Spotlight on 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow Verónica Castillo

Veronica Castillo mid-conversation next to one of her tree of life sculptures on stage at the folk arts masters concert celebration

NEA National Heritage Fellow Veronica Castillo with one of her artworks at the 2013 concert celebration. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

For Texas-based artist Verónica Castillo, a 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow, ceramics and clay sculptures are a family affair. For three generations, her family has been known as master artists of the form, earning acclaim particularly for their Tree of Life sculptures and candelabrum. Traditionally these clay sculptures depict religious scenes, but Castillo also uses her work to address social and contemporary issues such as violence against women and violence on the border.  

Get to know Castillo by listening to our 2014 podcast interview below!

"Homenaje a Frida". Photo by by Carlos Varilla

Homenaje a Frida. Photo by by Carlos Varilla


Excerpts of guitar music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernández, used courtesy of Mr. Hernández.


<clip of Veronica Castillo speaking in Spanish then English: All love of these God, art is life. It's like I tell everybody: we are all artists, we can all express ourselves and open our hearts in different ways, we can create art with our own means in different ways.> 

Jo Reed: That is ceramic and clay artist, and 2013 National Heritage Fellow Veronica Castillo and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Veronica Castillo comes from generations of artists and brings their tradition of ceramic and clay sculptures into the 21st century. She's best known for her "Tree of Life" sculptures--which typically consists of the trunk of a tree with delicate, intricate, and brightly painted little figurines hanging from its branches.

This art form originated in and around Pueblo Mexico, where Veronica was born and raised. Her father was a master artist recognized with Mexico's most prestigious award The National Prize of Sciences & Arts

She follows in her family's artistic footsteps while redefining the tradition and making it her own. Tree of Life sculptures traditionally depict religious scenes; her father expanded the tradition to include scenes of everyday aspects of life. Veronica extended it again and creates innovative pieces that present contemporary social issues, such as violence against women.

Whether religious, quotidian or social comment, all of her beautifully crafted pieces tell a story. She created a Tree of Life, for example, that represents the history of mole, while another mourns the deaths of hundreds of murdered women in the town of Juarez.

Veronica moved to San Antonio when she was twenty-four, inspired in part by the work she witnessed at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and its MujerArtes, a women’s ceramic and clay arts collective. There Veronica served as teacher and artist in residence over years. Her work as a teacher has been nothing short of extraordinary--a notorious taskmaster, her teaching encourages students to learn about Mexican culture and create work that mirrors their own lives, but she also insists on high-quality work--an artistry she says, infused with "spirit."

It's little wonder that she was named a 2013 National Heritage fellow. I spoke with her backstage before her rehearsal for the Heritage concert, with Josie Mendez Negrete translating.

Jo Reed: First I'd like to congratulate you Veronica. Your work is beautiful and really unlike anything I've ever seen.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): Thank you. I appreciate it very much.

Jo Reed: Well first, I'd like to begin by talking about the traditional aspects of your art.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): The traditional clay sculpture is called The Tree of Life. Its origins begin with our ancestors. And I'm going to tell you in a brief way where it comes from. It is known that The Tree of Life was a natural tree; it was a tree that gave fruit with a red heart. It was there that it began, so, if two families wanted to wanted to establish connections with each other, to establish the friendship, they would make a present of the Tree of Life. That way to appreciate life, to affirm life, to give a tree, a living tree that would give fruit.

Jo Reed:   and from that grew these wonderful sculptures. Can you describe what these look like for people who haven't seen them?

Veronica Castillo (Translated): That's the way that it began but it's more complex now. In the past, in the time of our ancestors, it was the branch of a tree with leaves  and the branch would have carved on it figures of children, flowers and fruit, because the idea was that the tree was a gesture of good will and a wish for prosperity. That was the intent of the initial tree. When the Spaniards came to Mexico, the tree of life was transformed in the merger of the indigenous and European cultures. Without losing the essence of pre-Hispanic culture, the Spanish and the indigenous come together and they added saints and other Christian icons like angels were added. In addition to the angels, they added the Archangel Raphael or Michael and they added two suns on either side of the tree which represented the sun god. My great grandparents, and people of  that generation creates a totally Catholic tree of life, that is apples, that is Adam and Eve and that reproduces a Christian myth of origins. They called it The Tree of Sin.

Jo Reed: Really?

Veronica Castillo (Translated): My father decided to recreate and transform that message. My father, working in clay, created a round foundation which represents the Earth and then there are seven candles, representing the days of life. And so what he created is a Tree of Life that affirms that everyday experience in the life of people.

Jo Reed: When did The Tree of Life move from being literally part of a tree to something that's worked on with clay?


Jo Reed: You come from generations of artists. Your father was an artist. Did you work in his shop when you were younger, did you watch as he created trees of life?

Veronica Castillo (Translated): Yes. We started with very simple things, and I was in their workshop. But the first tree of life piece I worked on, I was 12 years old.

Jo Reed: You were 12 years. What did it represent, tell me about it?

Veronica Castillo (Translated): You're not going to believe it but with the first one, I broke the mold of what traditionally was a Tree of Life. I made a scene kind of like an agrarian environment with a ranch, there were people and it was innocent, it was beautiful, pastoral and I just wanted to show the innocence of people that we were losing. My father asked me, "Why did you make this scenery? Why didn't you do a tree?" I told him that peaceful and pastoral scene is what I saw and I wanted everyone to be able to see that and enjoy it. An art collector came and he looked around and he looked at mine and he said, "Bring that one down." and he said mine was really above everything else. He said "This is the piece I want." Wow, I was just 12 years old when I sold my first piece.

Jo Reed: That’s amazing.

Veronica Castillo: Yeah.

Jo Reed: There's so much involved in the actual physical work of making these pieces. You have to sculpt them from clay, and the clay needs to be dried and then painted. You have to sculpt and paint these elaborate figurines, and have to place them on the tree. How did the process evolve?

Veronica Castillo (Translated): In the old times, everything that was done was done with natural paint that we created, from bark in the trees from different flowers and we created those colors to make them work. That's why we could not create any fine work because you have to do it fresh when we were using natural paint. That's why the original works look somewhat rustic. But when we were children my father always liked to explore and he liked to travel and one day, we went to Oaxaca. And there we went to the pyramid at Mictlan, where we discovered a multiplicity of symbols and designs and we were fascinated, enthralled with them. And so we began to look at them and sketch them and we decided that we would incorporate them into our pieces. That is when we moved into the fine and delicate design that you now see in our trees of life.

Jo Reed: Just let me ask you a very mundane question and that is when you begin a tree of life, is it completely planned in your mind, is it designed in some way or do you just design it as you go?

Veronica Castillo (Translated): Sometimes it's my dreams, sometimes it's what I see and I consume myself with thinking of what I want to design, what I want to create. I go to bed, I meditate, I think about what I want to do and then before you know it, my heart is filled with inspiration and I have to create. So I get up and I begin the process of creating my clay pieces.

Jo Reed: Now I had read in fact that when you were younger, you studied accounting and actually worked for a while as an accountant.

Veronica Castillo: <laughs>

Veronica Castillo (Translated): That's true but nobody puts anything over on me when it comes to accounts of monies.


Jo Reed: That's true.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): My father was frightened that clay work, the folkloric popular expression of Mexico, the ceramic art would not give us a life to sustain ourselves and so he insisted that I get an education so I can be prepared. I loved learning that career because I understood inequality in the context of accounting. I saw how the very wealthy seldom pay taxes and the ones that carry the burden are the poor people. I discovered much as an accountant and I was very proud of being able to explore that inequality that I experienced as an accountant. I helped many people in the process and that's my satisfaction. But I can continue to help.

Jo Reed: Tell me about your work there. You teach at a women’s pottery cooperative in San Antonio, Esperanza House. Tell me about your work there.    

Veronica Castillo (Translated): I was amazed to find a center where they were attempting to do cooperative art work in a capitalist, individualistic nation like the one we live in. When they told me about this cooperative I was curious, so I asked her, "Do you really know what the meaning of cooperative is?" What was inspiring to me was what it was doing with the people, the skills that it was teaching, the issues of equality, justice and peace. And that's what inspired me and I decided that was an opportunity for me to be able to do something with people and to create change with people by teaching them my traditional art. I asked my father since he was the head of the workshop for his permission to teach our tradition and to teach our work and he said, "Do it, because the people you want to do that with need the support and help." And he gave his blessings to me.

Jo Reed: I'm curious, how did the women there respond to you, and how did you respond to them?

Veronica Castillo (Translated): While I was there, more than 250 people went through, but what was inspiring for me was that the women were filled of themselves, they were able to find the goodness in themselves and the creativity. They really appreciated that I was there to teach them something that they could feel good about. From the 250 people that came through the courses I taught, there were from 10 to 15 individuals who have established their own workshops and who are sustaining themselves from what they have learned from me.

Jo Reed: Wow, that's…

Veronica Castillo: It's great.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Veronica Castillo: Yeah, I'm really happy for me. <Laughs>

Jo Reed: I'd like to talk to you about a couple of specific pieces if we may.

Veronica Castillo: <inaudible>.

Jo Reed: The first one I'd like to talk about is called Fragmenting Women, and you dedicated it to the women who were murdered in Juarez. Just a little background, there had been over 600 women murdered in Juarez whose killings were unsolved.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): That's another tree of life, fragmenting or severing women. That piece cost me my life, it was intense, expunging of the feelings and the emotions that invaded me when I began to do this piece. I was trying to give images that brought truth to light. And these horrific decimations of women are not just happening in Juarez, there are global issues of the abuse of women. There is a blinded skull at the center of the piece, a blinded skull and it represents a justice system that is not just blind but dead. I couldn't create beautiful sculpted figures because human beings have been desecrated and all I could create was a reality of the horrors that they were living and surviving. The center, the men, represent the misogyny, the hate against women and how they perpetrate these crimes upon young women who have no reason to be targeted, they're preyed upon and nobody does anything about it.

Jo Reed: You know, it reminded me of Frieda Kahlo's painting, Just a Few Small Nips? And that's also a painting based a real event, in which a husband has stabbed his wife to death, and when arrested, he looked at the police and famously said, “But I only gave her just a few small nips.”

Veronica Castillo (Translated): She was an inspiration and a challenge for me at the same time because I knew that she could paint that reality of the inhumanity of people and I thought that I could do with clay. So that was the dare for me, that I could create the same pieces in my own medium.

Jo Reed: You're creating a language in many ways with clay and with paint.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): It is a visual language that allows us to see reality as it is and it gives us a means for telling the world the inequalities and the experiences that people survive and getting across the points that we need to get across for people to be able to understand. So people may not know how to read, they may not read books but seeing the art and understanding the images that are presented to them, they're able to receive that language that we create with the medium of art. I love a phrase called, "Art is life." It's like I tell everybody, we're all artists, we can all express ourselves and we can open our heart in different ways and we could create art with our own means in different ways.

Jo Reed: And some people do it through food. I'd love to have you talk about A Celebration of the Everyday, where you present the history of mole.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): This piece was done for the 500th anniversary of the coming of Spaniards in Mexico to mark the joining of two worlds. In this one we understand myth, legend and it reflects the simple, the natural, the indigenous, the untamed, and the unadulterated. The figures that are in color reflect the conquest; they reflect the mixture, the combination of different things, and the colonization of the people. The priest or the monk who is there represents another way of conquest instilling fear and teaching the indigenous that there is a heaven and a hell. Because they saw the indigenous practices as pagan and evil. And they didn't understand that for us, Mother Earth was our mother, the Earth Goddess was our mother, and she was the essence of life and we revered her for who she was, without her we would not be ourselves. At the bottom, you have two indigenous people who are expressing their work with clay because it is after all a piece about clay so we wanted to demonstrate the meaning of clay in their everyday life. The nun is Sister Clara who used to cook for the viceroy when they came to Puebla in the convent of Santa Clara. She had cooked so many times for him and she was at her wits end not knowing what to cook for him because everything she had done before had been exhausted. And so she prayed and she prayed for inspiration and it was through this meditation and prayer that she came up with a recipe for mole. And she said that in her dreams she saw two angels who were descending upon her and they were offering her a turkey. And other angels were coming down with baskets of different types of spices, chilies in particular. And more angels with chocolate. And when she woke up, she called all the nuns and said, "We've got the dish. Please go gather the material to make the mole." But she never grinded the corn, it was the indigenous people who made the meals. So she roasted the chilies and got all the spices and she would tell the young indigenous woman who was grinding the chili, "Moler," which means to grind and so from moler, she came up with the term mole. And so that again represents the joining of two cultures to create a new one. So it's telling the story and if you really look at all the particulars you can see it's a contestation of history.

Jo Reed: There are many things I find remarkable about your art, but chief among them is the way you managed to represent both struggle and beauty simultaneously.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): Since I was a child I have come to the realization that I have a way of giving voice to the struggles of people and that's something that called me or compelled me to look at the inequality that our people experience.

Jo Reed: Ah, but you do it with such beauty, and that's what I find really outstanding.

Veronica Castillo (Translated): What can I say to you? I'm humbled by your compliments but inspired by the same people whose rights I'm trying to portray.

Jo Reed: Veronica, I love to hear you talk about your work, but unfortunately, I know you have to go to rehearsal. Thank you for giving me your time.

Jo Reed: That was 2013 National Heritage fellow, artist Veronica Castillo. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, we kick off Jazz Appreciation Month with the director of the band Diva, drummer Sherrie Maricle. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.