Luis Manuel Morales Gámez ceramist*

Forty minutes from Morelia, Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán, the Purhépecha kingdom, is still rich in the fascination of ancient tradition and its modern interpretation. Tzintzuntzan translates from the Purhépecha language to “the place of the hummingbird.”

Best known for its Purhépecha Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead) celebrations, Tzintzuntzan is also an artisans’ center. Clay pots, adornas de popote (straw decorations), wood, and hand-embroidered textiles fill the marketplace and shops.

Tzintzuntzan is one of many Michoacán towns sustaining a living tradition: alfarería (pottery making). Clay is abundant in the Michoacán hills and many Purhépecha dedicate their lives to creating both utilitarian and artistic pots. Tzintzuntzan’s traditional glaze, colors, and designs are unmistakable.

Luis Manuel Morales Gámez, Tzintzuntzan native, artist, and master potter, has created highfired ceramics for 25 years. His family has worked clay for five generations. Manuel Morales and his father, Miguel, a traditional potter who switched from wood-fired kiln to high-fired ovens, worked together until his father died in an accident.

In 1982, Manuel Morales’ father, Sr. Miguel Morales, received a government subsidy which made it possible to purchase an electric-powered wheel and the only gas-fired kiln in the village. Under his father’s tutelage, Manuel began to work in clay at the age of eight. Later Manuel studied painting and graphic design at the University of Michoacán in Morelia, where he was influenced by the great Mexican painters Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Rodolfo Tamayo, and Pablo Picasso. He studied the ancient cultures of South America and Mexico, and in particular his own Purhépecha culture, incorporating into his own work ancient symbols found on the yácatas (pyramids) just outside the village.

Manuel returned to Tzintzuntzan and began to create pottery which reflects his own world view, a view which integrates past and present and expresses the vitality, soul, and spirit of his village. His greatest inspiration comes from the natural world, in particular the lake where since childhood he has watched the unchanging rituals of fishermen as they set sail at dawn or under the full moon, in expectation of their return with a full catch.

There are few Mexican potters who have achieved the level of accomplishment that Morales enjoys. His work, sold in a very few exclusive Mexican shops, is often shipped to Europe and the United States for sale. The pots Morales sells at Cerámica Tzintzuntzan are occasionally seconds, pieces with tiny defects that are all but invisible.

“Making pottery always has a component of risk,” Morales mused when Mexico Cooks! visited him last month. “After three months of painting bowls, platters, vases, and other pieces, I have enough work to fire. Once the pots are in the kiln, all you can do is pray. Sometimes the pieces that have required the most work before firing come out with a crack, or the glaze runs, or some other surprise happens that makes the pieces useless. When clients place special orders, I always tell them that we won’t know the results until the firing is done and I open the kiln. Of course we hope for the best, but we never know.”

Some of his best pots have regularly won top prizes at Mexican competitions. So much of his current work is made to special order that he now has little time to make pots destined solely for completion. Manuel Morales is the fifth generation of his family to fire pots in Tzintzuntzan. The legacy continues, however, with his son and his three young daughters. Born and raised in Tzintzuntzan, they have clay in their blood and are already making pottery.

* (Text excerpted from Traditional and Modern Ceramic Art in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán)