Tonalá is a municipality in the Guadalajara metropolitan area known as a center for Mexican handicrafts—especially the highly-decorative pottery of Jalisco. Its massive Thursday and Sunday street markets, where artisans like José de Jesús Alvarez Nogal offer their wares, are a major attraction in the area. José specializes in traditional “Tonalá ware,” a distinctive polychromatic pottery tradition that combines pre-Hispanic, European, and East Asian ceramic techniques and decorative styles.
José, who began working with clay at just five years old, explains the process: “We begin by digging the clay, which we then take to a mill that turns it to powder. From there we do the “pisada,” the stomping or kneading by foot of the clay mixed with water. It is then balled up and ready for use. We form our pieces with press molds. Once the molded pieces dry, we sand and smooth them. Then the piece is coated with a finish color, the background, and after that we begin to paint the piece with flowers and animals, and then do the ‘shadowing’ of these designs. This is followed by the most important technique for our work which is the polishing or burnishing. This is done with pyrite and a little water. Finally, the piece is fired for four hours and when it comes out it’s done.”
Among the traditional designs, perhaps the most curious are those depicting nahuales, ancient totemic shape-shifting spirits represented as cats crawling and prancing across vessels and platters adorned with painted flowers, leaves, scroll designs, and seemingly unwitting birds.