Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series about a prominent sculptor from the Pocket area whose work inspires and teaches students locally at the Short Center North and internationally in a small Bolivian town called Huayculi.
As was mentioned in the first part in this series about Pocket sculptor Miguel Paz, the artist hails from La Paz, Bolivia and has taken multiple trips back to his home country to share his expertise with fellow artists in an effort to create an international artists’ collective on the most basic level of community building and sharing of ideas and resources.
With a teaching background from Columbia University’s Teachers College and experience working with the Sacramento Arts Commission and also at the Short Center North, Paz is intent on showing townspeople how using natural resources not only produces aesthetically beautiful pieces, but also is healthier. Starting this week, he will be starting a four month class where he will learn how to build an anagama kiln and will be teaching people in Huayculi what he’s learned.
It is not uncommon in Bolivia or in other parts of South America to see ceramic pieces that contain lead and according to an April 7, 2011 article on the topic in Food Safety News, lead has been used in the glazing process for ceramic dishes, bowls, pitchers, plates and other utensils for centuries. Typically, after being fired in a kiln, a piece of ceramic will appear smooth and shiny due to the lead in the glaze.
Upon describing what he saw in Huayculi, Paz said in an interview with the Pocket News: “They are happy firing it at 1,000 degrees. I call it quasi ceramics. It’s not cooked; it’s only basically hardened. The reason why is that they efficiently melt the glaze, which is lead-based at that 1,000 degrees. You can make it run. When it comes out of the kiln, it looks like ceramics, so they are able to sell it.”
Surrounded by homes made from Adobe growing up, Paz was influenced by the material at such a young age. ”Adobe was incredible, so I was very much influenced by that when I was young. But also by 1991, I also began to see there was something that developed, from a cultural point of view that fascinated me.”
“There was a tremendous amount of alcoholism, similar to the Native American story on the reservations. There’s no incentive. Everybody is being taken care of, but there are all of these forces of prejudice and racism and marginalization that deprive individuals of wanting to make something with their lives.”
This discovery came to light during a visit in 1991, after 20 years had passed since Paz’s previous time there. He was living on the East Coast with his wife and daughters (ages 8 and 11), but problems with his marriage led to a separation and as a result he fled back to Bolivia.
“I was mainly just angry, bitter, disillusioned,” Paz said.
“I got a job working in a ceramics firm that was doing exports and imports. It was an interesting relationship, building a work production for making ceramic pieces that could be made there. They were fired electric. It was capital intensive,” he recalled. “It’s not like here where you can go to Alpha Ceramics (4675 Aldona Ln.) or Panama (Pottery, 4421 24th St.). You had to dig. I heard they had kaolin (a rare type of pure clay used in porcelain) down in Southern Bolivia.”
About a year and a half later, he boarded a bus out of Sucre to take him to the land of kaolinite rich rocks, but he never made it. The route from Sucre to Southern Bolivia was a 9-hour ride that tired out the bus driver who fell asleep at the wheel. The vehicle went off the side of a mountain, leaving Paz quadriplegic. “The last thing I remember seeing was nothing but dark in front of me. I swear, I was in the back, I heard screams. So I got up, put on my glasses and it was like light at the end of this dark thing.”
It was about 5 a.m. Paz was airlifted. Doctors saw bleeding, broken ribs, a contusion in the back, two broken collar bones. “It was really bad. I was really fortunate to have made it, but I made it back to the United States because they had no MRI in Bolivia,” Paz said. His mother brought him back to California, where he recuperated and gradually learned to regain strength and movement.
“When my Mom brought me back, I saw I had messed up when you leave children, even though it was a separation. I was very much an artist pursuing my thing. It was about me, me, me, me. It was the machismo, egocentric nature of the artist that I took out on my family.”
The accident, undoubtedly, was life changing for the artist in many ways in relation to his future work at the Short Center North as well as working to eliminate lead from the ceramics in Bolivia.
Because of the accident, Paz “saw the light.”
“It’s so connected you cannot believe. There’s an amazing potential to create art even if they wouldn’t have been able to consider a therapeutic association to rehabilitate. To me, it’s one of the greatest opportunities to work with this population. This is where art really begins, to understand the primal understanding of art. It evolves out of the life story.”
As the disabled population lives in the margins of society, the people of Bolivia Paz has met are also marginalized and he describes art as something readily available to the privilege class. “This is how it all fits. In reality, it’s an unfolding. And this is my own personal investment to do something that truly has a purpose. There’s a reason this is all coming together,” Paz said. “I had the accident. It was a reality check, a rethinking, and reevaluating of the most important principles a person should live by. It was philosophical.”
Paz took up teaching at the Short Center North, where he has enjoyed watching talent flourish from his students with disabilities and over the years, he has made a few trips back to Huayculi. “I came back to the United States and continued on with my life on a level that was more culturally based — how arts and education empower people. That’s what I noticed in Huayculi.”
Paz noticed the appreciation for Bolivian culture the people of Huayculi embodied, and the beauty of it all, has resonated within the sculptor, inspiring him to stay in contact with the community there on a regular basis since 1996. “(I speak to) the people who are producing the indigenous cottage industries — the people who are feeding the local markets.”
On an educational level, Paz wants to teach the importance of not using lead in ceramics and bring back the knowledge that has empowered Bolivians since the Inca. “That’s why in 1991, when I went to Bolivia, when I had the accident, I began to really see there was a real strong cultural ground of the knowledge of what clay can do for people. It’s such an inexpensive material but it’s so culturally embedded in the lives of people.”
But as much as Paz has tried to preach about the danger of lead-based clay, “it’s in one ear and out the other,” he said.
And he’s starting to see the philosophical connection. “It’s the way they have experienced life for so long, being at the yolk of someone else’s beat. Even the Inca was oppressive, but they weren’t into lead back then. Now everybody does it quick, quick, quick because you’re competing against plastics.”
Because of trade agreements, Bolivia has become the recipient of used cars, essentially becoming the dump site for conglomerates that are getting rid of their unwanted vehicles. “You can have a car that’s 5 years old that they are throwing away in Indonesia or Japan or Europe. They sell these cars to people in Bolivia so they can have a job driving a taxi and with it comes with a battery and the battery is already used as it is. There are no recycling efforts for batteries.
“So what the native people, the indigenous people, the artists, what they do, since they cannot afford much, they get their hands on an old battery. They cracked them open; they’ve removed the cells. There are nine cells in there that’s barium. Barium is a lead derivative that is able to collect that electricity. It can dispense on a gradual basis. The duration of it is five to 10 years if it’s well taken care of. By cracking it, you remove these cells, then you grind it. This is done in the open. With a little water, you coat all of the ceramic pieces in the low fire range at 100 to 1,000 degrees.
“Then they stack them on top of each other. Then they separate them and sell them at markets. These things are causing enormous problems. Not only as ultimately reaching the brain, but it’s also destroying the liver, the kidneys, the stomach, the esophagus. All of these problems that are tragic. Changing these from 1996 to today, it’s like fighting impossible odds, almost. The interests are really to increase the livelihood of people going back to the 50s. People weren’t just poor, they were dying. They were holding on with dysentery. The trade off is called denial.”
Paz describes the policies set forth by the World Bank and IMF trade agreements as “truly criminal” established by a ruling class to administrate.
“The only thing that is bad is the barium. And Bolivia is on the other side of the Andes and nobody cares. It’s being used as a glaze in this pseudo ceramics. Because it looks shiny, it’s actually distorting our sense of values. In terms of economy 7 to 10 percent of cottage industries are run by this quick fix. But it’s being discarded. I have just become aware of this as of last year,” Paz said, adding however, it’s not something new; it’s been going on for two generations. “We’re not rabbits or fruit flies. We are human beings. In one generation you can change these forces that are so great.”
While the odds may seem insurmountable to overcome, Paz currently is intent on learning how to build an anagama and show what he’s learned to empower the people of Huayculi to use natural resources to create a healthy local economy. “It would relate itself to an exchange program, a school for the arts and include the individual on a local base to work hand in hand in producing quality work,” he said.
Paz has been inspired by Marc Lancet, an instructor at Solano Community College who co-authored Japanese Wood-fired Ceramics with Masakazu Kusakabe in 2005. Lancet, not only uses wood in the firing process, he’s a master anagama kiln maker who is helping to revive a movement of the ancient type of pottery kiln which was brought to Japan from China in the 5th century and first to the United States in 1995. Akin to the large beehive kilns at Panama Pottery, which are no longer in use, the anagama can be quite ginormous and firings can last weeks.
“He (Lancet) uses natural resources and high fire to create incredibly colorful pieces. What you are exposing is the richness of the clay as it crystallizes. So the appeal of all of this is the coloration. The wood itself, when it reaches high fire, it creates an ash that floats inside of the chamber at high temperature and it floats and descends. It coats and lands on the pieces that are maturing. It’s great,” Paz said.
In the process Lancet uses, none of the glazes are lead based and as far as using wood to fire in Bolivia, well, Paz said the country has a lot of eucalyptus. “With proper management, you can do it. You have to plan on the level of the growth of the eucalyptus,” he added.
From the inspiration of Lancet and Sacramento State University ceramics professor Scott Parady, Paz has learned the beautiful facets the anagama can have on the experience of a community. “We are conscious of the fact it’s a collective and communal experience.” And in relating back to Bolivia, he said: “There aren’t many jobs available in that field, so we need to make the interest in the learning of making ceramics through the people in the humanities – the understanding of art, the children who will become the people who will bring about a social change.”