Breaking the Mold: How a Blind Sculptor Found Vision in His Hands
Deep in the heart of Mexico, about 25 miles south of Oaxaca City on the road to Puerto Angel, a blind sculptor is breaking one mold while carving another out of adversity. When Maestro José García lost his eyesight to glaucoma at age 55, he abandoned neither hope nor the motivation to continue creating his whimsical terracotta figures.
While his sight dimmed, then all but evaporated by 2003, José García’s creative juices continued to flow and visions of his favorite subjects – animals, mermaids, and his beloved wife – still danced in his head. As they coursed through his mind and spirit, his other senses grew stronger, enhancing his ability to feel, smell, hear, and most significantly, touch. Today his clouded eyes are almost an accessory for the bold indigenous garb he sports: a deep purple shirt, ruby red sash belt, magenta neck scarf, and loose-fitting white pants, all typical of his rural Mexican hometown.
Although glazed with cataracts, José García’s pale eyes twinkle in his animated face, below the wide brim of a traditional Mexican sombrero that shields them from the midday sun. Now comfortable with darkness, he prefers to work at night these days. Reflecting on his declining vision, he observes, “As a man I looked at my life and said to myself, “I have lost my sight, but not my life. Now I feel I can see, but through touch, because I make figures using my hands as if they were my eyes.” His compromised sight has not dampened his artistry. “When I had my vision, I don’t believe I sculpted as well as I do now,” he says, “because today, all my time is for my work.”
A Family Affair
The comment belies José García’s ongoing love affair with a woman he calls his “goddess.” After nearly four decades as his partner and muse, Maestra Santa Reyna Teresita reveals, “I admire him because he was never sad. He would tell me, ‘Don’t cry, because I’m the head of this household and I’m going to work so you and our children can eat.’” Also an accomplished artist, she adds finishing touches to her husband’s pieces after he forms basic shapes using molds or just his hands, then burnishes them with a smooth stone. Fired pieces ranging from small table-toppers to lifesize statues are left in their natural terracotta color and signed with JGA, José García’s initials.
Teresita’s likeness, complete with the prominent mole on her forehead, is reflected in many of her husband’s sculptures of robust Zapotec women dressed in traditional clothing from Oaxaca’s Tehuantepec region. The area is known for one of the world’s most distinctive regional costumes, featuring tightly packed, floral embroidery in a bold rainbow of colors. Married in 1987, José García and Teresita have three children who’ve followed in their parents’ artistic footsteps. Son José Miguel won the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art’s 2008 young artists’ competition; daughter Sara Ernestina won an honorable mention in the same contest. The siblings, along with a son-in-law, work at the family compound, hand-building clay pieces with slightly different styles and firing their work in the atelier’s large brick kiln.
From child sculptor to Grand Master
José García’s artistic gifts first emerged when he was a child in rural Ocotlán de Morelos, a town in the state of Oaxaca known for its ceramics and folk art. As a young boy, he recognized his own talent when friends admired the realistic clay figurines of horses and giraffes he created just for fun. The self-taught potter’s first commercial pieces were incense burners for Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, adorned with sassy skeletons and other holiday-related figures. His creative repertoire has since expanded to include flower pots, nativity scenes, animals, mythical creatures, toys, and angels. Celestial bodies like the sun, moon, and stars also loom large in many creations.
Now in his mid-70s, José García still sculpts with local red clay at Manos Que Ven (Hands That See), his sprawling family compound set beyond the church, behind a tall gate in San Antonino Castillo Velasco. Known locally as San Antonino, the small town is noted for its handcrafts, gardens, and colorful floral embroidery that adorns Teresita’s blouses.
As recognition of José García’s artistry has spread over several decades, he’s received numerous awards, including the prestigious Grand Master title from Fomento Cultural Banamex in 2001. His terracotta mermaids, mythical creatures, and Zapotec women have been featured in books about master folk artists of Mexico. Many have traveled far outside Oaxaca, to worldwide private and public collections, as well as shops, homes, gardens, restaurants, and hotels throughout Mexico.
A Legacy of Award-Winning Folk Art
Manos Que Ven gallery curator Eric Chavez takes pride in promoting José García’s work. Calling him “an icon in Oaxacan folk art,” Chavez notes, “The level of detail we find in his creations inspires us to share his work and to host exhibitions that help others enjoy it.” Students from local schools often come to the compound for demonstrations, hands-on sculpting workshops, and creative inspiration. For José Garcia, the visits bring back memories of discovering clay when he was just seven years old, sculpting his first figurines not far from his current workshop.
As José Garcia’s artwork travels across the world, his message of positivity through difficult times travels too. Far from sad or bitter, his whole household embraces his message of overcoming adversity through hope and perseverance. Their optimism has yielded a legacy of award-winning folk art.