clay creations. 
  • And so it began with the industrious Modesta. This self-made artista not only inspired Diego Rivera to commission the first Metepec tree of life, but nurtured an entire art form that still flourishes today, sustaining her extended family and the village of Metepec.

On a recent visit, Alfonso explained that the MAP museum came to him for a giant tree due to the size of his oven.  About this he was quite sure. 

After reading the above, one might conclude otherwise.  Perhaps, the artistic talents of Javier Ramirez and Alfonso Soteno exceed the size of their oven, but certainly, their egos never will.

February 17, 2006
By Debra Hall
Co-owner
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO
www.zocalofolkart.com

¹  The Trees of Life of Metepec, pp 119-128.  Innovation and the Metepec Tree of Life:  A Collective Creation, pp 128-137.  Kiln Innovation: Overcoming the Technical Limitations of Clay, pp 137-139.  All appearing in Chapter 4, Survival through Change, A Look At Mexican Popular Arts And Metepec Ceramics At The Dawn Of The Twenty-First Century, by Marta Turok. Appearing in, Ceramic Trees of Life, Popular Art From Mexico, (by) Lenore Hoag Mulryan with essays by Delia A. Consentino, Elizabeth Snoddy Cuéllar and Luis Fernando Rodríguez Lazcano, Marta Turok.  UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 2003.

For information about the new Museo de Arte Popular, see http://www.map.org.mx/.  The museum is due to open February 28, 2006 in Mexico City.