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Mercado AlcantaraWHEN AN MERCADO-ALCANTARA told ABS-CBN Publishing Inc.’s (API) management in 2011 that she was quitting to become a potter, her bosses didn’t believe it. “They couldn’t understand that I’d give up an executive position to turn to pottery,” she says of her bosses.

Back then, An was overseeing several magazine titles, including Metro, Chalk, and API’s flagship celebrity lifestyle glossy StarStudio. For several years, the editorwriter was involved in the content and creation of magazines and books. She was the first editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping Philippines and the founding EIC of Working Mom magazine.

Actually, pottery had been a long-time passion of An, having been into the art for years. Around 2002, she began taking lessons with renowned pottery artist Ugu Bigyan. “This was after my dad passed away,” she relates. Her dad, Antonio Mercado, was one of the pillars of Philippine advertising, and the loss motivated An to take up a new hobby.

Molding clay was one of the activities she enjoyed with her son, Diego. “Initially, we were making figures out of Playdough. Eventually, we moved to modeling clay bought from the bookstores,” An says.

Reviving Cochiti pottery

From Bigyan, she learned to handle clay to create dinnerware like pots, plates, and mugs. The experience was gratifying, but An ached to do something more. She says, “I knew I wanted to make figures, not pots.” So she also studied under noted ceramic artists John and Tessy Pettyjohn. “They told me, ‘We don’t do figures, but we’re willing to explore.’”

Continuing efforts and research led An to the art of the late Helen Cordero, an artist from Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. Cordero is credited for reviving Cochiti’s pottery tradition. In the late 1950s, Cordero came out with a figure of an old man with many children on it. The work was the Mexican artist’s take on the traditional form of a woman holding a child. Cordero called it a “storyteller” because it was inspired by her grandfather who regaled her and her young relatives with fascinating tales.

For close to five decades, Cordero created countless storytellers that were defined by a human base figure with smaller figures on it. The faces of the figures usually had open mouths and closed eyes.

An was immediately drawn to Cordero’s clay storyteller dolls. Before she discovered Cordero, she was torn between whether to take the road of high art or to be more accessible. She elaborates, “At some point, you have to decide if you are going to be ‘artsy’ or be an artisan. I chose to be the latter.”

No two are alike

Instead of making large, pricey and elaborate one-of-a-kind pieces, An chose to craft medium-sized and affordable terracotta figures. She calls them “clay storytellers.” Although there are several pieces of one clay storyteller, each one is made by hand, and no two are completely alike.

It takes days to create one, sometimes, even weeks and months to complete an entire batch composed of around 10 pieces.

The process is tedious as it is special. An first makes a figure and teaches her group of artisans how to shape it. “Then, they’ll do it on their own and show it to me, and then I approve it,” says An. The figures are brought to Ugu Bigyan’s kiln in Tiaong, Quezon. Afterwards, they are brought back to An and her artisans for painting. Every clay storyteller has an acrylic finish so that the color does not come off.

An works with only a handful. She says, “Two people do the shaping, and eight do the painting.” Finding them is also a story in itself. “I told my barangay captain that I wanted to provide livelihood to the community.” At one point, she even explored working with tattoo artists who were very talented, but were not so consistent. So, these days, An works with a group of women who are more reliable and dedicated. “It’s also easier to deal with women,” she notes. “I allow them to execute the figure, to explore and inject their personalities into the creation.”

A devotion to Mama Mary

Together, An and her artisans have been creating various clay storytellers that have become the toast of art fairs and bazaars. There is the Storyteller series composed of individual female figures with small figures of children on it, or individual female figures hugging children. She crafted a form of a woman holding two children tightly; sparse and with a distressed treatment, this figure was created right after Supertyphoon Yolanda struck the Visayas and rendered so many people dead and homeless. An says the creation was her spontaneous reaction to the tragedy. “All I could make was this (female figure) na inaakap ‘yung mga bata.”

An also has figures of the Virgin Mary mounted on tablets, a result of her devotion to the Blessed Mother. The Santa Maria Tablet Series features the main figure of the Virgin Mary surrounded by smaller figures paying homage, holding flowers or (in the case of the piece entitled “Our Lady of the Rosary”) carrying beads. “Mama Mary is a storyteller,” An says. “Every time she appears, it’s because she wants to give a message.”

There is also a Tableaux series with scenes of the Nativity of Jesus and the Last Supper. An explains her choices of subjects saying, “I always want to create something very Filipino.” She cites that the Last Supper tableau was fashioned because practically every Filipino home has a Last Supper painting in the dining room. “Malapit na nga akong gumawa ng giant spoon and fork!” she says.

Infinite possibilites

Every creation is close to her heart. But perhaps the ones that are most dear to An are those depicting folk from San Pablo Laguna, hometown of her husband Boots, and site of their inn, Casa San Pablo. There are figures of women with veils on their heads, men carrying vegetables, and other barrio people. There is a part in the inn that is a showroom for the clay figures. “San Pablo is all about stories and food,” says An. “The people there are natural entertainers… My dream is that tourists will go also to San Pablo because of the clay storytellers.”

That wish is now being fulfilled. The clay storytellers are hits at bazaars and art fairs, and have created interest and patronage for San Pablo.

With the upcoming Christmas season, An and her team are expected to be busier. “For now we’re living from bazaar to bazaar,” An admits. “But I’m willing to see where this art will take me.”

Originally posted 2016-05-12 13:20:52.

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