About an hour from Oaxaca de Juárez, is the tiny village of San Marcos Tlapazola. In a courtyard, shared by eight members of the Mateo family, ceramic pieces are made from start to finish. The Zapotec artisans are all women, and their practice has been passed down within the family for thousands of years.
As a potter myself, watching this ancient process was both humbling and awe inspiring. While the process spans over a week, we were lucky enough to watch every step. The low fire red clay is foraged during walks outside their village and mixed with water and sand. After a week of drying in the sun, it is ready to be molded.
Each vessel is made on a wheel, but not on an electric wheel. A large rock elevates the piece, and a thin piece of material separates the rock from the foot of the vessel. The women spin the lump of clay by hand, forming the vessels into perfect shapes with equal thickness throughout. Little to no trimming is needed.
The pieces are then arranged in the sun to bone dry, and pre-heat, until they are ready to be fired. Firing doesn’t happen in a kiln, rather in the open air, in the center of their courtyard. Broken pots surround metal mattress springs that lay on top of dried corn husks, sticks, twigs, and brush. The vessels are placed in the center in a tight bundle, and then covered with sheet metal, old broken pots, and tree branches. A fire is lit, and as it builds, the women continue to pile more and more branches until a blazing fire roars in the center of the courtyard. It is long, hard work, and done in the scorching afternoon sun. While the pieces are low fired, at 1050 degrees, the unglazed pieces are lead-free and food and cooking safe.
After a long day in the sun, while most would retreat to the shade, the women got to work in preparing a simple, yet delicious lunch feast for everyone. Generous hospitality that is part of every day life here.