Two doctors are sharing the artistic heritage of Mexico through pottery.
Flor de Barro Gallery owners Drs. Edmundo Calleros and María Guadalupe Garcia have been married for 30 years and share a love for collecting pottery from Mata Ortiz, a Mexican village a little over 200 miles southwest of El Paso.
“We started as collectors, and then when we found that we were no longer collectors anymore, that we were hoarders, that was one of the moments when we decided we had to do something about it,” Calleros said, laughing.
But there was another reason for opening the gallery three years ago.
Calleros, a radiologist from Chihuahua City who has been in El Paso since 2004, said: “It’s very important for us to preserve the heritage of Mexico.”
“Right now we are trying to promote what we have close, and that’s Mata Ortiz.”
Part of preserving that heritage is helping keep the pottery-making tradition alive — and that starts with helping the Mata Ortiz community.
With a population of almost 1,200, the Mexican community had seen prosperous times in the past thanks to collectors’ interest in the pottery made there.
“But once the violence started in Mexico in 2008, people stopped going there,” Calleros said. “And most of their sales are for the United States.”
Before the violence, collectors and gallery owners from states including Arizona and New Mexico would go to the area, but those visits plunged after violence flared, he said.
He said that during a visit during an artistic competition in 2018, “we were the only ones in the United States buying stuff. Most of the time, you would have to compete with 20 other Americans trying to buy pottery. So, you will see the decline in the production and the decline of the number of potters that were working on it.”
He said it was important to the couple to help the community.
“We know some of the potters there,” he said. “We are friends with some of them.”
Garcia, who is retired from medicine and now focuses on the gallery, added: “We admire them. We were collectors for a long time, and we know it’s worth it.”
Calleros added: “And another thing: We are collectors. If there’s no market for these pieces, they will do something else. They will start working in the fields, or migrating to the United States to do something else. And some of them have done that. Some of them have left pottery and are working in some other places, in whatever they can find.”
The gallery at 6721 Westwind Drive in West El Paso is easy to drive past. It’s inside a house that has been transformed into a stunning showroom.
“We were looking for a house,” Calleros said, adding they already had decided on another house in another area and even had placed a deposit on it.
The couple had planned a wedding anniversary trip but canceled it. Over dinner, they were looking on Zillow when they saw the house on Westwind.
“So, we called our real estate agent,” Calleros said. “And it was like 11 p.m. after dinner and we called her” and asked for a quote.
Once they walked into the Westwind house, they decided “we’ll buy this one,” Calleros said.
Garcia said it was important to renovate the house properly, to showcase the pottery as art, not souvenirs. “It’s art, and they work very hard to do something beautiful, to do something special, and it has to be properly shown.”
The purchase helped the business survive the pandemic because it eliminated the need to pay high rent when businesses were forced to close.
“In 2020, we were closed completely,” Calleros said. “In 2020, March 17, we had a celebration of our first anniversary. The next day, we closed.”
But even as the doors were closed, sales continued.
“Mostly private collectors,” Calleros said. “And probably around 50 to 60% of our business is outside of El Paso. We ship throughout the United States and Europe and New Zealand. France — we have sent to France some pieces. … Some of our most, the pricey pieces, go out of El Paso. I mean, we have a few collectors here in El Paso and some of them are really, really strong collectors.
“They don’t buy anything below $4,000. But usually we contact them when we get a piece from someone they are looking for.”
But people who want to get started collecting should feel at ease in the gallery, where prices for some items start at $12.
The gallery, whose name reflects the transformation of mud into flowerlike beauty, is open from 1 to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday and by appointment. People can arrange private visits to shop and learn about Mexico’s artistic heritage by calling 915-843-8984 or emailing email@example.com.
“No pressure,” Calleros said. “People are always welcome to come in and learn about the culture and art.”
As part of their educational mission, the couple loaned the gallery’s best pieces to the El Paso Museum of Art for its exhibit, “Contemporary Ceramics: Mata Ortiz,” which runs through June 5.
The couple travels to Mata Ortiz and throughout Mexico to meet artists and purchase items.
“We never had any issues and the village is quiet and safe,” Calleros said.
“You don’t drive at night; we don’t go out late somewhere outside the village,” he said. “And the other thing is we pay through wire. We don’t go there with $10,000 in cash. We don’t do that.”
By using wire transfers, they can pay artists directly.
“They have bank accounts here or we can just make a transfer through Western Union,” he said. “Most of the time, Western Union is better because they get a better conversion of the dollars to pesos and we can pay exactly the amount they want in pesos.”
The couple’s travels have brought artistic variety to the gallery.
Intricate trees of life from Metepec are highlighted, as are prints from engravings, beaded sculptures and Huichol yarn paintings, created using beeswax and yarn, which originally were ofrendas, or offerings, for the gods left in the desert to decompose naturally.
One tree of life, damaged during shipping, remains a masterpiece, even as Garcia ponders ways to repair it.
The couple makes sure the artists are compensated properly for their work.
All the art on display in the gallery already is paid for, so the artists don’t have to wait for payment. Some pieces might go unsold for years in the gallery, but the artists already have been compensated.
That dedication to helping the community also is reflected in the Mata Ortiz artists who in turn fund scholarships for the children in the area to go to school and university.
The emphasis on Mata Ortiz pottery honors the master potter Juan Quezada, who inspired the next generation of potters after reinterpreting the Mogollon pottery found at Casas Grandes in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
“Juan Quesada is from very humble origins,” Calleros said. “He is still illiterate. He can sign his name, but he learned to do that like a painting.”
Quesada, who is in his 80s, has been honored with the highest honor bestowed by Mexico, the Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes.
His ceramic works of art now are highly prized by collectors and sell for several thousand dollars.
Calleros said Quezada started his pottery in 1960s or 1950s as a child, learning from scratch to collect, fire and paint clay.
“He didn’t have anyone to teach him,” he said.
“All his colors are natural,” Calleros said. Quezada uses manganese, white clay and other natural sources for his pots’ colors.
“Everything is natural. All the pigments are natural in his work.”
He added, “He’s still searching for new colors.”
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Part of the gallery’s mission is to show people the intricacies involved in creating the art. That includes workshops during which artists instruct students on the processes, as well as events such as catrina painting. People can pay $60 to paint clay catrinas, which they get to keep at the end of the night.
Coming up is a workshop on Mata Ortiz techniques by master potter Gregorio Silveira Jr. It is open to students 16 and older; beginners are welcome. Students will learn shaping, polishing, painting, burnishing and traditional firing.
The classes will be at the gallery from March 24-27. On Thursday and Friday, they begin at 5:30 p.m. to give students who work the opportunity to leave on time; they end at 8:30 p.m.
On Saturday and Sunday, the classes begin at 11 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. to give students studio time to work on painting their pots. Tickets for the $325 workshop can be bought at flordebarrogallery.com.
A fire pit in the house’s backyard is used to fire the pieces.
But the gallery’s primary mission is to share the beauty and history of Mexico with visitors.
Garcia said, “People have to think about this and know because you always say, ‘I am from Mexico,’ and they say, ‘Oh, drugs, cartels, violence.’ ”
But the art and the culture are the true reflections of Mexico.
She said: “I think this is Mexico. For me, this is the real Mexico and I want people to think about it.”