The Flor de Barro gallery in El Paso offers a glimpse into Mexico’s artistic heritage
Two doctors share Mexico’s artistic heritage through pottery.
Flor de Barro Gallery owner Dr. Edmundo Calleros and María Guadalupe Garcia have been married for 30 years and share a love of collecting pottery from Mata Ortiz, a Mexican village just over 200 miles southwest of El Paso.
“We started out as collectors, and then realizing that we weren’t collectors anymore, that we were hoarders, that was one of the moments where we decided to do something about it,” Calleros said, laughing.
But there was another reason to open the gallery three years ago.
Calleros, a Chihuahua City radiologist who has lived in El Paso since 2004, said, “It’s very important for us to preserve Mexico’s heritage.”
“Right now we’re trying to promote what’s close to us and that’s Mata Ortiz.”
Part of preserving this heritage is keeping the pottery tradition alive – and that starts with supporting the Mata Ortiz community.
With a population of nearly 1,200, the Mexican community had historically flourished thanks to collectors’ interest in the pottery made there.
“But when the violence started in Mexico in 2008, people stopped going there,” Calleros said. “And most of their sales go to the United States.”
Before the violence, collectors and gallery owners from states like Arizona and New Mexico went to the area, but those visits declined after the violence flared up, he said.
He said that during a visit during an art 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 drop in production and the drop in the number of potters who worked on it.”
He said helping the community is important to the couple.
“We know some of the potters there,” he said. “We’re friends with some of them.”
Garcia, who has retired from medicine and is now gallery focused, added: “We admire her. We’ve been collectors for a long time and we know it’s worth it.”
Calleros added: “One more thing: we are collectors. If there is no market for these pieces, they will do something else. They will start working in the fields or emigrate to the United States to do something else. And some of them did. Some of them have given up pottery and are working in other places, in whatever they can find.”
The gallery is an easy drive-by at 6721 Westwind Drive in West El Paso. It is located in a house that has been converted into a stunning showroom.
“We were looking for a house,” Calleros said, adding that they had already decided on another house in a different area and even paid a deposit on it.
The couple had planned a wedding anniversary trip but canceled it. At dinner they looked at Zillow when they saw the house on the west wind.
“So we called our real estate agent,” Calleros said. “And it was about 11 p.m. after dinner and we called them” and asked for a quote.
Upon entering the West Wind house, they decided to “buy this,” Calleros said.
Garcia said it was important to properly renovate the home in order to present the pottery as art and not as a souvenir. “It’s art, and they work very hard to create something beautiful, to create something special, and it needs to be shown properly.”
The purchase helped the company weather the pandemic by eliminating the need to pay high rents when businesses are forced to close.
“In 2020 we were completely closed,” Calleros said. “On March 17, 2020 we celebrated our first anniversary. We are closed the next day.”
But even after the doors were closed, the sale continued.
“Mostly private collectors,” Calleros said. “And probably about 50-60% of our business is outside of El Paso. We ship to the United States and Europe and New Zealand. France — we sent some pieces to France. … Some of our most expensive pieces come from 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 under $4,000. But we usually contact them when we get a piece from someone they’re looking for.”
But those looking to start collecting should feel comfortable in the gallery, where prices for some items start at $12.
The gallery, whose name reflects the transformation of mud into flower-like beauty, is open Friday through Sunday and by appointment from 1pm to 7pm. Visitors can arrange private visits to shop and learn about Mexico’s artistic heritage by calling 915-843-8984 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“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 has loaned the gallery’s finest pieces to the El Paso Museum of Art for its Contemporary Ceramics: Mata Ortiz exhibition, which runs through June 5.
The couple travels to Mata Ortiz and throughout Mexico to meet artists and buy items.
“We’ve never had any problems and the village is quiet and safe,” Calleros said.
“You don’t drive at night; We don’t go out late anywhere outside the village,” he said. “And the other thing is that we pay by bank transfer. We’re not going there with $10,000 in cash. We do not do that.”
By using bank transfers, they can pay artists directly.
“They have bank accounts here or we can just do a transfer through Western Union,” he said. “Most of the time Western Union is better because they get a better dollar to pesos conversion 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 also highlighted, as are prints of engravings, beaded sculptures and Huichol yarn paintings made from beeswax and yarn that were originally ofrendas, or offerings for the gods left in the desert to naturally decompose.
A tree of life damaged in transit remains a masterpiece, even as Garcia ponders ways to repair it.
The couple ensures that the artists are paid appropriately for their work.
All artworks exhibited in the gallery are already paid for, so artists don’t have to wait for payment. Some pieces may remain unsold in the gallery for years, but the artists have already been compensated.
This commitment to the community is also reflected in the Mata Ortiz artists, who in turn fund scholarships for the children in the area to attend school and university.
The emphasis on Mata Ortiz pottery honors master potter Juan Quezada, who inspired the next generation of potters after reinterpreting Mogollon pottery found in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua state, Mexico.
“Juan Quesada comes from a very humble background,” Calleros said. “He’s still illiterate. He can sign his name, but he’s learned to do it like a painting.”
Quesada, who is in his 80s, was honored with Mexico’s top honor, the Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes.
Today, his ceramic works of art are prized by collectors and sell for several thousand dollars.
According to Calleros, Quezada started making pottery as a child in the 1960s or 1950s and learned from scratch how to collect, fire and paint clay.
“He didn’t have anyone to teach him,” he said.
“All of his colors are natural,” Calleros said. Quezada uses manganese, white clay and other natural sources to color its pots.
“Everything is natural. All pigments in his work are natural.”
He added, “He’s still looking for new colors.”
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Part of the gallery’s mission is to show people the intricacies of creating art. This includes workshops in which artists instruct students in the processes, but also events such as painting Catrina. People can pay $60 to paint clay Catrinas to keep at the end of the night.
Upcoming is a workshop on Mata Ortiz techniques by master potter Gregorio Silveira Jr., open to students aged 16+; Beginners are welcome. Students learn molding, polishing, painting, polishing, and traditional firing.
The classes will take place in the gallery from March 24th to 27th. On Thursday and Friday, they start at 5:30 p.m. to allow working students to leave on time; they end at 8:30 p.m
On Saturday and Sunday, classes begin at 11:00 am and end at 4:00 pm to give students time in the studio to work on painting their pots. Tickets for the $325 workshop can be purchased at flordebarrogallery.com.
A fire pit in the backyard of the house is used to fire the pieces.
But the main purpose of the gallery is to share the beauty and history of Mexico with visitors.
Garcia said, “People need to think about it and know it, because you always say, ‘I’m from Mexico,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, drugs, cartels, violence.’ ”
But the art and the culture are the true reflection of Mexico.
She said: “I think this is Mexico. To me, this is the real Mexico and I want people to think about it.”