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.
Global Day of Clay, Video and National Ceramics School, San Marcos Tlapazola
My father was a potter so I have a special affinity for clay. My kitchen in Teotitlan del Valle holds an assortment of San Marcos Tlapazola barro rojo from for cooking. Shelves are stacked with elegant, simple red clay dishes and bowls from which to dine. I love this clay and the women who make it. The village is up the road from where I live.
For centuries, since pre-Hispanic times, San Marcos women have made clay cooking and eating vessels, forming the shapes by hand after digging (a man’s job) and mixing the clay. They constructed outdoor wood fires to “cook” the low-fire ware, all the while breathing in the fumes.
Recently the cooperative built a smokeless kiln designed by Japanese engineer Yusuke Suzuki. Maestra Macrina Mateo Martinez and 16 families in the cooperative, Mujeres de Barro Rojo, can now produce higher temperature ceramics, more pieces at once, and have better quality respiratory health. This was possible through help from Fundacion Kasuga, Tajin, Fundacion Alfredo Harp Helu, and Andares del Arte Popular FAHHO.
Red clay pottery, San Marcos Tlapazola
They started the non-profit Escuela Nacional de Ceramica (National Ceramics School), to teach others how to build and use the same type of kiln, and celebrate Global Day of Clay with the release of this video.
Mujeres del Barro Rojo, San Marcos Tlapazola
In addition to the women, the video features my godson Eric Chavez Santiago, general manager of Andares del Arte Popular gallery where the ceramics are sold.
While the video is in Spanish, the visuals tell the story. Here is a brief English explanation that goes with the Facebook video narrative:
Today, we join to the celebration of the Global Day of Clay #GlobalDayOfClay we’d like to recognize the work, the passion, ability and interest of all the artisans in our country that make clay a way of life; that every day make an effort to preserve their traditions, maintain the quality of their craft and pass their knowledge, for the new generations to continue this path.
México, concerning clay, is rich in raw materials as techniques and designs that date prehispanic ages.
Today we release this video, a work done by the great editor Martha Úc and part of her talented video recording team conformed by Mercy Portillo and Claudia Pasos. This video is the result of the training that took place last July in San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca with the group “red clay women” and artisans of other pottery entities of the state, to build a “smokeless wood kiln”. This video shows the riches of the clay traditions in the country as the strength of our women.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Travel & Tourism
Tagged barro rojo, Global Day of Clay, Mexico, National Ceramics School, Oaxaca, red clay pottery, San Marcos Tlapazola