Gael García Bernal and Perla Valtierra on Making Work That Lasts

“Design and craft are, for the most part, completely foreign to me,” says the Mexican actor and producer Gael García Bernal, 44. But when he encountered the work of the 39-year-old Mexico City-based ceramist Perla Valtierra, he felt an immediate connection. Combining a traditional Mexican aesthetic and materials with a Japanese-influenced perspective — Valtierra lived and studied in Kyoto and counts the writings of Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Mingei folk-art movement, as a prime source of inspiration — her pieces are known for their undulating accents and understated palettes. Improbably delicate loops of ribboned clay trace the edges of vases; graceful, swooping scallops circle the rims of plates and bowls. To García Bernal, the sinuous shapes conjure the spiraling plumes of the steam trains he was fascinated by as a child visiting relatives in northwestern Mexico. “What touches me most is not when I discover something but instead recognize it,” he says. “That’s what happened when I saw her work: I was very eager to meet her.”

On an unusually hot morning in June, García Bernal arrived at Valtierra’s showroom, tucked among other art spaces inside the Fundación Marso building, a grand 19th-century Porfirian-style house in Mexico City’s Colonia Juárez. There, surrounded by glazed candlesticks, textured glass vases and earthenware vessels of various shapes and sizes, the two discovered they had more in common than just an appreciation for curves.

García Bernal, who started acting as a child, appears as the pioneering gay lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz in the biopic “Cassandro,” which will be in theaters and then on Amazon Prime Video this month. Twenty or so years ago, with films like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000), he became the face of a Mexican cinema renaissance. Since then, he’s collaborated with such filmmakers as Pedro Almodóvar, Michel Gondry and Walter Salles. The new film, directed and co-written by Roger Ross Williams, tells the story of Armendáriz’s 1990 rise to stardom as an exótico, a male wrestler who dresses in drag and often taunts his straight opponents with flirtatious advances. Valtierra, who was raised in the northern state of Chihuahua and established her business 13 years ago after beginning her career as an industrial designer, is now, like García Bernal, finding herself in the unanticipated role of cultural ambassador, with her wares at the forefront of a contemporary Mexican design wave. Her line is not only used at many of the restaurants and boutiques that fill the city’s Condesa and Roma neighborhoods but is also sold at influential interiors shops around the world, including Nickey Kehoe in Los Angeles, Roman and Williams Guild in New York and Ott in Seoul.

Despite these successes, both artists approach their art with a sense of naïveté. Even though Valtierra runs a brand that works with 15 artisans, she says she likes to think of herself as an “apprentice of ceramics.” And García Bernal recently told the Spanish newspaper El País that, after more than 30 years in the business, he still feels like he could abandon filmmaking and do something else. Each has lived abroad — Valtierra in Paris and Brussels, in addition to Kyoto, and García Bernal in Madrid and Buenos Aires, where he continues to reside part time — and both returned home with changed perspectives regarding their country. As they sat down over coffee and Topo Chico water, weeks before the actors’ strike began, they chatted about their creative processes, career motivations and what makes a work of art uniquely Mexican.

Gael García Bernal and El Hijo del Santo in “Cassandro.”Credit…© Amazon Content Services LLC. Photo: Alejandro Lopez Pineda

Gael García Bernal: I’ve noticed your work for a while now, and it takes me to a place of stillness, of contemplation — to a state normally associated with Japan or the concept of Zen.

Perla Valtierra: Working in Japan made me see things about Mexico that I hadn’t realized. We have many similarities in our craftsmanship. Like Japan, Mexico has a strong tradition of making useful but inspiring objects — something that you drink water or coffee from, for example, but that also invites you to be in a certain mood.

T: With both of your work, you seem to address this question of what it is to be Mexican. What makes a craft Mexican? What does a Mexican character look like?

G.G.B.: Playing the character of Cassandro, it was about expressing this culture of the border, which is very particular, neither completely Mexican nor totally American. People there grow up with this tremendous wound [the border] right in front of them, and they have to ignore it every day. They have to reinvent themselves. What Cassandro did was take what was happening in Mexican wrestling — the rise of the exóticos — and add a more athletic and disciplined element from the United States [among other things] that made him stand out. It was a tremendous triumph of exoticism. Everybody wants to impose the idea that if you’re from a certain place, you have to be a certain way; if you’re from the border, you have to be culturally Tex-Mex. Cassandro managed to make a change. You lived abroad for a long time, didn’t you, Perla?

P.V.: Yes, I lived in Europe for 10 years. I came back during the pandemic and realized I wanted to stay here.

G.G.B.: But you returned a little bit foreign, which is nice.

P.V.: Very much so. I think one of the most important things that changed is how I value the work that happens in Mexico. Now everything is made in China, and that’s fine, but there are many things that can be done here.

G.G.B.: When I make a film, there’s always this question of why we’re doing what we’re doing. When I started making movies here in Mexico, nobody went to see those movies, so we had to decide why we were making them anyway. What drove us was a hope that what we were making would reflect the truth about something. And that’s how “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mamá También” came to be films that have endured — though not as long as ceramics have endured.

P.V.: We make many pieces in series and produce a lot of them, so my work isn’t art in the sense of it being one of a kind. But clay feels like a noble material, and I think that has to do with the historical origin of ceramics. Man became human when he started to sow seeds and store things and make these objects to hold water and use for cooking. So in that sense, the use of ceramic objects is fundamentally human. I work with a man named Jesús Torres, who makes the pieces on the wheel. His wife helps him a lot, and now his daughter is getting into wheel turning as well. There’s this desire to return to these jobs rather than abandon them — a sense that you can live well doing this work. For me, that’s very important. I feel very fortunate to work with Don Jesús because he’s very passionate and he loves to try new things, which isn’t the case with everyone. When I have ideas, I go to the workshop, and he starts to work on the wheel. I tell him: “Thicker,” “Smaller,” “Close the wheel,” “Open it.” I don’t just sketch and then come to pick up my stuff.

From left: Jesús Torres and Valtierra; wares from the collection.Credit…From left: Ana Lorenzana; Perla Valtierra

G.G.B.: That’s just the way films have to be made. You have to spend time and then see how it turns out. Sometimes film editing is like doing an engineer’s job, putting the pieces together and saying, “Oh, look, if I move this here, that’s much better.”

T: What are you both hoping to do next?

P.V.: I would love to work with trade schools so we can eventually work in a more local way. I would also love to spend less time on organization and production, and more time going to other workshops [around Mexico] and meeting people with whom I can collaborate.

G.G.B.: I’m realizing that many things I’ve wanted to do come from my desire to be part of a community because, unfortunately, what capitalism defines as success calls for something like desolation, in a way, and that doesn’t allow for a very important part of the creative process: the cycle of decomposition and growing into other things. I believe that only happens in community — in the Mexican way of thinking, the collective is more important than the individual, [so] this [country] is a good place to be able to work that way. I insist on it: “Let’s talk, let’s share, let’s be open about what we liked and didn’t like about projects we’ve done.”

T: How do you find joy outside of your work?

P.V.: I love to dance. I can dance to anything. I went to Chihuahua a week ago to see [the Sinaloan group] Banda El Recodo in concert with [the singer] Julio Preciado. In the city, I dance when I can, but there aren’t so many places to dance anymore.

G.G.B.: I love dancing, too. I have my places that nobody knows about. But I have one more question for you: Have you ever used the Japanese technique of mending ceramics with gold or silver [powder]? I find it amazing how these broken things can have a new life, can become something else.

P.V.: Something more beautiful! Yes, I studied kintsugi when I was in Japan. I love it but it takes a lot of time, so I don’t do it much now. But I still gather broken pieces and save them for the day when I’ll have time to sit down at the table and work on kintsugi.

G.G.B.: That’s a good place to end, I think, with the idea of one thing becoming something else.

P.V.: Yes — transformation.

This interview has been translated from the original Spanish, edited and condensed.

Stylist’s assistant: Jimena Tenorio

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