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The Fantastic Clay Figures of
Josefina Aguilar


The small town of Ocotlán, located in the valley of Oaxaca, is the home of the famous artist Josefina Aguilar. Known for her fantastic figures in clay, Josefina creates her works by hand, using the tools and materials of her ancestors. Over 20 years ago, Josefina and her husband Jose worked very hard to buy land outside of Ocotlán that contained a rich deposit of clay, which would supply the Aguilar family for a lifetime.

Digging the clay takes several hours and the help of many family members. The clay is shoveled into bags and taken home, where the chunky pieces are pulverized to fine texture with a wooden bat. The dry clay is placed in a trench, and water is added. Once absorbed, this produces a refined clay.

The final step is wedging, a process that thoroughly mixes the clay and removes any pockets of trapped air. The clay is then stored in plastic bags until it is ready to use.

Josefina begins every piece using a handmade tool to make a slab. She pounds it until she is satisfied with the size and thickness. Next, she cuts the slab to create a shape that she folds to make the body of the figure.

Openings are cut for the arms, which will be joined to the body later. This method ensures that the entire figure will be hollow, which is important because a solid piece of clay can trap air inside and explode when it is fired in the kiln. Small slabs are rolled to form the arms, and are joined at the seams.

After both arms are completed, another small slab is transformed into a head. Using her fingers, Josefina creates the mouth, nose, and eyes. Details are incised with a simple tool made from a cactus spine. As the arms are joined, the work begins to take form. Josefina cuts a hole between the shoulders to create an opening for the head. Next, she rolls fine coils for the hair, which are carefully braided in the traditional hairstyle of the region. Josefina adds many details to her work, a characteristic that makes her figures so popular and endearing, each with its own unique personality.

After the pieces are completed, they are left to dry in the sun. To prepare for the firing, the kiln is filled with the figures. A wood fire is started below the shelf where the figures rest. The heat circulates throughout the kiln for about six to seven hours and hardens the clay. When fired, the clay turns a rich terra cotta color. Once the pieces are cool to the touch, they are ready to paint.

On any given day, Josefina and her family can be found working at their home. Visitors are greeted by tables of colorful sculptures of all shapes and sizes. Some of Josefina’s figures are called market figures, because they represent the people she sees at the market carrying their children, animals, or food in their arms. Women are often seen balancing one or more items on their heads as well. These figures are very popular for their delightful forms and bright contrasting colors. Each is unique, yet depicts the activities of daily life.

From humble beginnings in the small town of Ocotlán, Josefina Aguilar has created an artistic legacy. Dedicating a lifetime to working with clay, she and her family have earned worldwide recognition. The fantastic figures of Josefina express the dignity of the Mexican people and nourish all who have the privilege to experience them.

 


Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

What do you think the work is mostly about?

• Is it about feelings or moods? Ideas or themes? The artist? The culture in which the work was made? The materials used to make it? How so?

• Does the artwork seem to be a record of the artist’s personal experience in the world? If so, how is this suggested?

• Does this artwork seem to be a record of the artist’s introspection (looking inside herself or himself)? If so, how is this suggested?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.