Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about Cuenca sculptor Eduardo Segovia.
By John Keeble
Cuenca’s internationally-renowned ceramicist Eduardo Segovia sat in his elegant room filled with his favourite art, contemplating the past and the future, and talked of his life and his feeling of “not being around” much longer.
At 83 years old, with the energy and determination of men a quarter of his age, his words rippled through the gentle air like a brick thrown suddenly into a Constable millpond.
He revealed, for the first time publicly, the role his mother had played in encouraging him in his art, making him understand that he could achieve anything, and providing him with a moral compass that has lasted his whole life.
“Never in my life has a critic paid any attention to my mother,” he said. “She was very important to me. She showed me where my work could get me. She never ceased to tell me that I could get anywhere if I worked at it.
“She is no longer here, but she has never left my side. I have a conversation with her every day. My strength is her morality and compassion.”
His second wife, Cumanda Alvarez, “helps me to figure out the little time left to me”.
Segovia and his mother were jettisoned into a life of poverty when he was three or four years old and he has never sought riches – just enough to survive, to keep his family, and to work on his art.
His mother, Teresa Segovia, was a country girl in her early 20s who went to work for a very rich land-owning family. She fell pregnant to the Spanish head of the family, Enrique Montesinos, who also had a daughter by his wife.
While he lived, Montesinos looked after and protected Teresa and her illegitimate son Eduardo. But when he died, his family forced them out with nothing.
“My father loved my mother but when he died she had no protection,” said Segovia. “He told my [step] sister to take care of me and give me an education and everything. She was so ashamed of me that she kicked us out.
“Big society made her think that way. Bastard children were valued at nothing. My mother tried to get justice for us but in those days laws and big society protected [the rich and powerful].”
His stepsister inherited a fortune but, he said, lost it within the family and, finally, was kidnapped and murdered in 1974.
“My mother had no one to help her when she was forced out,” he added. “She decided that the potters’ area, known as Barrio Convención Del 45, near where I live now, was the best neighbourhood for us. It was the best for me because it introduced me to clay.
“She was a beautiful woman and many men wanted to be with her, but she picked the worst – a potter who was alcoholic and violent.” They had five children together but it was a hard life for her and the children.
The potter was Segovia’s route into making items from the local clay. At first it was play and then it was a money-making necessity as he became the main breadwinner for the family while still a child.
“By the age of three or four, I began to see how people made clay pots. Later, after school, I helped my stepfather to put handles on pots and cups. [Then] I had the idea of making birds as whistles. I made 100 a day to sell because my stepfather was alcoholic and not providing for our family.”
He sold the whistles to earn enough for each day’s food for his family. They all slept in one room, which was also used as a workshop. After their dinner, in the light of a smoking oil lamp, he made whistles and his mother weaved hats.
“My childhood gave me everything and took away nothing,” Segovia said. “It was terrible in the economy but it was also beautiful for me. I lived in clay, and began shaping what I imagined. That made me happy.
“I felt good because I never felt less than anybody. People seemed to like me. They welcomed me. I felt a part of everyone.”
While his clay hands were growing ever-more skilful, his school work was not at the forefront of his mind. He started taking clay to school to make whistles and the teacher complained to the school’s benefactor that he was disrupting his class.
Padre Carlos Crespi, who provided the school for poor children, took Segovia aside to address the problem. Instead of just kicking him out, he moved him to the Pumapongo museum so he could study without disrupting other pupils.
“I was fascinated by what I saw: the pots, the figures, the pre-Columbian work. I couldn’t believe I had landed there. When I saw it, I said to myself: ‘I can do better than that’. I started making my own, not copying, but learning from those great masters.”
As the family clawed its way to surviving and improving its position, Segovia’s mother rented a small store and workshop. He, at the age of about 12 or 13, made ceramics and she weaved hats. His father still made pots.
Segovia laughed as he said: “I already had clients. I was already a bit pricey. My stepfather would sell his big pots for less than my small pots and it drove him crazy. To make as much money as me, he would have had to sell half a roomful of his pots.”
Then, when he was 14, he was asked by an American to go to the U.S. to make the same kind of creations – and that started a series of visits, always by air, to make some money, buy books from which he learned, and return home with a little cash. After the first time, he travelled alone. That was not frightening to him because he was accustomed to escaping his stepfather at the age or eight or nine by going alone to Guayaquil and sleeping in parks.
“The American saw me working [in Cuenca] and asked me to go to the United States. He said he had work for me in his factory and he wanted me to do the same kind of work there. I have lost his name – it was so long ago. At first, my mother refused to sign a document saying I could go but later she agreed.
“I arrived there in about 1951. I didn’t like the food. I didn’t like the culture. I missed my family. He gave me work making pre-Columbian figures. The work took me only a few hours and then I was free to do what I liked.
“Friends advised me to go to New York to see the great sculptures, the big maestros. I went, I learned, and I accumulated many books.
“I rented a suite and lived like a king. I spent my money on books and from them I learned. He was paying me more than anyone else. The hourly wage was 80 cents but I was paid $1.25. But I could not get used to the country or the crowds. When I went to New York for the weekend, I felt like an ant in all that concrete. There, even the sun did not touch me.”
Back in Cuenca, he worked to help his family but that work was always getting better. He was always seeking artistic expression. His personality, skills and creativity took him across the social stratas, from his working class origins to middle and high classes that admired him and bought his work.
“When I was 21, I met my childhood friends for drinks. They were middle and high class. I told them with shame that I was a pot maker. One said: “Eduardo, do not say such things. We are doctors, engineers, architects – but you are unique as an artist. I felt like I was flying.
“I remember [earlier, as a child] confronting my [step]sister and telling her that one day I would be richer and better known than her and her garbage society. I never achieved the aim of being richer but I am more famous. Even when I made the bird whistles, I would fly off to another life. I knew I would not just make pots.”
Tomorrow, in part two, Segovia tells of his ambitions and his failing health.
Andrés Zambrano, owner of La Guarida restaurant which houses a permanent Segovia art exhibition, kindly gave his time and skills as translator for this article. You can see the exhibition at La Guarida Monday through Friday from 9am to 1pm beginning August 30th – or schedule a private showing by calling 099 806 8071.
You can also see Eduardo Segovia’s studio and showroom at the artist’s home, on Vega Munoz 22-30 at Luis Pauta, Cuenca. Visits can be arranged by phone, at 282-4707.
Photos by John Keeble