Pottery is the oldest art attributed to the use of fire. Several civilizations have practiced it around the world for centuries making different types of objects, from religious to daily ones. Their usefulness has adapted and ceramics are still really popular. Today, apart from what exists in other parts of Mexico, the inhabitants of almost seventy villages in the state of Oaxaca still live from clay.
In these rural pottery communities, especially women are dedicated to clay from generation to generation. And they continue to teach their daughters ancestral techniques and gestures. The clay pieces they make are manifestations of the common heritage of an entire people.
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The union with its environment at the origin of Oaxaca’s clay
The clay used in Oaxaca is local. The potters find it in the corn fields around their village and extract it from the ground with the strength of their arms. It is important to note that each community uses its own secret recipe that essentially consists of mixing mud with sand and water.
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When the mixture -made with their hands and simple tools- is ready the artisans work their magic to give life to a variety of objects. In that sense, although turning is the most common way to manipulate clay in several countries, it is the rarest in Oaxaca. In this state, the most commonly used techniques are coiling, coating and molding by settling or by cone; the latter is only used in five towns in Mexico, among them San Marco Tlapazola, which is famous for its red clay, and Coyotepec for its typical and beautiful black clay.
The fire, part of the clay’s identity
As for the preparation of the clay, the technique of elaboration and the design of the objects, each village has its own specificity for the burning of the pottery. That said, in Oaxaca there are two main ways to heat the clay: at ground level as in Tlapazola or in a direct firing kiln as in Coyotepec.
In Tlapazola, to build the oven, the women make a circle on the ground with old pots placed upside down. On top they place a layer of firewood and each one stacks her pieces before the fire is started. All the potters participate. Therefore, the burning of the clay is also a moment of conviviality where they discuss about their daily life.
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On the contrary, the secret of Coyotepec’s famous black clay lies in the traditional confection of its kiln built underground. When it is hot, the potter (here men predominate) seals it with mud. Without air leaks, the fire inside is choked and clouds of smoke form all over. The charcoal penetrates the mud and gives it its unique and characteristic black color.
In an ever-changing world, rural pottery communities are the last guarantors of valuable traditions. No one wants to see something that has survived forever disappear. Let’s go together to support cultural projects to discover creations that are both secular and astonishingly modern!
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