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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.

Comments

Kevin M Pawlak (not verified)
Thu, 04/19/2018 - 08:43
How does one meet the Maestro? I own a Vintage Mexican Shop in Tucson, Arizona. We have admired the man's production of fired ceramics since his days in Tonala outside of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. We are planning trip to Atitlan in June and would love to tour the current Ceramic Studio of San Antonio Palopó. It is my understanding he does not run the facility but lives there? Your time appreciative.
sofia
Thu, 04/19/2018 - 10:21
Hello Kevin! Thank you for reaching out to us, let us know when you are planning your visit to Guatemala, we would love to show you around San Antonio Palopó and take you to visit the ceramic workshops product of Ken's legacy. He is still living in San Antonio Palopó, surrounded by his apprentices and the locals that care for him. His health hasn't been the best lately due to his age, but if conditions allow it we can definetely arrange a visit!
Kevin (not verified)
Tue, 06/26/2018 - 17:32
I missed him but I did visit the workshop closest to his house! We decided to hop on a truck June 12th from Pana. Spent a few hours on the day before the big feast day for San Antonio. Wow what a sight!!! I will return next year and hope to arrange a return visit thru you and the other workshops as well. I’ve bookmarked this page and will be in touch. Kevin
Paulette Warren (not verified)
Tue, 10/30/2018 - 13:03
I, too, would love to meet the maestro and it is very good to locate him, even in his declining years. I must object, however, to the implication that the work of potters in Tonala is inferior. What Edwards brought to the artisans in Tonala was skill in the firing of ceramics, and they embraced that. The designs have continued to grow in maturity and complexity, and Tonala pottery is among the finest in the world. Both early and contemporary pieces find their way into museums worldwide. Many of these designs are imitated in other cultures and forms (notably I have some jewelry from Greece that has obviously "borrowed" themes, as an example). Edwards' legacy is impressive and not to be understated. At one time his "factory" in Tonala employed over 100 people. Today, however, only 10 remain, but there has been a resurgence of interest in KE pottery -- while other modern masters of Tonala have found their own strengths, generation by generation, and are sought after by patrons seeking both traditional and contemporary expressions of their art.

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