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Soledad Martha Hernández De Castillo | Taller Alfonso Castillo

Puebla's Tree of Life

Soledad Martha Hernández de Castillo was born in Izúcar de Matamoros, a town in the Puebla region of Mexico, which has long been a renowned pottery center. Taught by her mother and father, Castillo creates ornately configured, vividly colored traditional clay artwork using both ancient techniques and contemporary inspiration.

The tradition of designing, sculpting, and painting distinctive “Tree of Life” artworks goes back hundreds of years in the Castillo family, transmitted from generation to generation of Puebla potters. Soledad learned her craft from her husband Alfonso Castillo, one of the Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art and a fourth-generation artist. Together they built a family business and are regarded as the progenitors of this ceramic tradition.

Originally, items such as candelabras, incense burners, and altars were simple in format and design, made to satisfy the needs of the family and community. As a means of earning income, the Castillo family began creating increasingly elaborate styles of clay artwork, experimenting with vivid colors and unique design elements. Now, in addition to traditional items, Castillo makes whimsical figurines, heart pendants, and traditionally styled small Day of the Dead sculptures.

Clay comes from regional sources, and in addition to purchasing paint, Castillo makes her own using family pigment “recipes.” Each piece is wholly unique and hand-sculpted, with many of the more detailed and elaborate pieces requiring wire armatures upon which clay is applied. Once the clay is completely dried, the artisan fires it in an electric kiln. Once cool, it’s ready to be painted.

Hundreds of years ago in Puebla, Tree of Life incense burners were given to young married couples by the godparents of the groom. The candelabra was presented by the bride’s godparents as a symbol of hope for a good harvest throughout the couple’s life, both in terms of number of offspring as well as general prosperity. Today, these incredibly special works of art can be treasured not just in Puebla, Mexico, but around the globe.