Salvadoran Ceramic Artist Dreams of an Artisan in Every Village Household Jose Herrera Nurtures a Flourishing Cottage Industry of Clay Crafts in the Small Mountain Town of Ilobasco

By David Clark Scott, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 18, 1993 | Go to article overview

Salvadoran Ceramic Artist Dreams of an Artisan in Every Village Household Jose Herrera Nurtures a Flourishing Cottage Industry of Clay Crafts in the Small Mountain Town of Ilobasco


David Clark Scott, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AT the tender age of 4, Jose Antonio Herrera Aguilar was making clay figures at his mother's elbow in a dirt-floor kitchen.

For much of the next seven decades, Mr. Herrera has helped shape the spreading fame of this Salvadoran mountain village. But his vision hasn't yet taken full form.

"Ilobasco is known for its ceramic artists. But there are not enough people working in the field. My dream is to have a ceramic artist in every home," he says, rubbing his salt-and-pepper stubbled chin. "I doubt if I'll see it in my lifetime. But my children might," he adds with a proud glance at his son, Victor Antonio, one of six Herrera children.

One and a half hours northeast of the Salvadoran capital, with its diesel-belching buses, up a winding road past women strolling erect with mango-filled baskets on their heads and men bent by the weight of firewood, one arrives in Ilobasco, marked by its red-tiled roofs.

Here, the combination of fine-grained clay and local talent has produced a cottage industry of ceramic crafts.

When Herrera was a child, he remembers a handful of families that made crude figurines of tiny barnyard animals and campesinos in local garb.

"They weren't well made," he says, demonstrating by quickly pinching a lump of gray clay into a small chicken. But around 1940, he recalls, the works became more refined. Herrera credits Luis Alfonso Cordoba as the first ceramic "artist" of Ilobasco. The clay sculptures became more varied and more detailed, as did the painted finish.

"I worked in my father's shoe shop days, and at night I learned from Luis Alfonso," Herrera says. A check with the local cultural center confirms Herrera's version of ceramic development. But the director admits that Herrera is the only real authority here.

Herrera went to Venezuela during the 1950s at the request of the government to teach ceramics there.

When he returned in 1962, he started a ceramics school by setting up two chairs and a wooden table on a street corner. He made horse figurines, nativity scenes, and miniatures. "They poked fun at my little workshop. But thanks to God, I slowly built up a business," he recalls.

Today, though relatively humble in appearance, the Kiko Ceramics School and Workshop is the largest and oldest in El Salvador.

To enter the school/workshop, one walks to the back of an austere salesroom on the main cobblestone street and squeezes through a narrow kitchen where handmade tortillas are toasting on the stove.

The open-air workshop is built in tiers on a hillside sloping down behind Herrera's house. On the first and second levels, about a dozen workers are making clay miniatures: chickens, pigeons, turtles, personages of the nativity scene, and little building facades.

The miniatures are made entirely by hand, using tiny hardwood "spoons" to scrape and shape the material. The facades and larger figures are made from molds. The clay goes into the mold for about 20 minutes. Then it's left to dry for two days in the shade and a half-day in the sun.

"It's important to draw the moisture out," explains Herrera's son Victor, who is managing the operation these days. Then the figurines are baked in electric ovens for four hours.

On the next level, the molds for the figures are made out of dentist plaster, a trick Herrera picked up in Venezuela. …

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