Talavera Reborn in Puebla
How Angélica Moreno has transformed Mexico’s historic pottery tradition into a 21st-century art form.
All it takes is a few minutes inside the Talavera de la Reyna gallery to realize this is not a pottery studio that’s stuck in the past. Yes, everything on the wall is talavera—a historic form of ceramics now made only in Puebla—but it’s a version that has been created specifically for a modern aesthetic. Here, traditional colorful floral motifs are out, and graphic patterns like stripes, zig-zags, polka dots, and MC Escher-esque optical designs are in. There’s also an entire wall covered in black-and-white skulls, and a series of clay sculptures in the form of shopping bags (one even adorned with the Chanel logo).
Angélica Moreno is the brainchild behind Talavera de la Reyna’s gallery and nearby studio, located in the small city of Cholula, outside of Puebla. When the Puebla native first opened the workshop back in 1990, it had no electricity, no telephone, and just two employees (including herself). And despite having dedicated many months to learning the process from master artisans, it would be three more years until Moreno produced a piece that was good enough to sell (which is why she considers 2018 her 25th anniversary).
Today, her company is one of just seven certified talavera workshops. And while the other six have their eyes set on the traditional, she’s been able to take the craft—brought over by the Spaniards in the 1500s—and transform it into something that looks fresh while still adhering to the original technique, which hasn’t changed in 500 years. “My goal was to rescue and preserve the process and bring talavera to a younger group and reach a market with different tastes,” says Moreno, who grew up in Puebla and worked as a secretary before pursuing the craft. “Seeing ceramics from other parts of the world and how they had evolved made me realize that in Mexico we were stuck. We kept copying the same traditional designs. And I thought that for it to last in the present, it was important to give it a new contemporary air.”
To help her achieve this goal, Moreno turned to painters, sculptors, and graphic designers—many from Latin America—who, as she puts it, “would give us the opening to dare to design new things.” To date, Talavera de la Reyna has collaborated with more than 70 artists, often with at least three per year. Puebla-based Fernando Albisua Vergara is one such artist, having worked with Talavera de la Reyna over the last 16 years. “I am very grateful for the support that Angelica gives to contemporary artists, and that she allows an ancient technique to live on in a very fresh way,” says Vergara, who designed sculptural figurines of children with outstretched arms and cherub-like faces.
Each artist-designed piece becomes part of the gallery’s Alarca Collection. Recent additions include a series of plates with abstract brushstroke designs by Puebla-based Nanak Sosan, and dishes adorned with drawings of insects and birds, and phrases like Parte de mi esta aquí (“Part of me is here”) by Oaxaca’s Amador Montes. New this year is Moreno’s own dishware collection, called Alegoría Prehispánica, first displayed in February at Mexico City’s renowned Zona Maco art fair. “Using baked clay and black glaze, the plates reinterpret the geometric designs of pre-Hispanic Mexico,” she says.
According to Moreno, each piece can take about three and a half months to make, depending on the size. “They’re all made by hand, and will go through at least nine people,” she says. In one room at the workshop—which is open for guests to tour—there’s a man who pounds the clay, while another one methodically works the potter’s wheel nearby. There’s also an area where multiple employees are painting everything from bowls to tiles with the tiniest of brushes. (One rule of talavera: only natural pigments can be used, and only in six colors: blue, yellow, black, orange, mauve, and green.)
You can shop at the workshop’s on-site boutique, but Moreno recommends also making the short drive to the gallery, which opened in 2010. This museum-like bi-level showroom has high ceilings and plenty of space to exhibit large-scale decorative pieces from the Alarca Collection, such as floor vases and planters. (They’re technically not for sale, but if interested, Talavera de la Reyna can inquire with the artist directly.) Along the periphery on the bottom floor, smaller items—dishes, cups, pitchers, candle holders, and the like—are for sale. Because, in the end, Moreno wants talavera to be “accessible in its use and part of everyday life.”