In Metepec, feats of clay in an enclave of artisans

Special to The Times

Exotic trees grow in Metepec, with thick trunks of clay and branches crowded with birds and flowers, saints and goldfish. God sometimes hovers over the boughs.

I've collected Mexican pottery for many years, so I was delighted by this enchanted forest I discovered in Metepec, about 50 miles from Mexico City. Artists here have created a ceramic world populated by exuberant suns, guitar-strumming mermaids, dancing skeletons and all the animals of Noah's Ark.

On weekends, shoppers from Mexico City and Toluca crowd into hundreds of stores in the town's compact historic center. The more adventurous seek out the potters on their own terrain -- modest workshops tucked into the maze of cobblestone streets -- where the public can browse, buy or order a custom piece.

I planned my first visit to Metepec during a stopover in Mexico City, where I visited my friend Beatriz. I easily convinced her that some handsome terra-cotta pots would be just the thing to smarten up the terrace of her new apartment overlooking Chapultepec Park. If she would drive, I would buy lunch.

Waiting out the capital's legendary rush-hour traffic, we didn't head west on Highway 15 until about 10 a.m. We arrived in Metepec's historic center an hour later, picked up a map for pottery shoppers at the tourism kiosk downtown and followed its directions to Tiburcio Soteno's modest studio, a five-minute walk.

We arrived as the potter was putting the finishing touches on "Paradise on Earth," an intricate, 4-foot-tall tree of life paying tribute to mankind's ingenuity. At the gnarled base, a slumbering child was lost in dreams that emerged in the winding branches above as life-enhancing inventions and discoveries -- eyeglasses and lightbulbs, jets and cellphones, miracle drugs and nuclear power. Topping the sculpture, disembodied hands reached for even loftier heights and accomplishments. A bearded Almighty, clad in white, benevolently presided over the scene.

A prolific storyteller, Soteno, in his early 50s, has tackled similarly ambitious themes including tree-of-life interpretations of Dante's "Inferno" and an epic titled "The Conquest of Mexico." The long hours of research plus the laborious hand molding of individual pieces can push prices for these elaborate, multi-hued creations as high as $5,000.

Soteno's mother, Modesta Fernandez, was one of the pioneering potters whose work bridged utilitarian ceramics of the early 20th century to the modern decorative creations Metepec is known for today. Soteno's business, like most in this town, is an intergenerational affair, and his two teenage sons can sometimes be seen at the workshop pursuing their own projects or filling orders for creche figures or other ceremonial objects associated with Christmas, Easter or Dia de los Muertos.

With more shopping before us, Beatriz and I decided on easy-to-tote glazed incense burners, about $2 apiece, and continued on our way.

Maintaining craft traditions

Spread across a vast, fertile valley at 8,800 feet and edged by towering mountains, Metepec lives in the advancing shadow of Toluca, its industrial powerhouse of a neighbor barely four miles away. On Metepec's northwestern edge, the two cities intertwine across blocks of suburbs and American-style malls.

Other craft-producing villages lie close to Toluca as well, including Santiago Tianguistenco, known for its basketry, and San Mateo Atenco, where leather goods are the thing to shop for.

Following our map of Metepec's historic center, we walked several blocks to Taller del Sol, where another of Metepec's stars, Teovaldo Hernandez, produces vibrant terra-cotta suns, flower-festooned table wreaths, crosses and figurines. Martin, one of Hernandez's four talented sons, put his brush aside and explained how he makes the limited-edition collectors' pieces using traditional firing techniques and plant-based paints.

The result was striking. He showed us a just-finished tree of life barely 2 inches tall, and Beatriz and I exchanged expectant glances. It was a week in the making and was perfect down to the last detail with subdued earthy colors. The asking price was, alas, $1,500. And he already had a buyer. Beatriz settled instead on a yellow clay sun wearing an expression of mild surprise, which cost about $4.

Battalions of wobbly skeletons, instrument-toting saints and terra-cotta suns populate the home and workshop walls of potter Adrian Luis Gonzalez. Even the dome of his sturdy brick kiln, on an adjacent patio, sports decorative ceramic trim.

Gonzalez, who is in his mid-60s, showed us around the ground floor, and when summoned to the phone, motioned for us to take a look at his upstairs showroom. The display pieces were elegantly proportioned and exquisitely finished, and it was easy to see why this prolific potter has gained an international following. Among my favorites were his jaunty Dia de los Muertos revelers and a large Noah's Ark with robed shepherds and a contented menagerie.

Once he had rejoined us, Gonzalez recounted his professional debut at the Toluca market at age 8, when he began fashioning tiny clay lions to sell at his family's pottery stand. To please the customers, he was told, each and every animal had to be decorated in bright silver and gold. But now, decades later, Gonzalez can cater to his own taste: a more subtle palette of mauve, dove gray, ecru and tawny yellow. For about $45, I bought a signed mermaid candelabra in terra cotta, black and slate blue.

Mermaid watches over all

On Gonzalez's advice we headed for one of the small eateries that overlook leafy Juarez Park in the center of town for lunch. Presiding serenely over the park from the middle of her fountain domain was a larger version of my cherished new acquisition: La Tlanchana, the voluptuous mermaid.

In prehistoric times when the region had a vast network of lakes fed by the nearby Lerma River, this goddess was venerated as a fertility symbol and protectress of aquatic life, according to the cafe proprietor. These days, La Tlanchana survives as muse to Metepec's potters.

Despite the explosive growth of outlying neighborhoods, Metepec's historic center has maintained a friendly, small-town feel. Residents have improved the modest adobe buildings and cobbled streets and spotlight their pottery-making traditions with whimsical, hand-painted clay street signs. An imposing two-sided tree of life by Soteno, rising 8 feet above Avenida Estado de Mexico, greets visitors to the nearby 16th century Franciscan monastery.

Just across the street, the Iglesia de la Virgen de los Dolores o del Calvario surveys the Toluca Valley from a perch on Cerro de los Magueyes, an ancient burial site. Our purchases stowed in the car trunk, we assaulted the summit by way of a long stairway but stopped frequently to catch our breath and admire the enormous sun masks and elegant, highly glazed urns that beautify the park walls.

At the top, we gazed out over the surrounding countryside and marveled at the spectacular skies unsullied by smog. On the descent we admired another ambitious creation, a 22,000-piece tree-of-life mosaic by Saul Camacho Rodriguez, firmly embedded into the adjacent hillside.

We asked a passerby about good shopping spots and were pointed in the direction of Mercado Artesanal, a block featuring about 90 small pottery emporiums near Juarez Park. Unlike boutiques on Comonfort and other popular tourist corridors, which are filled with merchandise culled from across Mexico, the Mercado Artesanal is an exclusive showcase for local potters and features some of their highest-quality work.

We browsed happily for several hours in dozens of compact stores displaying objects as diverse as practical glazed tableware and garden pots and purely decorative items including the now-familiar mermaids and suns plus religious figurines and reproductions of ancient artifacts. We left laden with a superb pair of medium-size tree-of-life sculptures destined for the niches in the entry to Beatriz's new apartment. At $300 (after some bargaining), they were a great buy.

I felt a little guilty for having lured my friend to Metepec on the pretext of buying terra-cotta pots. On that score we had come away empty-handed. When I mentioned them on the ride home, however, Beatriz was unfazed.

"Oh, those," she said. "I'll pick up a couple back in the capital when I'm at Wal-Mart."

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Pots and plans

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, United, Delta, Mexicana and Aeromexico offer nonstop service, Aero California offers direct service (stop, no change of plane), and American and Continental offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $278.

From Mexico City, Metepec is a 50-minute drive west on Highway 15. Hiring a driver for the day from Mexico City costs about $100.

TELEPHONES:

To call Mexico from the U.S. dial 011 (international dialing code) then 52 (Mexico country code) and the local number.

WHERE TO SHOP:

About two dozen artisanal potters work in Metepec, among hundreds of pottery shops. Most potters receive visitors from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Tiburcio Soteno, 142 Calle de Ezequiel Capistran, at Manuel Altamirano, Barrio de Coaxustenco.

Taller del Sol, 514 Calle de 5 de Mayo, Barrio de San Mateo.

Adrian Luis Gonzalez, 212 Calle de Altamirano, Barrio de Santa Cruz.

Mercado Artesanal, south of Ignacio Allende, between Calle de 5 de Mayo and Calle de Miguel Hidalgo, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

TO LEARN MORE:

Mexico Tourism Board, 1880 Century Park E., Suite 511, Los Angeles, CA 90067; (800) 446-3942 or (310) 282-9112, www.visitmexico.com.

-- Suzanne Murphy-Larronde

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