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Ken Edwards: Ceramics and his Legacy in San Antonio Palopó

I remember when I first met Ken Edwards; we were shooting a documentary on the Multicolor Palopó ceramics workshop in San Antonio Palopó, Lake Atitlán. Since Ken Edwards introduced the ceramics to San Antonio Palopó I had to meet him, so I had an interview arranged with him through Richard Edwards who owns the Hotel Nuestro Sueño, best place to stay in the village if I may add. Anyways, I had a list of four or five questions. I never saw coming that only answering the first question would trigger a fascinating story of a 91-year-old man that with his spirit of adventure and his art contributed and benefit an entire community, all without taking credit.

We prepared the interview in his workshop, the same place where he currently lives in. I remember first asking him; what had brought him to San Antonio Palopó and how he perceived the significant progress he had accomplished in the community, he replied – “We didn’t want to help anyone, I mean I am happy that we did, but our main reason with my wife was that we wanted to have another adventure, we were both master potters, and I am an adventurer! So, before I came to Guatemala I went to Tonalá, Jalisco (Mexico) where I rented a little and humble house since I like to live poorly, I spent three years in Tonalá where I became a bullfighter, imagine that! Three years fighting bulls, you cannot imagine how much fun that is, anyways, unlike others I didn’t go there and gathered everyone and said: I have a million dollars and I am a revolutionary I can change everything! No, I got there as an outsider and like a little mouse I started getting involved with the community and the artisans. However I do take credit for one thing, almost unique; I had enough sense to admire and respect tradition I was born so far away from tradition that I was coming from the outside and I can adapt with tradition, I studied what tradition is, how it works and how great it is, and how honorably indispensable tradition is, without tradition it would be a nation of salvages, a country of chaos. Tradition is absolutely essential".

“I don’t really give a damn about credit artistically or otherwise” 

Before Ken came to Guatemala he first lived in México were he discovered that his sculpture combined with the traditional decoration of Tonalá was the best he had seen. He decided to build an oven and started working with local artisans, he would design for the decorators, he wanted to give credit to the decorators so he would sign with his initials “K.E” and since most of the painters where illiterate, every painter designed a small animal so that they could do with a brush real fast, this little animal would represent their signature. This had completely revolutionized art and the economy; in the village it had a great impact, people would ask for the specific design of one of the artisans to the point that it became almost impossible for Ken to relate each artisan with the signature each one had.

It was way different when he came to San Antonio Palopó, because they had neither the habit much less the practice of ceramics, decorating or painting, but he described and knew Guatemala was clay rich and the Maya were color geniuses, and emphasized on how we was a critic.

So when he moved to San Antonio Palopó he noticed most young men didn’t have a job or didn’t went to school so he decided to teach a few of them, those who were curious for what he did and wanted to learn from him, this was favorable for him since it resulted easier to teach the artisans in San Antonio Palopó who knew nothing, because he believes it takes twice the time to unlearn something and then learn it the correct way. He introduced change while respecting their traditions, by doing it their way, respecting their heritage, still he introduced changes as small as he could.

“Money doesn’t stick to me, it slips”

He found out they had incredible learning abilities, beyond what he had witnessed in Mexico, they learned how to work his oven in no time and very few people learned and know how to do it in Tonalá. Their painting skills developed in an out standing way he was shocked by the patience and discipline the artisans demonstrated day by day. 

“How can you cope with people that are smarter than you are?”

With the passage of time, the commitment, effort and practice that they put into the ceramics they had acquired the capacity to run their own workshops, Ken advised and empowered them to open their own workshops, today the ceramics of San Antonio Palopó, Lake Atitlán, is recognized worldwide thanks to him and his teachings and benefits many local families.

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