By Alvin Starkman, M.A, J.D.
It’s not that Angélica Vásquez Cruz sets herself apart from other gifted female artisans in the state of Oaxaca because of her feminist bent; it’s her willingness to verbalize to whomever visits her home/workshop the strength she sees in the women of Oaxaca, and how she is invariably able to capture her perspective in her art. The master ceramicist has distinguished herself from other clay sculptors not only in her hometown of Atzompa, the closest craft village to the city of Oaxaca, but throughout all of Mexico. Since age seven Angélica has been innovating and adapting her art form, and for the past quarter century she has been using different clays sourced from the farthest reaches of the country to produce variations in texture and color for her unique and highly thought-provoking pieces.
Atzompa is one of a number of small artisan villages which can be visited by travelers to Oaxaca. It’s mostly known for the workshops of potters who make green glazed and pastel colored ceramics, though many villagers now specialize in production of fanciful figures and a plethora of kitchenware, vases, lamps, and more. However, as is the case in other towns and villages peppering the region, on the rarest of occasions the odd master with something truly unique and special to offer emerges. Angélica is that angel in Atzompa.
Angélica’s work has been heavily influenced by her own family and its early difficult years, as well as by Mexican history and legend. Her belief in the importance and strength of the matriarch in Oaxacan cultures shines through in her work. Aside from the inner fortitude of women, what immediately strikes the eye upon entering the showrooms that form part of her home, are two important features of her skillset: the complexity of detail and the flowing natural movement so rarely captured by her colleagues. Of peers she has very few.
Those of us who have had the honor and pleasure of speaking with Angélica at length understand how her personal struggles have impacted the feminist themes in much of her work. The father of her four children left the family when the kids were still young, and so she had to raise them on her own, thankfully at times with the assistance of her parents and in-laws. She fought to maintain respect from her fellow villagers, and to provide food and shelter for herself and her children. Now, Angélica is the titular head of a proud matrifocal extended family.
Angélica’s work is featured in numerous volumes about Mexican folk art and ceramics, including Mexican Pottery of the 20th Century (2001), Mexican Folk Art from Oaxacan Artist Families (2002 & 2007), and Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular de Oaxaca (2011). She has travelled throughout Mexico and the US exhibiting her artform and promoting Oaxacan crafts. A number of years ago the federal government of Mexico bestowed a great honor upon Angélica by presenting her with a large, modern, propane-fueled kiln. But to this day she still often employs a traditional brick and clay oven for firing her pieces. For Angélica, maintaining ancestral means of production and tools of the trade is crucial.
Atzompa is a 15-minute drive from Oaxaca, easily accessed by taxi. Angélica’s home, on Avenida Independencia, is several blocks up from the main downtown artisans’ market, and about a quarter-mile down from the Atzompa archaeological site, itself boasting one of the earliest pottery workshop ovens in the region. She or one of her adult children always warmly welcome tourists into their charming and quaint world, a well-kept homestead lushly filled with an abundance of colorful plants, shrubs and fruit trees.
Angélica has mentored artisans both from other villages in the state of Oaxaca, and from the US. She continues to unselfishly offer her tutelage.
In 1991 I began visiting Oaxaca frequently, and for the past 13 years I have been a full-time resident of the city. Over those 25+ years I have made many friends and have numerous compadres and god-children. For my 65th, at an intimate gathering in our home, Angélica and family were among the honored attendees.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).