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Serapio Medrano's Barro Betus: The Pottery of Santa Cruz de las Huertas

by Gustavo Garcia Hernandez

On the outskirts of Tonala, Jalisco, in a small community known as Santa Cruz de las Huertas, there are a handful of families whose "fingerprints" have been inherited from generations past. Their unique style of giving life to fantastic creations of the imagination is known as Barro Betus.
Serapio Medrano Hernandez, son of renowned ceramics sculptor Candelario, is among those inheritors. His art alludes to a bright sense of amusement with life, with outlandish creations carrying the unmistakable imprint of the artist.
We arrived at don Serapio's Santa Cruz de las Huertas studio on a hot and dusty spring afternoon. Florentino Chavez Marquez, director of the Tonala Museo Nacional de Ceramica, had given us directions to the work shop earlier in the day.
A woman sat in the doorway of Independencia #10-A, serenely painting clay figures. We paused and asked her if this was Serapio Medrano's studio.
"Come in, I'll call him for you," she said, yelling out his name from the doorway.
Don Serapio appeared from the room's shadows. Beams of light trickled in through cracks in the building's walls. Pulling on a shirt, he looked us up and down as though contemplating whether the nature of our visit was to buy something or to sell him something. After explaining we were researching for a magazine article, he agreed to be interviewed.
Serapio grew up playing with clay, transforming the pliable material into colorful creatures. But it wasn't until his father, Candelario Medrano, passed away in 1986 that he really dedicate his life to Barro Betus.
The name Betus comes from the word Abedul, Spanish for birch tree. Birch oil extract is heated and rubbed onto the ceramic figures, giving the pieces a sheen similar to varnish. The clay used for this particular work is a mixture of white and black marl from the towns of El Rosario and La Junta, municipalities of Tonala, Jalisco.
Although Serapio has saved some of his father's old molds, he prefers to "tortillar" or knead the clay into unique devils, lions, roosters, churches, trucks and Tastuanes (grotesque figures inspired by a local ceremonial dance see El antiQuario Vol. 2, No. 11 for more on Tastuan traditions), similar in style to his father's work. And like Candelario, his art has also travelled the world over.
Inside the humble home, which is in such a state of deterioration that it almost appears to be a building under construction, we are joined by Serapio's wife Josefina and grandson Abraham. The seven year old boy is learning to be an artist in his own right, deftly molding miniature suns and other figures from the damp clay.
"During the 1970s," Serapio recalls, "this little block would fill up with gringos wanting to buy my father's work. Many came from the United States to buy in quantity. Before he died, he left the studio and his numerous customers to me."
"At times there is a lot of work," he continues. "Especially around Christmas time, when we do a lot of nativity scenes, but still, nothing like when my father was here."
Serapio's father, Candelario Medrano, who was born in Santa Cruz de las Huertas, married Yolanda Acero Lopez, descendent of ceramics artist Julian Acero. By the age of 19, he had six children with Yolanda. Serapio and his brother, Benito, learn to work Barro Betus from their father. Although Benito has since passed away, his children still carry on the family tradition.
Don Serapio is an unpretentious man who lives modestly but with gusto. Sitting in the middle of his living room / warehouse / studio, he explains what he does. "It has its peculiarities," he winks.
"I've been told (by collectors of Candelario's work) that my pieces are exactly like his. I can create two large works (20 inches in height) or 15 small ones (about 8 inches) a day," he comments.
Serapio's day starts at 5 in the morning, when he rises to start the kiln to fire pieces created the day prior. "The pieces have to be dried in the open air before baking them," he adds. "If you don't, they'll just explode into thin air." Each figure is rubbed with birch oil just before firing, giving them a lacquered appearance once finished.
Serapio's work has recently caught the attention of collectors and organizations in Mexico and abroad. In 2001, he won the "Las Manos de Mexico" award in Mexico City and an honourable mention in Guadalajara for his work in Barro Betus.