If ever there were an authentic artisan community, San Juan de Oriente is it. As one of the famous “pueblos blancos” of Masaya, this hillside community is really in touch with the earthy traditions—quite literally.
On a daily basis, more than 65 families in this small community get their hands dirty by molding local clay into famously beautifully pieces of Nicaraguan ceramics, which are an obligatory take-home purchase for all tourists and a decorative conversation piece lining bookcase shelves in virtually every expat household here.
But not all artisans are created equal, says Juan Ernesto Boza, one of the San Juan de Oriente’s youngest and most internationally celebrated master artisans.
“There are a lot of artisans in town, but few masters,” says Boza, who has already won 15 awards in the United States for his unique pieces. “There is lots of pottery for sale in Nicaragua, but many of the artisans are replicating other pieces. Very few are trying to be true artists who create original pieces every time.”
Boza, who has sold more than 400 original pieces in the United States over the past decade, fits into the latter category.
Like most kids born in San Juan de Oriente, Boza grew up in a family of artisans. His godfather, Gregorio Bracamonte, is a maestro of the classic, pre-Columbian style of pottery, featuring images of birds, gods, flowers and all-natural colors, including the dark sap from the Mora tree. His uncle, Helio Gutierrez, is a master of contemporary pottery, using more modern techniques and materials, geometric patterns, and vibrant, synthetic colors to create a style all his own.
Boza, as the next generation in a talented family of potters, got his start in the trade at a young age, working in the shadows of Bracamonte and Gutierrez.
“I started making my own pottery when I was eight years old; I fell in love with clay,” Boza says.
The first pieces he made with rustic plates, but he quickly became more bold and inventive with his ceramics, combining designs and techniques learned from the two different master artists in his family. Soon Boza had developed his own singular style, melding pre-Columbian designs and pigments with contemporary themes and acrylics.
It didn’t take long for the young artist to get discovered by U.S. art dealer Paul Devoti, a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua who later started “NICA Ceramic Art,” an art studio and gallery in North Carolina. Devoti started buying art from Gutierrez in 1998, and shortly after started buying art from the younger Boza.
Boza began the family’s point man, making regular trips to the U.S. to bring ceramics to the North Carolina gallery—where the pottery sells for $400 to $1,200 a piece. Boza also started to attend art exhibitions throughout the country, winning a collection of awards for his designs and craftsmanship.
“I’ve gotten to see more of the United States than most Americans have, at least that’s what they tell me,” Boza says with a laugh, rattling off a dozen cities he has visited.
Boza’s travels came to an abrupt end when U.S. Immigration authorities got suspicious of his frequent comings and goings and canceled his visa. Boza is currently in the process of applying for a new set of travel papers next January. But in the meantime, he is excited to begin doing a series of local exhibitions for tourists here in Granada.
Starting next Thursday, Boza will be setting up shop twice a week in Granada’s Garden Café, where he will be painting and displaying his famous ceramics and explaining the 15-step process to making Nicaraguan pottery. He will explain the differences between pre-Columbian and contemporary pottery and demonstrate the different techniques for applying colors, designs and patterns. Boza will also educate buyers about the difference between quality artwork and cheap knockoffs.
His idea is to eventually organize “artisan tours” from Granada to San Juan de Oriente to show interested tourists the whole process of making pottery in a family-run workshop.
“I have been lucky to make some money from my art, but I still love it for the same reasons I did when I started,” Boza says. “I am not a great millionaire, but I have a comfortable and humble life in the countryside, where I remain close to nature, art and my family. My children are now studying in school, but they like ceramics too. And I hope that someday they start producing pottery that’s better than mine.”
Boza’s ceramic exhibitions will be held in Garden Café on Monday’s 8 a.m.- noon, and Thursdays noon – 4 p.m.