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Fantastic Figures: Josefina Aguilar’s Clay Creations

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, the complete process of creating her work is done by hand using the tools and materials of her ancestors. Over 20 years ago, Josefina and her husband José worked very hard to buy land outside of Ocotlán. They knew mother nature had hidden a treasure in the earth; a rich deposit of clay that would supply the Aguilar family for a lifetime.

Digging the clay takes many hours and family members to help extract it from the ground. Using a long metal spike the dirt is first loosened from the surface of the earth. The smallest amount of sand or dirt mixed with the clay can cause breakage or create imperfections in the work when it is fired in the kiln.

After hours of hard work 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. Water is added and when absorbed it produces a refined clay.

The final step is wedging, a process that thoroughly mixes the clay and removes any pockets of trapped air. Josefina’s sons wedge the clay with their feet until it is the right consistency. The clay is stored in plastic bags until it is ready to use it.

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 are joined to the body later. This way of working ensures that the entire figure will be hollow. Small slabs are rolled to form the arms and joined at the seams. The arms are cut to bend at the elbows.

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. As the arms are joined, the work begins to take form. A hole is cut between the shoulders to create an opening for the head. 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. At this stage, the clay is called greenware and although it is firm to the touch it is very fragile.

To prepare for the firing, the kiln is filled with the figures. A wood fire is started in the bottom of the hole near a small opening in the kiln below the shelf where the figures rest. The heat circulates throughout the kiln for about six to seven hours and hardens the clay. The fired clay turns it a rich terra cotta color. When 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 who carry their children, animals, or food in their arms. Women are often seen balancing one or more items on their heads as well. They are very popular for their delightful forms and bright, contrasting colors. Each one, unique from the next, 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 had the privilege to experience them.

Questions for Discussion
How is clay extracted from the ground?
What tools and techniques are used to build a figure?
How are the figures fired?
What is the role of the family in the production of Josefina’s work?
What types of figures do Josefina Aguilar and her family produce?