Tuesday, October 3

Fire Through the Generations – A Focus on Oaxacan Pottery


From Thelonious Monk to Frida Kahlo, some of the most memorable people in history are commemorated for their singularity. As a species, human beings are naturally flawed and finite, but it’s precisely these elements that encourage inspiration and creativity. In this temporal world, it’s necessary to embrace imperfection, as well as the natural deterioration that serves as the core of the existential denouement that we all share. Of course, these attributes are not relegated to the human experience – they also speak to Oaxacan pottery.

The state of Oaxaca is home to over 70 communities that support a focus on the preservation and production of handmade clay works. Pottery traditions in this region stretch back over 2,500 years. The processes that are employed by contemporary makers reflect those of their ancestors. A range of neutral hues and rustic finishes make up the best part of these offerings. On the whole, local pottery is pit fired and utilitarian, though some is decorative. Techniques and aesthetics also vary per region.

A still from the barro rojo production process in San Marcos Tlapazola. Photo: Ehren Seeland

Santa María Atzompa is a pueblo that’s best known for its green glazed pottery, however, local artists are continuously innovating. In visiting workshops in this town, one can find smoked pottery in mottled tones of beige, charcoal and black, detailed pastillaje work, as well a rainbow of glazes beyond the standard emerald hue. Ancient kilns discovered during archaeological explorations suggest that modern production methods reflect those from thousands of years ago.

Roughly an hour from the capital city, San Marcos Tlapazola is a rural community that’s surrounded by agricultural fields. Roughly a third of the population is dedicated to the production of barro rojo – most of them being women. Their process involves a mix of sand, water and clay. A red slip is applied, and then pieces are burnished with quartz stones to encourage a natural sheen. Local artisans generally don’t use a kiln but an open pit fire that involves strategically stacked layers of wood, dried corn husks and sheet metal.

Juliana Cruz Martinez preparing the pit fire in San Marcos Tlapazola. Photo: Ehren Seeland

The pit fire process in San Marcos Tlapazola generally lasts around an hour, and the fire is constantly fed throughout the process. Photo: Ehren Seeland

In the Sierra Mixe, artisans produce handmade works from locally-sourced clay in the community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec. As with most Oaxacan pottery, these pieces are hand-formed, unglazed and pit fired. They tend to be heavy and resilient due to a longer firing process. Local pieces are a light shade of pinky-peach that flaunt a variety of exquisite burn marks from the firing process. In addition to pottery, this town is also known for naturally dyed textiles, intricate embroidery work and extensive musical skills.

Makers from the communities of Río Blanco Tonaltepec and Vista Hermosa Tonaltepec in the Mixteca Alta region produce cone-built, pit-fired works. They’re decorated with an oak bark tea that’s applied directly onto the surface of the piece after firing. The artists in this community employ hand-built stone kilns that resemble pre-Hispanic structures. The production process results in striking vessels that showcase one-of-a-kind patterns in contrasting hues of rich browns and reds that are particular to this area.

Pit-fired pottery smoked with plants in the workshop of Francisco Martinez Alarzón and family in Santa María Atzompa. Photo: Ehren Seeland

While the above is a mere sampling of the diverse range of pottery that’s made in this region, these brief overviews help to provide clarity around the similarities that these pieces share. Oaxacan pottery comes from the earth and goes back to it. Not only does it serve as a testament to ancestral knowledge, it also speaks to the people and processes behind it. Every burn mark and thumbprint found on the surface reminds us that these pieces are made by individuals – not by machines. These clay works represent pride in heritage, storytelling and connection. The surface scratches and variations in hue are not flaws but indications of the power of family, culture and creative inheritance. In essence, these pieces are tangible, historical relics that we have the good fortune to hold in our hands.

Glazed pottery in the kiln of the Martinez Alarzón family in Santa María Atzompa. Photo: Ehren Seeland

For those who are unfamiliar with the properties of Oaxacan pottery, it’s vital to know what to expect before investing. Unglazed, pit-fired pottery should be washed by hand. It’s porous and will sweat when holding liquid for long periods. When these pieces come into contact with oil and butter, they may stain. Forks and knives will leave scratches on the surface. That said, over time and with use, these marks will evolve into an alluring patina.

Local pottery is distinctive and impermanent, as are human beings. People develop wrinkles as a visible record of living, while the marks on these vessels represent the collective experience – that of meals shared, flowers arranged, and libations sampled. It’s in this imperfection and ephemerality that intrigue and individuality reside. These pieces are here for a short time in the physical sense, but the cultural legacies behind them live on in the knowledge that’s passed down from one generation to the next. True legends in their own right.

Detailed pottery mezcal bottles by Francisco Martinez Alarzón and family in Santa María Atzompa. Photo: Ehren Seeland


About Author

Ehren Seeland is an artisan liaison and product developer, as well as the Founder and Creative Director of Hecho – a curated emporium of ethically made pieces that marry contemporary design with traditional processes. Ehren lives and works full-time in Oaxaca. Prior to her move to Southern Mexico, she studied art and design in Vancouver, Canada and Edinburgh, Scotland. She worked as a designer in NYC, as well as in international development in higher education, which involved regular travel throughout 24 countries.

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