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Guatemala’s Clay Master


An American writer once pointed out that there are two kinds of artists in the microcosm of sculpting. There are those who subtract, starting with a beautiful block of stone and chipping away until it results in some marvellous shape. Then there’s those who add, building with clay, piling it on and shaping it until the piece is finished. Carlos Chaclán, a Guatemalan master ceramicist, is the latter kind of sculptor, and his development as an artist is true to the way in which he works the clay.

Carlos Chaclán in his workshop with his ocarinas on the table. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Chaclán is best-known for crafting hollow sculptures and musical instruments. The instruments are based on ancient Mayan crafts that Chaclán studied for over 18 years. These wonderful pieces, all wind instruments of sorts, have special vibratos and some of them resort to water to make sounds. “The Maya managed to make very complex shapes,” Chaclán mentions before playing some of his instruments. “Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out why they did it in such a way, as making them like that makes it harder for them to produce sound.”

Before all the clay wonders and the years of dedication to studying and restoring Mayan ceramics, Chaclán used to assist his father in making roof tiles in his native Totonicapán. “Over fifty years ago, I started helping him to make tiles, bricks and other building utensils. I was ten years old at the time, and we had to help,” he explains. “I come from a family of eight.”

Carlos Chaclán in his workshop molds one of his sculptures called “Dreams of midnight”. Photo: Santiago Billy/comvite

Back then, his job was rather simple. Mr. Chaclán would mould the clay using his feet, feeling the impurities in it, which he then would help take out. However, as he grew older and school grew a bit more demanding, he began helping his parents less, putting in work everyday just before breakfast.

In the early seventies, there were two artisan schools in Guatemala: one in Rabinal and the other one in Totonicapán. Chaclán enrolled in the latter, and learned how to use a lathe to work on ceramics. It was there where he began making bowls, teapots, coffee mugs, and all of the basic earthenware that often comes to mind when one thinks of clay-based crafts. “I spent a whole year at that school, and I really liked it,” Mr. Chaclán recalls. “At some point I told my teacher that I would love to specialise in this area.” To this day, Chaclán is not sure if he expressed himself incorrectly or if the teacher misunderstood, but the response he got was that “only experience would make him specialise throughout the years”. “What I really wanted to say was that I wanted to know more about other areas,” Chaclán explains calmly. “But it was just not possible then.” Over the years however, whether knowingly or not, Chaclán piled on clumps of experience which would eventually mould him into the artist he is today.

Carlos Chaclán in his workshop molds one of his sculptures “dreams of midnight”. Photo: Santiago Billy/comvite

As a student, Mr. Chaclán met an architect from Guatemala City who told him to meet him there to open up a workshop. He packed his things and left his hometown on Christmas, since a friend of his had an uncle living in Zone 12 of the city who he could stay with. The architect introduced him to Universidad San Carlos’ art school, which helped him meet more people who worked on his field. “I was allowed to drop in on classes as a listener,” he remembers. Over time, the business venture with his architect partner didn’t really prosper, and he told Chaclán that he would be better off heading back to his hometown. The ceramicist obliged.

Back in Totonicapán, Chaclán began working in making utility items with a friend of his who had a ceramics workshop in town. After just a few short months, a professor he knew from Universidad San Carlos who was also from Totonicapán showed up at the workshop and convinced Chaclán to return to Guatemala City. Once there, he applied to several scholarships, and, after three tries, he was finally given one in Panama to learn how to restore Mayan ceramics. “I went there to learn more on the subject, and also to find a way to make money,” the artist explains. “Restoration can make you earn a pretty buck since collectors are always invested in their collections and willing to pay to keep them well.”

The inside of one of Carlos Chaclán sculptures as he continues to mold the clay. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Years later, Chaclán was awarded another scholarship in Mexico, studying under the tutelage of exclusively Japanese ceramists. This was the most important, life-altering academic experience he ever had, as his dream was to learn the Japanese approach to his craft. “This was the school that formed me,” Chaclán says. “To this day, I apply what I was taught back then.”

Carlos Chaclán, now 61, works on his sculptures and musical instruments in his quaint but well-kept workshop in Guatemala city. The unique mix of experiences that he piled onto his life and his undying interest for Mayan ceramics mixed with his talent and dedication have resulted in a deep commitment to the medium for his craft. “It’s a privilege to work with a material that is close to nature and in Guatemala,” he points out. “Clay is so plastic that it lets you work it with your own hands whenever you wish and there is no limit to what you can do. The only limit is oneself. Clay is always there, waiting for someone to touch it and do something with it. I, for one, understand now that it isn’t the material that betrays you. It is one who betrays the material by not working it enough. So, there’s still much to do with it.”

Carlos Chaclán in his workshop. Photo: Santiago Billy/comviteclá

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