My dad was a potter and I grew up with a potter’s wheel and an electric kiln in our garage. Tools were piled on the table, where also sat clay forms drying to the leather hard before he put them into the oven.
This is where he would go to work when he came home from work. For him, I think, putting his hands on the clay of earth and forming it into something beautiful or whimsical or functional was his joy, more fun than work.
I always have a special feeling for people who put their hands on clay. In San Marcos Tlapazola, just 8 kilometers behind Tlacolula, in the foothills, the Mateo Family women work with an organic low fire clay body that becomes unglazed, utilitarian and decorative pieces for hearth and home. It is lead-free and safe to eat from and cook with.
We work with our hands. We bring the mud from our fields. It takes a week to dry it. We wet it. Stir it, strain it and mix it with sand. Finally, we let it dry under the sun to make it. We are ready to work with it.
The vessels are made on a simple turning wheel as the women sit on the floor. They use pieces of wood, stone, coconut shell, gourds and corn cobs to shape and polish.
You might recognize them as they sit on their knees, on petate woven grass rugs at the Sunday Tlacolula market. You might notice them as they pass through the restaurants and food stalls calling out their wares for sale. Their dress is distinctive and colorful. They sell comals of various sizes, bowls and plates, platters and large vessels perfect for cooking soups and stews.
But, the best, largest and most impressive pieces are in their San Marcos Tlapazola home workshop studio. Here, tall jugs are decorated with chickens and roosters, pot lid handles might be dancing dolphins or turkey heads or pig snouts. You might even come across a national award-winning bowl sitting regal on its clay pedestal throne. The selection is enormous and often you can see the black fire flash in the red clay form, giving it an elemental connection to the earth, wind, fire.
When we got there, we came into the courtyard filled with smoke. It was firing day. The pots were hidden under corrugated metal sheeting, piled with tree branches, dried corn husks, discarded bamboo sticks, twigs, brush, and protected by a ring of broken pots to keep the heat in at ground level. We arrived just in time to add our bundle of brush and branches to the fire.
Here at Matamoros No. 18, in San Marcos Tlapazola, live the parents, sisters, cousins and nieces of the extended family of Alberta Mateo Sanchez and Macrina Mateo Martinez. The home phone number is 951-574-4201. The Cel is 951-245-8207.
Their mother Ascencion is ninety years old. Almost as old as my own mother who just turned ninety-nine.
Call to make an appointment to be sure they will be home. Maybe you will be lucky enough to come during a firing, as we did.
As we shopped, the rains came and the wind whipped. It wasn’t a heavy downpour but a light Lady Rain drizzle that causes the smoke to curl through the courtyard and burn our eyes. As we left, the rains made a mist and droplets coated the car window through which I took these ethereal photos below.
Thanks to Merry Foss, Oaxaca folk art collector and dealer, and Sara Garmon of Sweet Birds Mexican Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM, and Christopher Hodge for taking me on this adventure.
How to get there? Go toward the hills behind Tlacolula, following the road that goes through the center of town. There will be a crossroads at 4km. Turn right and continue another 4 km until you get to the village. You will see the traditional church in the distance as you wind to the right through high desert. The main street is Matamoros and the sisters’ house is on the left past a couple of blocks past the church. Look for the sign: Mujeres del Barro Roja.