I love it when people reinvent themselves. After a long, successful career as a magazine editor and writer, An Mercado-Alcantara unearthed another way to tell her stories – she pinches clay into beautiful storyteller dolls! I instantly fell in love with her Clay Carollers – not only are they intricate and amazing, they depict a Christmas tradition that is so close to my heart. I was so moved by her craft that I thought she’d be the perfect guest for my first Hello, Maya Papaya interview. So sit back with a nice cup of cocoa and listen in on our short but sweet chat about Christmas, carolling and crafting.
Hello, Maya Papaya!
I love your Clay Carollers! Was there a specific memory that inspired this piece?
When I was a young girl, I was part of a girls’ club and every Christmas we would go carolling — serious carolling with costumes, choreography, and vocal arrangements — all of which required a lot of practice. So we would practice as early as September. And that’s how I would feel Christmas is near. This scene brings me back to that time of happy anticipation.
What are they singing here?
Ang Pasko ay Sumapit, an upbeat and exuberant traditional Filipino Christmas song, would be the carol these cuties are singing.
How long did it take you to make this from start to finish?
When we work with clay, it is the drying time more than the actual working time that takes the longest. It took an entire day to pinch and shape the clay figures but it took two weeks for the clay to dry before we could fire it overnight in the kiln. After firing, we spent two days painting them.
What are the tools of your trade?
My hands are my main tools. Although I have clay shapers and precision dentist’s tools (I asked a dentist friend to buy me a set), there’s nothing like our palms and fingers to get the shape we want. To paint the details and faces, I use .5 brushes and very fine Chinese calligraphy brushes.
What was the toughest part of making this clay piece?
The toughest part to do is to paint the faces. They are so small. But this is also the most magical part for me because when I paint the eyes, the dolls come to life, their emotions jump at me. It is as if, they gain their spirit. Suddenly, I find myself in awe of the little person before me. I like to think the moment of creation must have been like that for God as well.
What do you listen to while you work?
When I am designing and shaping the clay, I like to listen to smooth jazz on Internet radio. But, oddly enough, when I paint the eyes, I like listening to people speak. I listen to creativity speakers on TEDex talks, which I find on YouTube. Somehow, listening to other people talk about how they come up with something out of nothing — which is essentially the creative process — inspires me. A new guilty pleasure is Downton Abbey. I just love their dialogue and how they double speak with such ease. Once, when I needed to paint through the night, I watched an entire season’s worth of episodes as I painted faces on my dolls.
What qualities do you think make you good at molding clay into works of art?
I am childlike, naive, and I like a good story. I think all these qualities shine through my pieces.
Who are the artists you look up to?
I am inspired by the works of Cochiti Pueblo artisan Helen Cordero, who invented storyteller dolls. I am also inspired by the Aguilar sisters of Oaxaca, Mexico, who work with terra-cotta clay to capture scenes of everyday rural life.
So what’s your favourite part of Christmas?
My favourite part of Christmas is when we gather all the children around an image of Baby Jesus on Christmas Day and kiss him. Then, sitting in a circle, gifts are announced and given to each one. This is a rambunctious time with a lot of happy shrieks, tight hugs, and good cheer.
Sounds amazing. Finally, where can we buy your work?
The Casa San Pablo Clay Storytellers are available at Casa San Pablo, the inn we run in San Pablo City, Laguna. You may also order via sms or voice call at tel: 0920-9216178. Visit casasanpablo.com to view the online catalogue.
Thank you An!