To Contact: This artisanís page is part of the Feria Maestros del Arte website, a non-profit organization providing a yearly venue for Mexican folk artisans to come together to sell their work. If you wish to purchase the artisan's work other than at the Feria, you MUST contact them directly.
Independencia 46a, Santa Cruz de las Huertas
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 you will find ranges from roosters, coyotes, owls, figures to 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 teacher was his father, Eleuterio Ortega Hernandez, and his grandmother, Natividad Hernandez. Gerardo is the 4th. 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) bodies 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). 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 pulvarized and then mixed with a harder clay called liga.
The process begins with "tortillando" or kneading the clay into unique shapes. The kiln is readied and fires pieces created several days before. Before firing, the clay is black. The pieces have to be dried in the open air before baking them or they will explode. The firing is done at a very low temperature compared to other types of ceramics. Each figure is rubbed with birch oil just before firing, giving them a lacquered appearance once finished. Kilns are simple brick holes covered with old tiles.
Gerardo is married with three children. He works daily in his workshop making his whimsical barro betus figures and also giving lessons to children who want to learn this technique. The village he lives in, Santa Cruz de las Huertas, Jalisco is the only village that makes barro betus which is one of the seven traditional ceramic techniques that Tonalá has become famous for. He has won many awards for his work and exports his art all over the world.