Inside Barro.Co Clay Art Studio:
Where Novices and Professionals Work Side by Side
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
In February 2020, I spent two weeks in San Miguel de Allende (SMA), Mexico. The idea was to escape the winter by vacationing in the small colonial town, where an ex-pat community of Americans and Canadians of 15,000 lived side-by-side with 130,000 Mexicans. It was a tourist city but one famous for its progressive lectures, iconic literary festival, and, since the late 1930s, its arts. A long-time friend asked me to take a picture of a modest building where her father, a New York City advertising copywriter, had lived for decades, hanging out in local restaurants with fellow writers and artists. “He sat at the front window and wrote,” she told me.
One day, I walked past Barro.Co Clay Art Studio at Sabino 16 in the San Antonio neighborhood and decided to check it out, not because I was determined to pursue a second career as an artist but rather because my doctor told me that I had to keep using my stiff and somewhat painful arthritic hands. It was hard to hold a pen or pencil for a long time and that certainly held true for brushes and scissors, too. “Why not try clay work?” she said to me one day.
Run by Adria Calaresu and Alberto Sanchez, the studio is large and light. It opened to the public in 2013 after having been renovated from a dilapidated carpentry workshop. “I had a dream to make a place for thing-making, tool-hoarding and soul-cultivating,” Calaresu mused in her online “alternative resume.”
Calaresu’s story is unique. She transplanted from Canada to Mexico 25 years ago, first acquiring 65 wild acres of cactus and mesquite trees in the countryside, and 11 rescue dogs.” Once there, she dropped off the urban radar, spending years restoring her “tired patch of nature in the countryside,” on the outskirts of SMA.
While Calaresu has an art background (including a Master’s Degree in Fine Art from the Instituto Allende in SMA), she has spent much of her life as an adventurer, scaling volcanoes in Guatemala, and tracking soldier ants in the jungles of Belize. She has also grown an organic vegetable garden, delved into Chinese martial arts, and “even made a half-hearted attempt at learning to play the accordion.”
It is a zig-zag, checkered past. Still, on the night of her Master’s graduation, she arrived at a brave illumination that she “did not like exposing her art or herself. I realized that I did not like the process of artist-making, but rather, I liked the process of art-making.”
So was born Calaresu’s ceramics studio. a creative environment that nurtures both professionals and novices alike, a place where a beginner like me could create assemblages with hollow extruder pieces while I watched gifted sculptors deftly shaping clay into noses, eyes, ears, limbs, and fingers.
One Wednesday. I sat next to Santiago Cruz, a 33-year-old Panamanian artist who moved to SMA two years ago. Cruz teaches figure drawing in his studio at Fabrica La Aurora (a former textile factory turned into an arts complex) but he was at Barro to get his fingers into clay. It was only his second time there and I watched with awe as he transformed the soft brown clay into a remarkable sculpture of a man’s head. Within an hour, he had sculpted an expressive bust, with a tiger’s head covering the man’s head. When he finished, he reached in for another ball of clay and created a second head with a ladder leaning up against it and with the body of a man lying on top. Cruz plans to spray the two pieces with nano pigments, whose tiny particles are so highly refractive that they produce changing colors, depending on the angle of the light.
Although Cruz was born in Panama, he was educated in a Georgia high school (his dad was American and in the military) and studied sculpture in Florence, Italy. He spent three and one-half years at the Angel Art Academy, afterwards traveling to Asia, where he lived in Dubai, India, and Thailand. Following a sold-out solo exhibit in Panama, he moved to Berlin where he spent five years.
A small crowd gathered around Cruz as he worked. Within a few minutes, Calaresu had invited him to be her next artist-in-residence, following British artist Ian Johnson whose residency at the studio culminated in a slideshow talk of his work and an invitation to visit his studio. I chatted with Johnson on several occasions, fascinated by a piece that he was making that evolved before my eyes: it had a crackled texture with nails embedded in the clay. Several of Johnson’s clay pieces involved dipping leaves in clay
Johnson grew up in Yorkshire, in the north of England and attended Goldsmith College in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s where he studied fine arts. After school, he did freelance carpentry and set work, moving to Colombia in 1993 where he was involved in a project that looked at violence against the young. “It was the beginning of my connection with Latin America,” Johnson said.
A visit to Johnson’s studio by the old train station in SMA, gave me an inside look into his recent work: calendar pieces made of wood with thin colored enamel panels marking days and months. The idea originated in London when he was left with strips of wood after cutting up sheets of plywood. Ultimately, the strips of wood evolved into the calendars.
Johnson started doing this work in 2012 when he came to Mexico with three suitcases, two cats, and his two and one-half year-old daughter, Aluna. Since that time, Johnson’s art has focused on the duality between urban life and nature. “It’s about how we create our own environments,” he said. Johnson shows his work at the Intersection Contemporary Art Gallery in Fabrica La Aurora where his next exhibit is scheduled for November 2020.
Not everyone working in the ceramics studio is affiliated with a gallery. There’s Mark Rewerts, whose resume includes lots of jobs “as a makeup artist, designer, and professional organizer.” Rewerts had never done ceramics before he began taking classes at Barro slightly over one year ago. “I started loving it,” he said. Before him on his table were several serving pieces, usable platters, all displaying the influence of Japanese design. Rewerts is presently at work on a ceramic bamboo sculpture. “There will be 11 pieces,” he said, “with the tallest standing five feet tall.”
Nearby, Katherine Weston was busy using Magic Mud to smooth out the hole at the top of a spherical shape, one of five pieces. After a long career as a retail buyer, Weston has returned to the art that she studied in high school and college. She was deep in a discussion with Calaresu over how to glaze the pieces. Black and white crackle? Gold leaf or gold powder. “Anyway you look at this, this is not something you are running under the tap,” Calaresu said dryly.
“There is something special about this place,” said Suzanne Woodley from Toronto who previously was an advertising copy writer for fashion. “Most studios in Canada involve wheel throwing,” she said. “There was very little sculpture.” Woodley has high praise for Barro. “This place elevates one’s mood.”
In the back of the studio, Maria DeFranco, a sculptor from Woodstock, NY was building an elaborate tree base made out of clay to support a new figurative sculpture. “I had gotten into this thing of a woman rising up out of the earth and growing like a tree — rooted. After making three maquettes including one where the skirts were roots and another where the figure was wrapped in a vine, she finally came up with an idea that kept her interested. Although she wanted to make a six-foot tall piece, she decided to make a thirty inch statue first.
De Franco was consulting with Calaresu regarding how to construct the strongest base for the thirty inch piece. Nearby was the third maquette with the design that she was using.
Within seconds, Calaresu cut through the clay, reducing the circumference of the tree trunk, while carefully slitting the clay at a 45-degree angle. Using a fork, she scored both sides of the wound and then applied liquid clay or slip as glue. She pressed the two sides together, wiggling them against each other so that the joint was firm and tight.
Calaresu was confident. ”Anything is possible,” she said. “If you are not afraid, we are not afraid.”
“I trust my clay.”