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Metepec, Estado de México

There is really nothing like a Tiburcio Soteno clay piece. Although there are several Sotenos, most notably Oscar, it is Tiburcio's work that remains the most creative, beautiful yet somehow unpolished and creative. Pure folk art!
The creation for the Mermaid Tree is Tiburcio's idea. Previously the mermaid was made by Metepec artists as a stand alone piece, as pictured below.
The "black clay" monochromatic mermaid is Tiburcio's creation alone, and stunning in its detail.

Tiburcio Soteno and his wife, Amalia, live in Metepec, Estado de México, as did his parents before him. Across from their home is the taller where Tiburcio and his sons mold, fire and paint the clay. From this tiny workshop exits clay trees and figures that can be found in museums around the world, plus countless commissions for corporations, discerning private collectors, and important public spaces.

The work takes patience and is tedious, especially in the rainy season.

Left: A close-up of the History of Mexico Tree. Center: Tiburcio helps us load the Virgin of Guadalupe Tree into the old red pick-up. Right: Author Chloë Sayer watches Tiburcio's son, Israel, at work.

One tiny wet spot which creates an air pocket can cause days of work to explode in the wood-fueled horno, or oven. The basic tree structure is formed on a mold, then each tiny appliqué or sculpture is handmade…sometime hundreds of decorations for one piece.

In addition to buying the materials for his art, Tiburcio's earnings have gone towards an operation this year for his wife, a small piece of land in the country, and the construction of an apartment for son Carlos above the clay studio. They also have the expenses of two additional sons in school.

Earlier this year, Tiburcio spent two weeks in Toronto museums (organized by Chloë Sayer) giving workshops, demonstrations, and exhibiting work. Annually, Tiburcio conducts similar trips to Europe, Canada, and the United States by special invitation from prominent museums.

Trees and sculptures available in Tiburcio's repertoire include:
-The Tree of Life
-The Spring Tree
-The Tree of Death
-The Mermaid Tree
-The History of Mexico Tree
-The History of the Virgin of Guadalupe Tree
-The Noah's Ark Tree
-The Like Water for Chocolate Tree
-Black Clay Mermaid Sculpture
-Detailed San Miguel Sculpture

An available option to anyone is to commission the story of your own family. Provide stories, photos, ideas, important moments and places, and your personal Tree of Life will be made by this Grand Master.

We have gently asked Tiburcio to explore new ideas, while always respecting that he is a great artist and creative force. The inspiration must come from inside the artist. Our last visit included great discussions about a Tree of Fiestas depicting the wonderful events that punctuate Mexican life: Semana Santa, the Christmas Posadas, Independence Day, Day of the Dead, etc. We also commissioned a Frida and Diego Tree which will be the first created by the clay master.

Special commissions take about 4-8 weeks to complete, dependent upon other commissions in progress.

Other fascinating directions that a collector might pursue in this same vein are:

  • The mythical curandera set made by Tiburcio's father, Don Dario. These naïve and powerful pieces are used by folk healers, and are rare. A set is pictured in the Arte de Mexico book on Metepec's clay arts.
  • Or the unbelievable miniature trees of life and scenes created by Juan Hernandez, also of Metepec. His work defies the imagination in its tiny detail, artistry, and genius.

Every trip to Metepec is a joy that includes a visit to the Monday market, almuerzo of chorizo and café de olla at Tiburcio's home, and gallivanting all about the village to visit the best cazuela maker, the pulque jar maker, with stops between at favorite bakeries and a wonderful distillery that makes alcoholic extractions from every herb, fruit and spice imaginable. Of course we must sample everything! (The coffee liquor mixed with the nut liquor is DEVINE!)

Although Metepec is but a tiny spot surrounded by the urban explosion of Toluca…the clay masters, known and unknown, and a bite of chorizo makes the trip more than worthwhile.

By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO