Fantastic Clay Figures of
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
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.
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
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