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.
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.
Injustice, Coping: Fine Oaxaca Black Pottery Maker Goes to Santa Fe International Folk Art Market
Right now, there’s mango cardamom chutney cooking on the stove. It’s a clear, cool day after a series of heavy rains and the sky is brilliant blue. White puff clouds hug the mountain just beyond my reach, and I’m thinking about the injustices in our world and how people cope.
In about three weeks, I’m leaving Oaxaca and traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the International Folk Art Market where I’m volunteering. For artisans, it’s a privilege to be invited to this juried and highly competitive exhibition market.
This year, the market welcomes Jovita Cardozo Castillo, an exceptional master artisan of black pottery from the Oaxaca village of San Bartolo Coyotepec. It is her first visit outside of Mexico and to the United States, as part of Innovando la Tradicion and associated cooperative Colectivo 1050 Grados.
I appeal to you to give to The Wayfinders crowdfunding campaign to help cover her expenses to travel, sleep, eat and ship her beautiful work. And More!
Jovita needs all the help she can get! Why?
Wayfinders 04 | Haz que Jovita llegue a Santa Fe, NM. from Innovando la Tradición a.c. on Vimeo.
Jovita’s husband, Amando, a fine potter, too, and head of their family workshop, has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a pretty rare disease with unknown causes. Medical researchers believe it is linked to the Zika virus. The couple have three children. Amando is in hospital for the past two months, unable to speak, with paralysis and the prognosis isn’t clear. The family has spent more than 150,000 pesos for public health treatment. This is a huge sum in Mexico, equivalent to about $10,000 USD. The long-range implications of a head-of-household not working will have a huge family impact.
Note: If you are making the gift from the U.S. or Canada, please log into Generosity with your Facebook account. Otherwise it won’t work because we just discovered this Indiegogo donation site was created in Mexico! So Sorry! Don’t use your email address. It won’t work. Many thanks for your support.
Or make your gift with PayPal to:
They won’t have to pay a transaction fee if you send it to family/friends!
One of the children stopped going to school for a semester to help at the ceramic workshop, since they have orders to fulfill and Amando is not able to work.
Jovita does not want you to feel sorry for her and was reluctant for us to share this very personal information about family circumstances. She wants your support for the Wayfinders crowdfunding campaign because she is an exceptional artisan and nothing more.
Celebrating the Humanity of the Handmade
But that is not the complete story, and the family situation makes this appeal even more urgent and necessary. I talked about it with Kythzia Barrera and Diego Mier y Teran, who lead Innovando la Tradicion. They spoke with Jovita, who agreed that without support, the financial stress on the family for out-of-pocket expenses to go to the Folk Art Market would be a burden they would not easily recover from.
Will you help? Any amount will make a difference.
I don’t personally know Jovita, but I know her work. I know that handmade Oaxaca artistry and craft take time, is a family heritage, is multi-generational and the best quality can be hard to sustain as some cut corners and turn to more commercial production methods.
Help for Jovita
$1,331 raised toward $8,000 goal. That’s 17%. We can do better!
What your gift will help underwrite:
If Jovita sells out without encumbrances, she will have the funds to help her husband recover. Will you join me as a donor? Thank you.
All my best, Norma
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Health Care, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Pottery, Travel & Tourism
Tagged artisans, black pottery, ceramic arts, clay, donate, fundraising, gift, Guillain-Barre Disease, Innovando la tradicion, International Folk Art Market, Jovita Cardoza Castillo, Mexico, New Mexico, Oaxaca, San Bartolo Coyotepec, Santa Fe, Wayfinders, Zika