The loss of my brother gave me the courage to become an artist

Years ago I found a vintage tree of life in San Diego and had no idea what it was. It was love at first sight, the bold colors, funky shape, detailed painting made me smile. When I started asking around no one knew what it was, but after some research found out it was an "Arbol de la Vida" (Tree of Life).  A traditional type of Mexican folk art pottery done in several areas throughout Mexico. 

Vintage Mexican Tree of Life Candle holder

My first Mexican Tree of Life

If you would like to see more vintage "Arbols de la Vida" visit my Pinterest or Instagram pages

I immediately started collecting vintage Mexican Trees of Life, but they were hard to find in good condition especially the older ones. The reason is they are single fired clay pieces which leaves them porous and over time makes them prone to cracks. Some of these vintage trees go back to the 1950's and to find one in good condition starts around $200 and goes up from there. Some of the larger more rarer trees from well-known artisans can sell in the thousands. Never in my wildest dreams did I image I would make them and become a Tree of Life artist. Then one day my life changed.

In July 2014, I got a call my brother, Chad Ware never came back from his trip to Mexico.  Two weeks later the Mexican consulate confirmed Chad's body was found in a remote area. He was only 35 years old.  I never found out exactly what happened and was never able to bury his body.  His death broke my heart into a million pieces changing something deep inside my soul. I was lost in pain and everything seemed meaningless. So I did what I normally do when faced with things like this, I travel. It helps me find a different perspective.


Chad was an orphan when we adpoted him at 2 months old, so I wanted to help other orphans. Then one night a volunteer program in India came up and immediately I knew, I had to go.  For one month, I was part of a volunteer program to help orphans and teach monks English. It would be my first time to India.

That trip was a gift that changed the course of my life. I faced fears, lit candles, befriended a monk who looked just like Chad and decided moving forward I would be fearless. I realized every moment, every word, every choice and every decision we make creates our life. We are the authors. So after my trip I came home and made some big life changes.

One of the big life changes was to embrace the artist within which I had been afraid to share with the world. I let go of the people that were toxic in my life and welcomed those who were loving and emotionally healthy.

Then one day a friend told me she was taking a ceramics class to learn how to make Mexican Trees of Life. Instantly something clicked and knew I had to make a memorial tree for my brother. Ever since that day I've never looked back. I know Chad is with me opening doors and helping me stay course along this journey.  Creating these trees are healing and 100% an organic creative process. Everything is handmade, no templates, glue or sketches just my hands and my heart. I'm in a time warp in my studio. Creating helps me deal with my brother's death in a joyous way and allows me to turn a horrible memory into something beautiful. Trees symbolize life, strength, growth and transformation. We plant our roots at birth and every decision, every turn we make creates our own unique "Tree of Life".  And we are the ones who choose if we want to leave a beautiful and colorful tree for the people we leave behind.


Before I die, my dream is to travel to Izucar de Matamoros, Metepec and Actalan in Mexico and meet the Arbol de la Vida artisan families. I started taking Spanish classes so when that day comes I will be able to communicate and share thoughts and ideas freely with them. It's a life long passion and my brother was the one who helped me find all of this. Thank you Chad. I love you and miss you so much.

Arbols de la Vidas will always be close to my heart, as my brother and I hope my creations can also be close to yours.

In loving memory of my brother Chad Brian Ware

March 26, 1979 to July 2014

Chad Brian Ware Fresno
Vanessa Leone Aquiningoc

About the Artist   |   Vanessa Leone Aquiningoc

I was exposed to many cultures growing up and formed a love for colorful art from around the globe. My art comes from a place of deep curiosity, explored through an endless imagination, with a passion for color and a need to create everyday. I've tried many mediums from jewelry making, wood carving, painting, tin art, mixed media and more but clay is the medium that I'm most passionate about. Each tree organically grows as I'm forming it. Sometimes I surprise myself wondering where they all come from.  It's like there is a sea of trees floating around in my mind all waiting to come out. Thank you for looking and I hope you enjoy Sablan Ceramic Trees of Life!

Vanessa Ware-Leone

In the Media....

SD Voyager " Conversations with Vanessa Leone"

Shoutout SoCal " Meet Vanessa Leone a Mexican Tree of Life Artist"


The meaning of the name Sablan.

Many people have asked me where the name Sablan comes from. Sablan is one of my family names as is Flores, Castro, Santos and Aquiningoc.  My family is from Guam and I can say that I'm 100% Chamorro ( native word for people from Guam ).  If you haven't heard of Guam it is a tiny US island territory in the Pacific Ocean, only a couple of hours away from Japan and China.  In our culture, it's tradition to keep both family names upon marriage. So my grandmother, Nieves Castro Flores became Nieves Flores Sablan when she married my grandfather, Joseph Santos Sablan.

They say our name comes from our family's white sand beach named Tarague in the Northern part of the island . Before the military came in, my grandmother's entire family lived on the beach. They made a living making "copra" dried coconut. I remember listening to my grandmother telling me stories of what it was like living and growing up on the beach.


Sablan also sounds very similar to "sable blanc" which means "white sand" in French. Which sounds crazy incorporating European to our family name but it's not.  Blue eyes do run in our family as well as light skin, which are characteristic of Europeans not Chamorros. So somewhere down the line Europeans entered into our family pool.

So one day it dawned on me, I use white sand clay to make my trees and my family comes from a white sand beach.  Sablan has a dual meaning for me, it brings my family history to what I'm doing today and that is why I chose the name Sablan.


Things I love...


My Family • Making trees of life • Traveling • Nature • World cultures • Smiling • Using a paintbrush • Labradorite • Big Beautiful Trees • Making Jewelry • Old Monasteries • Flea Markets • Dip Ink Pens • Vintage Textiles • Surfing the Internet • Old Hand Carved Wood • Rockhounding • Seashells • Unplanned Adventures • Photography • Used Book Stores • Fresh flowers • Australian Cattle Dogs • Sunsets • Playing Tibetan bowls • Knitting • Sailing •  Vegetable Gardening • Over the Knee Socks • Turquoise Ceramics • Sedona • Bold and Funky Rings • Crazy Couch Pillows • Fountains • Anthropologie Stores • My Art Studio • Tin Art • Linen Sheets • Sun on my face • Anything Cashmere • Chocolate  •  Folk art  • Crazy Chickens Ceramics • Being Creative • Laughing