Tiburcio Soteno Fernández
Trees of Life (Arbóles de la Vida)
The Soteno family of is one of the main families of ceramic artisans specializing in sculptures called Arbóles de la Vida Trees of Life, which have made the town found in the State of Mexico one of Mexico’s main ceramic centers.
The Tree of Life is a complicated colorful sculpture which was developed from the creation of candelabras. The family’s prominence began with Modesta Fernández Mata, the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of the Soteno potters today, who began experimenting making more decorative items along with utilitarian ones. The generations after her have learned the craft and improved on it starting as children working with parents and grandparents.
The two most notable members of the family are Tiburcio and Oscar, second and third generation respectively, who have won various awards and have their works in collections worldwide. Oscar Soteno is Tiburcio’s nephew and like the generation before him, he learned to work clay as a child, specializing in Trees of Life. Oscar created a tree to honor his grandmother, Modesta, who died in 1987. This prizewinning sculpture features a figure of Modesta, sitting in a chair painting a tiny mermaid figure.
Tiburcio says that he tries to create stories with his trees. Themes of these trees have ranged from the religious to the erotic, with famous characters such as the Virgin of GuadalupeandFrida Kahlo. Pieces from his workshop rated from seven cm to over five meters in height. Today Tiburcio tries to fill in as many empty spaces as possible to avoid the use of wire, which he says rusts over time, making the piece fall apart. Tiburcio calls his work arbóles retablo or altarpiece trees. He models most of the pieces by hand, only occasionally using molds. He uses aniline dyes for color.
He has pieces in the permanent collections of the British Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Scotland, the Lancaster City Museumand in various museums in France.
Originally, Trees of Life were made to depict the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. With the “tree” as the background, figures of Adam, Eve, the serpent and God at the top usually appear, along with other decorative details, which can be quite dense and elaborate. There are two places in Mexico that make them, but the most elaborate and best known come from the town of Metepec, west of Mexico City and just east of the capital of the State of Mexico, Toluca.Although being overrun as a bedroom community for both Toluca and Mexico City, the center of Metepec still hangs onto its rural handcrafting heritage, filled with pottery workshops, all working with local clays.