Gerado Ortega Lopez - Ceramic Artist from Santa Cruz de las Huertas, Jalisco
Gerardo Ortega at his workshop with wood-fired kiln in the background
The Ortega family has been working in barro betus for generations. Also called Cerámica Fantástica (Fantastic Ceramics) because of the bright colors used, barro betus gets its name from the oil bath it receives in aceite de betus (oil of betus - a resin extracted from the pine tree) before it is fired. Santa Cruz de las Huertas, a suburb of Tonalá is known as the main producers of barro betus. Subject matter ranges from roosters, coyotes, owls, figures of Trees of Life - all made with a whimsical sense of fun and bright colors.
Gerardo Ortega is well known for his Arboles de la Vida (Trees of Life). His teachers were his father, Eleuterio Ortega Hernandez, and his grandmother Natividad Hernandez. Gerardo is the fourth generation to work with barro betus. His grandparents worked in the fields in the planting and harvesting seasons and in their spare time were engaged in developing their art. Gerardo’s grandmother designed pieces such as roosters, animals, candlesticks, chests of animals and fruits, covered with nahuales (a human being who has the power to magically turn him, or herself into an animal form, most commonly donkey, turkey and dogs, but also other and more powerful animals) and surrealistic figures. The origin of barro betus dates back to colonial times and is surrounded by myths. The most popular pieces of art are the colorful Nahual figures with the reputation of coming from a magical world.
His father made elaborate Tastoan dance masks (Dance of the Spanish conquest of Mexico) and also began to design more surreal figures. He took his clay from mines in Tonalá as does Gerardo today. The large chunks of earth are pulverized and then mixed with a harder clay called liga.
The process begins with “tortillando” or kneading the clay into unique shapes. The pieces are left to dry in the sun. The kiln is readied and bakes pieces created several days earlier. The pieces have to be dried before baking them or they will explode. The firing is done at a very low temperature compared to other types of ceramics. Kilns are handmade with bricks and mud and covered with old tiles.
Gerardo is married to Gabriela Mena and they have three children. He works daily in his workshop making his whimsical barro betus figures along with his brothers and other family members. The village he lives in, Santa Cruz de las Huertas, Jalisco is the only village that makes barro betus which is one of the five traditional ceramic techniques that Tonalá has become famous for. Gerardo has won many awards for his work exhibits and exports his art all over the world.