AT the tender age of 4, Jose Antonio Herrera Aguilar was making clay figures at his mother's elbow in a dirt-floor kitchen.
For much of the next seven decades, Mr. Herrera has helped shape the spreading fame of this Salvadoran mountain village. But his vision hasn't yet taken full form.
"Ilobasco is known for its ceramic artists. But there are not enough people working in the field. My dream is to have a ceramic artist in every home," he says, rubbing his salt-and-pepper stubbled chin. "I doubt if I'll see it in my lifetime. But my children might," he adds with a proud glance at his son, Victor Antonio, one of six Herrera children.
One and a half hours northeast of the Salvadoran capital, with its diesel-belching buses, up a winding road past women strolling erect with mango-filled baskets on their heads and men bent by the weight of firewood, one arrives in Ilobasco, marked by its red-tiled roofs.
Here, the combination of fine-grained clay and local talent has produced a cottage industry of ceramic crafts.
When Herrera was a child, he remembers a handful of families that made crude figurines of tiny barnyard animals and campesinos in local garb.
"They weren't well made," he says, demonstrating by quickly pinching a lump of gray clay into a small chicken. But around 1940, he recalls, the works became more refined. Herrera credits Luis Alfonso Cordoba as the first ceramic "artist" of Ilobasco. The clay sculptures became more varied and more detailed, as did the painted finish.
"I worked in my father's shoe shop days, and at night I learned from Luis Alfonso," Herrera says. A check with the local cultural center confirms Herrera's version of ceramic development. But the director admits that Herrera is the only real authority here.
Herrera went to Venezuela during the 1950s at the request of the government to teach ceramics there.
When he returned in 1962, he started a ceramics school by setting up two chairs and a wooden table on a street corner. He made horse figurines, nativity scenes, and miniatures. "They poked fun at my little workshop. But thanks to God, I slowly built up a business," he recalls.
Today, though relatively humble in appearance, the Kiko Ceramics School and Workshop is the largest and oldest in El Salvador.
To enter the school/workshop, one walks to the back of an austere salesroom on the main cobblestone street and squeezes through a narrow kitchen where handmade tortillas are toasting on the stove.
The open-air workshop is built in tiers on a hillside sloping down behind Herrera's house. On the first and second levels, about a dozen workers are making clay miniatures: chickens, pigeons, turtles, personages of the nativity scene, and little building facades.
The miniatures are made entirely by hand, using tiny hardwood "spoons" to scrape and shape the material. The facades and larger figures are made from molds. The clay goes into the mold for about 20 minutes. Then it's left to dry for two days in the shade and a half-day in the sun.
"It's important to draw the moisture out," explains Herrera's son Victor, who is managing the operation these days. Then the figurines are baked in electric ovens for four hours.
On the next level, the molds for the figures are made out of dentist plaster, a trick Herrera picked up in Venezuela. This enables finer features than the clay molds. Fourteen-year-old William Martinez is busy crafting a four-piece mold for a facade. He started here as a student two years ago; now he's an instructor and worker.
"I like my work - it's not a common skill. And I like people to admire my pieces," he says softly.
Nearby are two rectangular pits, two meters long and one meter deep, where the clay is prepared.
"It stays there for a total of one and a half months while we sift through it for rocks, roots, and bits of garbage," says Jose Santa Maria, an eight-year veteran of clay preparation. Then the clay is transferred to the second pit, where water is skimmed off. Later, some of the clay is shoveled onto a brick patio to dry and mix with a white plaster-like powder. The mass is then transferred to a shady corner, where a dry powder is added until the right consistency is reached.
"The biggest challenge is now, during the rainy season," Mr. Santa Maria says. "Production slows down because we can't get the moisture out of the clay."
The last area is the decoration workshop. Here some 20 people, mostly young women, sit around tables painting the clay objects. The chatter and nibbling on potato chips stop when a visitor approaches. This step is where the most creativity can be expressed, Victor says. He admits that the production demands don't permit much experimentation.
Silvia Magala, a 13-year old with waist-length jet-black hair, deftly paints the last tiny necklace lines on a pigeon. "Mornings I study at school. In the afternoons I work here, learning how to control the brush," she says.
Students such as Silvia aren't charged tuition. But once their work is good enough, they are paid on a piece-by-piece basis, as are employees. Most of the students are 11- to 14-year-olds.
When asked if she feels exploited, Silvia doesn't understand. Almost everyone of her age is looking for work. Finally she says, "I like to paint. I can't think of another way to stay in school and make money for my family."
There are two shifts here, morning and afternoon. The 50 to 60 workers (half are students) earn about 35 to 40 colones ($4 to $4.65) per day. That's slightly more than the minimum wage.
Most of the Kiko workshop production is made to order and exported. There are 36 different miniature "surprises" (mostly of women selling items such as mangos or pineapples), which are shipped primarily to the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Jamaica, and Martinique.
Recently some 10,000 clay toucans and chickens were shipped to Germany and New Zealand. The facades (a product started four years ago) are sold in Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and in tourist shops here. The nativity scenes are sold everywhere and all year around.
"We can't keep up with demand," Herrera says. Part of the problem is worker turnover. "We could use another 30 workers. But they learn, then go off and set up their own workshops," he says with a shrug.
A businessman might be upset, but Herrera is not. Every time another worker strikes out on his own, Herrera is that much closer to fulfilling his dream for Ilobasco.