In the late-1970s and early 80s, I had fallen in love with Mexico.
As one friend pointed out, it was close to home but still just about as foreign as you could get. And with its extraordinary landscapes, vibrant cultural life, and exotic traditions, there was certainly a lot to learn, discover, and enjoy.
Early on, I was introduced to the exquisite variety of pottery produced in the various states of this new favorite holiday destination and, as any compulsive collector will understand, I wanted to bring home lots and lots of it. Fortunately, the practical aspects of transporting the stuff (to say nothing of integrating it into my already overcrowded apartment) forced me to confront reality; I had to educate myself a bit before committing to acquiring entire markets of miscellaneous ceramics. And the more I looked and learned and studied, the more I was besotted with the majolica produced in Guanajuato and especially by the output of one particular atelier—that of Gorky Gonzalez Quinones.
OK, I could divest my shelves of the once-cherished Coalport, and the lustreware could find a place in a closet for awhile. It was time to break loose.
The technique, form, and decoration of the kind of pottery, the “Mexican majolica” that seduced me in those days, originally came to Mexico via Spain. Soon after its introduction to the New World, workshops were established throughout the country, notably in Puebla, Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, Sayula, and Aguascalientes. Today, in most of these places, majolica has either vanished or degenerated into something quite ordinary, but in Guanajuato, the antique style and technique of production have mostly survived. That survival is due primarily to the efforts of Gorky and his atelier.
Born in Morelia, Michoacan, on September 27, 1939, Gonzalez is the son of a sculptor, Rodolfo Gonzalez Villarreal, and from his earliest days the young Gorky worked with his father. He assisted in their studio and learned to “get in touch with the clay” by studying sculpting, metal casting, and the “lost wax process.” (This last procedure, also called cire-perdue, is a method of metal casting in which the molten metal is poured into a mold that has been made via a wax model. Once the mold is made, the wax model is melted and drained away.)
In the early 1950s, Rodolfo Gonzalez Villarreal had had an assignment in Celaya, a bustling city in the state of Guanajuato. He found the state agreeable and decided to relocate his family to Guanajuato City, the beautiful capital, and to open an antique shop there. It was through this business that he discovered some ancient pieces of pottery which had been created in the area and which introduced him and his son to the region’s very special majolica.
And it was through this introduction that his son Gorky would eventually establish one of the most prestigious ateliers not only in Guanajuato but in the entire country of Mexico.
Since those days of early inspiration, Gorky Gonzalez’s work has received acclaim from some of the most prestigious quarters including, in 1989, his receipt of the Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes—the highest honor Mexico awards to its artists. And in 1992, Mexico’s then-president, Carolos Salinas de Gortari, presented him with the National Award of Sciences and Art.
It was Gorky’s pottery I decided to collect because, apart from the awards his work has garnered and separate from the prestige associated with it, it makes me happy. And I’m sure there are many, many others who feel exactly the same way.
Different from most tableware and other varieties of decorative ceramics (even the most elegant, rare, and expensive), the production of these special pieces is done entirely by hand. Each object is different, each has its own character.
What could be a more appealing way, for example, to start a day than with a piece of toast served on a plate immortalizing a señorita flaunting a bright green shawl as part of her traditional dress? Can there be a better way to serve sangria than out of a jolly pitcher shaped like a frog?
Gorky himself recounts, “In 1962, at the age of twenty-three, I worked in the School of Arts and also the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende. There, I set up a metal casting workshop for sculpture and it was used by both students and teachers. Later on, I founded a small ceramics workshop where I reproduced Jean Byron’s designs in terracotta.”
“My main interest was always the rescue of traditional majolica pottery. I studied ceramics in Guanajuato, and this certainly let me see the need to rescue this lost craft, so representative of the region. It was through this interest that I met Hisato Murayama, a very well educated young Japanese man who was here studying Spanish, philosophy, and Mexican history. He had a deep knowledge of ceramic techniques and lent me a number of books on Japanese art. He encouraged me to continue my studies in his country, and I received a two-year scholarship to study in Japan. While there, I not only learned new ceramic techniques, but I also met Toshiko, the woman who became my wife.
I first studied in Tokyo with the master Tsuji Seimei. Then I moved to Bizen where I studied with Kei Fijiwara, who was considered a living national treasure. With him, I learned the technique known as Bizen-yaki. My last teachers were Kato Kobe and Kioske Fujiwara, who taught me the tenmoku, karatzu, and Shino techniques. All of these are very ancient techniques, which require special effort and attention in the elaboration of ceramics.
From that time on, I dedicated myself to the rescue and preservation of the majolica technique in Mexico, maintaining the original designs used during the colonial period. This is why my workshop has become the most important one dedicated to traditional majolica in Mexico.”
Gorky González has exhibited his work throughout Mexico as well as in the United States, including New York (1965, 1986, 2002), the University of North Dakota (1985), San Antonio (1991), Atlanta (1995), New Orleans (2000), San Francisco (2003), and in Montreal (1968). His work has appeared in European venues such as Madrid (1979), Paris (1990, 1999), Savona (1990), Frankfurt (1991), Cologne (1996), and in Cairo (1991). His Latin American exhibitions include San Jose, Costa Rica (1989), Brasilia (1992), Montevideo (1993), and Lima (1993). He has also returned to Japan several times, exhibiting his work in Tokyo (1967, 1997) and Okayama (1968).
Soon after discovering this wonderful art form, I was lucky enough to visit the Gonzales atelier in Guanajuato and to meet him, his wife, and one of his sons (a young Gorky who is now managing the business). Their beautiful home was filled with a wonderful assemblage of artifacts—pieces he made himself as well as other examples of the art which he considers particularly noteworthy. His son explains, “I think my parents like all of the pieces they have collected because each one has its own character, each is special in its own way.”
When I asked young Gorky if he thought his father had a favorite piece of all those he himself had created, he answered, “In general, both he and my mother like all of the work. I must say, however, that I think my father is particularly proud of a mural he made which is not here in his home but which is now at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City.”
Alas, even in the atelier of this master and in the years which have passed since I first discovered his brilliant creations, there have been subtle changes in the work produced. His son explains, “The technique of creating this particular Mexican majolica has not changed and it will never entirely disappear. However, the way of production in small and medium-sized workshops has changed. It grows harder and harder daily to find qualified personnel to continue the traditions. It seems, alas, that most of the new generation does not appreciate or even care if ceramics are handmade or hand-painted.”
One more sad commentary on our modern lives.
Fortunately, the atelier survives and beautiful things are still being produced. Perhaps I’d better quickly order some more!
(For further information about Gorky pottery, there is a website: www.gorkypottery.com and the atelier can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.)