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Ceramic exhibit explores roots, culture of Mexican family craft

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Jocelyn Arceo
Staff Writer

The American Museum of Ceramic Art held a closing reception for its exhibit “Love, Resilience and Bad Memory” on Sunday, with artists Diego Valles and Carla Martinez-Vargas presenting their work.

Originating in Mata Ortiz, a small village of around 1,400 people in Chihuahua, Mexico, Valles and Martinez-Vargas learned their ceramic skills from family members, as well as friends and neighbors.

“We don’t have proper art courses, we learn from daily life and watching our parents work and helping them,” Valles said.

Valles said that learning pottery from family is a tradition in his village, but is also one of the main sources of income for most people and the only way to support their families.

“Which family you come from is a big component of your style because if you’re born into a family, it’s very likely you will start learning how to do those designs and make them into your own.”

The tools used to make the low-fire ceramics are made completely from the ground up, Valles said.

Everything used to make the art pieces are handmade, from the clay collected from the river banks where they live to the paintbrushes made of actual human hair, Valles said.

“It’s very satisfying that something you really love doing is appreciated by other people,” Valles said. “Sometimes, especially when you grow with it, you don’t really value it as much because it’s part of your daily life and it’s overlooked most of the time. But it is because of places like this that you fully realize the importance of it.”

Martinez-Vargas, Valles’ wife and partner for the art exhibit, has trademarked her designs onto scarves and is beginning to put her graphic designs on shirts of larger brand names, such as Pineda Covalin.

“The work from our village has been influencing a lot of the art,” Valles said. “At least in our country, like fashion designers.”

Designer Pineda Covalin has pieces in airports across the world, but what many do not know is that their designs are taken from traditions from different places in Mexico, Valles said. He said that many of the people in his village, who the designs should benefit, are completely unaware that this is happening.

“When it comes to our pottery designs they are not essentially responsible towards the community,” Valles said. “They appropriate something that is not theirs and make a profit out of it. They don’t recognize the people behind it.”

The art pieces that the couple make are full of intricate details and patterns.

“The stacking pots are individually strong, but as a grouping they’re really spectacular,” said Beth Gerstein, executive director of AMOCA.

The stacking pots, by Valles and Martinez-Vargas, was put up in the sales portion of the exhibit.

“You’ve got design, you’ve got color, you’ve got structure, you’ve got everything. It’s really an everything piece,” said Anna Sanchez, AMOCA collections manager.

Another colleague, store manager Gizel Avina, said he loved the details of each piece and admired the couple for their teamwork.

“I love the details. I love the fact that they collaborate on their work, especially since their husband and wife,” Avina said. “Just looking at the different aspects of her style and Diego’s, it’s interesting to see the similarities and the differences between their work and how great they go together.”

Jocelyn Arceo can be reached at

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