San Antonino Castillo Velasco is a town in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca where deeply-rooted Zapotec ceramics traditions stretch back to pre-Hispanic times. It is the hometown of artist José Luis Reyes Martínez, who learned to sculpt with clay from his father-in-law, renowned master ceramicist José García Antonio. After working for years in his in-laws’ family workshop, José Luis now works with his wife, Reyna Esther García Mendoza, and two assistants in a workshop of their own.
“We use clay obtained directly from the soil near our village, remove the impurities and then crush it into a fine powder,” explains Martínez. “We then add water and knead the clay, to get the right consistency. We use the pointed end of an agave leaf for etching, and a smooth stone for burnishing.” All sculptures are formed by hand, with some details like braids and flowers made separately and later added to the main body of the piece. Once a sculpture is complete, it is allowed to dry outdoors, first in a shaded area where wet clay can dry slowly without cracks or other deformations forming, and then in sunny spots where the last bits of moisture are evaporated to ensure a successful kiln firing.
Martínez’s pieces are both decorative and ceremonial, rendered in terracotta with no glazes or slips. His figures represent people in his community and fantastic beings like two-tailed mermaids surrounded by flowers and seashells. Often, people from his local area come to his workshop requesting custom figures to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and Christmas, but the variety and creativity of his original sculptures make them suitable for any occasion or every day.