Tag Archives: Santa Maria Atzompa

A Day of Clay: Visiting Santa Maria Atzompa with Innovando la Tradicion

In their own words, Innovando la Tradicion is a creative platform where artisans, designers and artists share skills, knowledge and stories to rethink and honor the ceramic traditions of Oaxaca.  The group helps potters and pottery communities in Oaxaca with support to develop their trade.

Francisco finishing the clay comal (griddle)

Francisca finishing the clay comal (griddle)

Before the new year, my sister and I joined a one-day excursion to Santa Maria Atzompa sponsored by Innovando la Tradicion and hosted by Gregorio Desgarennes Garzón who everyone calls Goyo. The idea was to spend time with a local family, part of the Innovando la Tradicion collective, and learn how they work with clay to make functional and decorative pieces.


This was not a shopping trip. It was a meaningful educational and cultural experience to go deeper into Oaxaca’s indigenous traditions. In Atzompa, craftsmen have worked in clay for centuries. They shaped religious articles, storage and cooking vessels for the Monte Alban ruling class, long before the Spanish conquest.


These same traditions continue today with some modification of the ancient technologies.  In addition to firing the wood kiln, there is also a modern propane oven for cooking clay at higher temperatures. Traditional shapes take form alongside innovative contemporary sculpture.


Our multi-national group spent the day with Francisca, her husband Guillermo and their three daughters Karina, Vianney and Maité. Clay has always been in my family, say the couple. We added our impressions: It is the material of possibility, the smell of the earth, it evokes chocolate, bread, eating, family and nature.

Guillermo took us into the yard first to demonstrate how the large clay chunks are broken up with a mallet made from a hardwood tree limb. He digs the clay himself from a pit not far from the village center. Some of us volunteered to give it a try and didn’t last too long.


After the clay is pulverized to a fine powder and put through a sieve, it is mixed with black clay that comes from the bottom of a nearby lake. This gives it strength and elasticity. It is Guillermo who does all the heavy prep work.

How do you know when it’s ready? someone in the group asks. We can tell by touching it, was the answer. There is no written recipe.

My sister and I loved watching all this because our dad was a potter in Los Angeles and the entire process reminded us of our growing up years, watching dad knead the clay, then work it on the wheel into functional and whimsical objects of beauty.


Just as we did, the children here play with clay when they are young, forming simple shapes made with the coil or pinch pot method.

Each day, Guillermo prepares a batch of clay that Francisca will make into comals for sale to clients or at the local market. They make only enough for that day. Francisca is known for her fine clay comals. Her mold is a 12-year old comal that is the correct diameter and thickness. She will make about eight comals in a day. Each one, used for making tortillas or their variation, may last for about two months.


Her tools are trees and gourds. She uses her fingers to feel the thickness of the clay, testing it, determining if she needs to add more to the center for strength.

Her children know how to do this, too, now. But she dreams that her children will go to university and have a profession. Yet, she also wants them to make ceramics.

As Francisca pulls and shapes the clay, we watch mesmerized as she forms a beautifully round, perfect comal with lip that is desired by all who work with corn, another artisan craft.

The comals will sell for 55 to 70 pesos each. It takes about an hour to make a large one.  In the currency exchange rate of pesos to dollars, that’s about $3 to $4.50 each. At the rate of eight per day, the gross is $24 to $36 USD per day including labor and materials.


When the comal is finished, Guillermo carries it to the sun to dry. Francisca and Guillermo can fit about 36 comales into the adobe kiln, stacked vertically. The kiln is covered and fueled with wood. After about two hours the temperature reaches a low-fire 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire burns out and the clay contents cool, then are removed and prepared to transport to market.

After the demonstration, we took a lump of clay and began to form our own pieces. Some of us used a small wheel the size of a plate, balanced on a rock, to turn our work. Others shaped the clay using forefinger and thumb or rolling coils and stacking them. The pieces were primitive and imaginative. It was like being a child again! Totally freeform.

Then, the tables were made ready and Francisca served us a wonderful lunch of sopa de guias, tlayudas and horchata water that she prepared. The family joined us in celebrating the end of a very satisfying day.

A special thanks to Goyo for translating everything from Spanish to English and giving us great insights into the clay making process.

Contact Innovando la Tradicion at the little clay shop 1050 Grados, Rufino Tamayo 800, Oaxaca Centro, phone 951-132-6158 to find out when their next clay tour is scheduled. It’s a wonderful experience. Don’t miss it.





Oaxaca’s Contemporary Art Museum MACO Shows Ceramic Sculpture

MACO Best 21-4

A second floor exhibition of ceiling-height sculptural columns that I interpret as totems are made by ceramic artist Mariana Castillo Deball, who lives and works in Mexico City and Berlin. The show opened last night at MACO, the Museo Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca on Macedonio Alcala.  The work is on view until April 20 and features indigenous objects — gourds, urns, animals, gods and goddesses, cooking vessels — many of which replicate those found at the archeological sites of Monte Alban and Atzompa.

MACO Best 21-16

MACO is no ordinary edifice. While conquistador Hernan Cortes never lived in Oaxaca, his son Martin Cortes, second Marquis del Valle de Oaxaca built and occupied this grand house. It is now a perfect public space to view large works created by Mexico’s masters.  The art is larger than life and fits into the more than spacious galleries.

MACO Best 21-14 MACO Best 21-12 MACO Best 21-13

Innovando la Tradicion with 1050 Degrados have helped produce the exhibition. They are a nonprofit ceramics arts cooperative that helps promote indigenous ceramics in many of Oaxaca’s pre-Hispanic villages that have created functional and artistic ware for centuries.

MACO Best 21-9

MACO Best 21-15

The artist asks us to look at how past informs present and creates future. Using indigenous Mexican icons from cooking vessels to codices images to gears and other technological devices, she creates a vertical landscape for imagining, exploring the consonance of time and its objects, memory and influence on the present.

MACO Best 21-2

In addition to this wonderful show, other art in the building offers us a view into Mexico’s contemporary art scene.  Plus, the balmy January evening gave me a chance to look over the balcony onto the Andador, the pedestrian walk that connects the Zocalo to Santo Domingo Church.  In the distance a band played and a sequence of wedding parties paraded in and out of the neighborhood churches, too.

MACO Best 21-18  MACO Best 21-11MACO Best 21-17

¿Quién medirá el espacio,

quién me dirá el momento?

Mariana Castillo Deball

Enero 24 – abril 20, 2015

Inauguración: Sábado 24 de enero, 7 pm – 9 pm.

La exposición inicia con una pregunta sobre la consonancia entre el tiempo y los objetos, y cómo la memoria se impregna del presente.

¿Cómo contar la historia del universo en cien años?

¿Cómo contar la historia del universo en un día?

Serpiente, pochote, engrane, trompo, pelota, guerrero-cornudo, madre tierra, alfarero, olla, murciélago, tornillo, perro, mazorca, rana con celular, raíz, lagartija, calabaza, anciano, guajolote, ceiba, columna infinita.

Este repertorio de objetos, algunos de ellos arqueológicos, otros mecánicos, lúdicos o sintéticos; fueron seleccionados en el presente, junto con el Taller de Cerámica Coatlicue en Atzompa, Oaxaca. La selección fue el sustento para imaginar una serie de historias, que ahora se alzan cual columnas en el espacio expositivo.

La pregunta inicial parte de la relación que los ceramistas de Atzompa tienen con su legado arqueológico y de qué manera este se expresa, se contamina o se disuelve en el presente. Lejos de tomar una postura purista, el trabajo comenzó con una serie de discusiones en torno a las copias, las falsificaciones, los cambios de estilo y las influencias en la historia de la arqueología mexicana.

El proyecto cuestiona la idea de una tradición estática que no se debe cambiar para poder existir, ampliando el debate de lo que es la arqueología en el presente y cómo puede ser actualizada constantemente para resignificar panoramas visuales de identidad.

Este proyecto un proyecto realizado en colaboración con el Taller de Cerámica Coatlicue, de la familia Hernández Alarzón en Santa María Atzompa, e Innovando la Tradición ac. Producido por el Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca.

Mariana Castillo Deball (México, 1975) vive y trabaja en la Ciudad de México y en Berlín.

Oliver Martínez Kandt, Curador (Oaxaca, 1983) Curador del programa Monogramas del MACO.

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca. MACO

Alcalá 202, Centro Histórico

Oaxaca, Oaxaca, México



A Tribute to Potter Dolores Porras, a Documentary Movie by Michael Peed

Dolores Porras -- The Movie -- DVD Cover

I want to tell you that Michael Peed has made a remarkable, endearing, engaging, and beautiful film about Dolores Porras and her pottery.  Michael is the perfect person to have made this documentary because he is a potter himself.  That is why the narrative is laced with terrific explanations of the pot-making process, how the clay is made, wedged, formed, dried to leather hard, decorated, then fired.  What I really loved about this 31-minute movie is that interspersed between the interviews with Dolores that Michael (Miguel) did over the years, are magical scenes of Oaxaca street life, music, festivals, markets, and the jumble-bump of an unsteady cinema verite that represents the hubbub and vagaries of Oaxaca life.

What I really love is how Michael explains clay.  You know he is knowledgeable, that he was a university professor, and you can trust his narrative.  Yet, he is not pedantic in his descriptions.  His narrative is warm and engaging and he captures Dolores perfectly.  You really get a sense of her origins, life in a small Zapotec village, the history of the village as it related to the magnificent political center of Monte Alban (now a major mesoamerican archeological site), and the defined roles of women in the art of pottery making.

The other really charming and delightful part of the movie is the involvement of Dolores’ entire family in the pottery making process.  You see her home, her children, her animals, and the larger environment of which she was a part.

I met Dolores just three years before she died in November 2010.  This film gave me the perspective I was lacking to see Dolores as a younger woman, vibrant, creative, and innovative.  I am grateful to Michael for making this film and I hope you will take the opportunity to purchase the DVD from him and see it yourself.

If you love Oaxaca and indigenous arts and crafts, you will not be disappointed.  If you want to know more about traditional pottery, this is a perfect film for you.

In homage to Dolores Porras, and in tribute to my dad, also a fine potter.

To order, contact Michael Peed:  imdeep@earthlink.net

Dolores Porras 2010

Homage to Dolores Porras

It has been three years since I visited folk art potter Dolores Porras in her village of Santa Maria Atzompa.  She was still actively creating decorative pots painted with figures of sirenas (mermaids) with wild hair and tantalizing three dimensional breasts, sculpted figures of madonnas and angels, fanciful pigs and burros.  The shelves were packed with stunning pottery and it was difficult to choose which piece I could take home that would be small enough to fit in my suitcase.  I was with photographer friends Sam and Tom Robbins from Columbus, Ohio, and my godson Eric Chavez Santiago.  There were two inverted pots covered with faces in bas relief.  The pots rested on the opening, bottom side up, displaying probably eight of these faces as if they were sisters or multiple personalities.  Sam and I each bought one and mine takes center stage on my dining room table, an homage to Dolores Porras.

I had not seen Dolores since, and when I visited her yesterday it was startling to see her wheelchair bound and frail.  She told me in a hushed, throaty voice that she has Parkinson’s disease, doesn’t want to eat and is losing her mind.  I know Parkinson’s.  A good friend in North Carolina has it and I have seen how it eats away at the nervous system, creating memory loss and immobility.  I asked Dolores if she was in pain.  Her only pain is that she cannot remember and she cannot see much.  Are you working? I ask.  Can you make your clay?  No, she said, I have no strength.

The shelves around the room were bare, only a few of her pieces remain to be sold.  I put my arms around her and kiss her forehead and tell her she is a great artist and thank her for her life and her creativity.  I give her magic kisses through the air and she kisses me back with her lips pursed, and we are there, two adult women, kissing each other through space and my eyes are wet and I just want to leave the room and sob.  This is such a loss of a treasured talent and it is painful to see how this disease robs people of their life’s energy much to early.  Dolores is age seventy-three but she looks like one hundred.

Outside, the courtyard walk is lined with piles of discarded, broken figures and plates, imperfect angels.  I lift up pieces and hold them between my fingers and discover a face plate made perhaps years ago, and then an angel.  Muy viejo (very old) says Dolores’s son.  Are they for sale?  Yes, he says.  I buy these and two extraordinary mermaid urns, the last two.  He and I cry.  I didn’t need these things, but to me, they are much more — my homage to Dolores Porras.

Santa Maria Atzompa Mercado de Artesanias

The central market in Atzompa is an artists cooperative full of ceramics of all different colors and styles that represent the work made by potters of this renown village.  It is about 20 minutes outside the city of Oaxaca very close to the archeological site of Monte Alban, so you can make a day of it (or a half-day) if you wish.  We only had time to visit the central market and didn’t visit my favorite potter Dolores Porras or explore some of the other independent and highly acclaimed potters of the village.  But what we saw at the central market was a range of deep green glazed and earth colored and brightly decorated hand painted ware, plus some very interesting clay sculptures, cut out vases, lamps, and other assorted dishware.  The quality ranged from poor to good, from primitive to quite sophisticated.  We spent about an hour there meandering the aisles to choose a few pieces to take home.  Prices were very modest.  I paid about $1.75 for a painted butterfly wall hanging, $7 for a string of hand sculpted clay animals playing musical instruments, and $4 for a natural clay angel playing a violin.