Deep in Clay is a program run by non-profit organisation Innovando la Tradición. Through this program, visitors can participate in one of the most important cultural expressions of Oaxaca – the making of traditional pottery.
Innovando works with six communities around Oaxaca and supports them by working to increase the symbolic, economic and cultural value of Oaxacan pottery. They organise workshops, courses and exchanges that allow potters to develop new skills and knowledge, while also giving advice on topics such as organization and design, technical skills, and marketing.
The Deep in Clay program provides an opportunity to gain insight into the traditions and knowledge of pottery making and have a hands-on experience with traditional pottery masters. We decided to go along and see what it’s all about.
Our group visited the town of Santa Maria Atzompa, around 20 minutes outside the city, where we were welcomed in to the home of Juanita and Felípe, siblings whose family has a long tradition of working with clay. Having started when they were around eight years old, they both expressed a deep connection to the clay and referred to their work as being alive – not just something to be found in a museum.
Juanita and Felípe spoke to us about their family traditions and showed us some examples of their work – small and large vases, jugs and pots, most glazed in the traditional green, some with ornate details. Felípe told us about the difficulties of maintaining traditions in a modern society where many young people are more attracted to other types of work. They recounted how in one town there are only three artisans left and no-one wants to take over. They lamented that if they couldn’t find anyone to continue the crafts then these skills, knowledge and arts are going to disappear, a fear he also holds for his own town.
However, through programs such as Deep in Clay, there are more opportunities to share and collaborate with other artisans from both Oaxaca and around the world. Felípe said that prior to their involvement it had been difficult to take time out to attend workshops or meetings with other artisans, it always raised feelings of guilt as any time out meant less production and less money. But now, with the additional support, they’re less nervous about this and are happy to be sharing identity and techniques in a supportive environment.
After a cool glass of agua de jamaíca we ventured further into the yard where the process of selecting and choosing the clay was explained to us. Here we were able to get hands-on, breaking the clay into small pieces with a large wooden club (very satisfying work!), sifting it and mixing it with water to form a dark grey, malleable clay.
Once the clay was ready Juanita sat at her hand-turned pottery wheel and we watched as she created a large vase. She told us that it’s important to talk to the clay, and to ask permission to make something beautiful and her connection to the work was unmistakeable. The vase seemed to grow out of nothing and was suddenly complete. To finish the vase she used a variety of everyday products – a credit card, jicara, pieces of shoes and hats, all creating the perfect curve and finish. When the form was complete, she used smaller pieces of clay to decorate the pot with a variety of flowers and leaves.
Once Juanita had finished her piece it was our turn. She made it look so easy I think it’s fair to say that most of us went into it feeling confident and excited about the masterpieces we were about to create. We went to work on a mixture of vases, mezcal bottles, bowls and cups. Unfortunately, our practical skills didn’t always match up to our creative visions, however, with a little bit of help we all ended up with some nice looking pieces of pottery. Juanita and Felípe will fire and glaze our pieces before returning them to us to keep. I can’t wait to see them! After a team photo with our newly completed works of art we sat down to a delicious lunch prepared by Juanita before heading home.
This is definitely a tour where you can get your hands dirty and there’s something really satisfying about that. Based on a model of participative tourism, 50% of tour payments are invested in developing better workshop conditions for all the program participants so you can have a great experience while also helping keep the artisan traditions alive.
To organise tours you can contact Innovando la Tradición through their website or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dates and group numbers are flexible and the cost is $700MXN per person.