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Adrián Martínez Alarzón of Taller Bichuga Bigu on the transformation of a long family and town tradition 

— As told to Rodrigo Cruz and Melissa Patenaude

Adrián photographed by Eva Lepiz.

Interview

A new perspective

Standing up for creativity and evolution while staying connected.

08/25/2021

Words by
Melissa Patenaude

My mother gave us clay--children like water and mud, right? It was fun for me, using it and working it, making my animals, my toys. It all started with my little cars, dinosaurs, whatever I wanted to do... my way.

Introductions-
Hi! My name is Adrián Martínez Alarzón and I am the founder of Taller Bichuga Bigu.

I started working with clay as a child, because my mother (Ana María Hernández) had her taller. The tradition comes from my mom, and I think the best inspiration was watching her work. I'm the 8th of 9 children. 

My mother gave us clay--children like water and mud, right? It was fun for me, using it and working it, making my animals, my toys. It all started with my little cars, dinosaurs, whatever I wanted to do... my way.

What I remember most of my childhood is seeing all my siblings in my mother's workshop and seeing my mother always on the lathe. I see all of us at a table working, each one making the things we wanted to create.

Now, my mother likes the work I do and feels very happy and proud of everything we've been working on.

You have to understand the oven and the elements. If you are not in harmony, if you are not calm, then something goes wrong.

An upbringing in clay

When it comes to people, I believe that my family, my mother and my father are my biggest inspiration. To see them work without fatigue, with pleasure always, happy. If it had not been for them, I would not have taken this path. Seeing my mother working for so many hours. Always with the best disposition and always doing the best possible. "Look, that one is a little crooked, it must be removed from the order" she would say. You feel that warmth, and you feel that the best possible thing has to come out of you. My father is from a neighboring town called San Lorenzo Cacaotepec so he doesn't work the clay. He is in charge of making the material, preparing the clay, and of the ovens, which are all also very important.

I always liked clay. When I was younger, I didn't like it because I was told to prepare the material and it was heavy for me. So at one point I said “no, I don't want to prepare the clay”. Then little by little the clay was called me back.

I started burning clay when I was twelve or thirteen, to help my mother. One day, my mom told me “You know what son? You have to help me.” Many of my siblings had gone to the United States, my sisters met their husbands and went to their new homes, so it was up to me and my other younger sibling to help out. She told me I had to learn to burn the clay. There was fear because I was afraid to spoil all her pieces. At first, facing the wood oven which must be in harmony with all the elements to be able to transform was something hard. I spoiled complete bakings and felt terrible because I knew a lot of work had gone into making the pieces. My mother told me “Don’t worry, at some point you have to learn, little by little. Everything is practice, and you have to like it.” Yes, it was difficult at first. But not anymore. You have to understand the oven and the elements. If you are not in harmony, if you are not calm, then something goes wrong.

I later went on to study ceramics for seven years and did a Mexico-Japan exchange program. I am what they call a ceramics' technician.

I prefer to do sculptures, the utilitarian as well, the techniques that are sometimes not so easy. There is a technique called Horse Hair Raku which uses hair. You put hair on the piece, it burns and remains impregnated. Other ceremonial techniques take a lot of patience. I like all that.

A normal day for me is getting up around nine (I don't get up early), I open the workshop, if I have a piece to do then I get to work on it. Right now I'm working these big heads for the Mexico City fair. When I finish the pieces that need to be done, I find what other things can be done, but I always work in order. If I have to do a burning, I get up early to do so. I burn about 3-4 times per week.

I opened this workshop at the end of 2020. It's still new. What was difficult when I started working on my own was that people of the town began to know my work, and especially sales. It was not well received by all my family members. Many criticized me, saying I was destroying a millenary tradition. That was a bit hard for me. I told them "I am not breaking the tradition, it is transforming, it has to evolve." We're no longer seeing the traditional green clay, we're now seeing other colors such as mineral pigments. My uncles told me “I do not see a shape in what you do, it's like sculpture, but I do not see that it's useful”. It brought them conflict, but I was at peace, I knew what I wanted to do. I told them that this is what I wanted to do, how I felt and that I wasn't going to stop, and that it was good that there was that vision. Still, it was very hard.

The people of the town also didn't take this well. They said I was bringing techniques that were not from here. The black clay sculptures for example, they told me “No, this technique is from San Bartolo (a town on the other side of Oaxaca)”. I explained that the techniques are from everywhere--it is such an ancient technique, it exists in many parts of the world, in Japan, in Colombia, in Africa. They did begin to see me as the one who was bringing techniques that did not belong to us, but it is only because they don't have such knowledge.

Nature is my biggest inspiration. All nature is in harmony and does not try to destroy. It rather adapts to us even though we are always here doing harm, but it keeps giving us life. That is for me the greatest inspiration--the harmony that exists in nature and the harmony that exists in ceramics to be able to transform itself.

My philosophy of life is to adapt to nature, be part of the whole and know that everything is there, information, knowledge, not believing that I am superior to what is in front of me, respecting life energies.

There is something called, "Toltecayotl", the art of being a Toltec. That was a culture. That’s what we want as humans, to become great Toltecs, which is to be great connoisseurs of knowledge, lead a life in harmony and that your life really is... art. It is a very old philosophy that continues to this day. We want to unify, unify many parts of the arts, music, dance, etc. The journey is long, but we go little by little. We first work on ourselves, and that's hard sometimes, but that's how we have to go, little by little, first with ourselves and then with the rest.

I would love for the community to build awareness of the value of our ancestors and of this very important culture. I want them to value it, feel proud, and that it's not because they are called "artisans" that they can't be great artists. That has always been, wherever I go, an excursion or something I say "I am a craftsman, I am an artist". The truth is, this has been misinterpreted. So for me, I have to work a lot to have a place to be table, to have a vote, and talk about colleagues who sometimes don't have that voice. I hope I can help the community like that. I hope that they honor, that they respect, that they continue to have that pride in their roots and in what they do.

More on Adrián Martínez Alarzón and Taller Bichuga Bigu coming soon.

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