Oaxacan Diary: Day Seven

IMG_6455Our tour with Traditions Mexico is picking up pace – today we all pile into our trusty van with Diego at the wheel and Megan riding shotgun. We’re heading for the village of San Marcos Tlapazola, just south of Tlacolula in the eastern valley of Oaxaca.

San Marcos is where finely-burnished red-clay dishes, pots and cooking griddles (comales) come from. We are here to meet and work with the Mateo family, a group of sisters, aunts and nieces who have been rapidly gaining an international reputation for their finely burnished products, particularly in association with Innovando la Tradición.BC1F50E1-46F5-40AC-B7BD-80F216FBD1F3Alberta, Dorotea, Macrina, Elia and Angelina Martinez are the zapotec women who make up the Mateo family who produce polished red clay, backed by a generation-long tradition.

After being made welcome by Macrina into their quite grand family compound……IMG_0415…….built by their brother apparently, who lives and works overseas – complete with the usual outdoor kitchen, where already our lunch is being prepared…….B6E595C8-21FA-4FDF-996B-56DC42F65583………we are soon collecting up a bunch of spades, sacks and crow bars and heading off into the nearby mountain of El Picacho to gather clay.IMG_041771E76CAD-AAF1-48E4-8577-D2127C5E4CA7(Cathi Jefferson from Canada at left; Brunyfire on the right working with Macrina).

The grey clay for forming the pieces is mined from the pits we worked above, but they source a red clay further up the hillside to make into a slip for adding to the finished ware to burnish. Normally, the women would walk to the clay pits, carrying their clay in the traditional way……IMG_0427…….but on this occasion, we were able to load up the van and drive it back to Macrina’s home and workshop. The clay is dried in the sun for about a week before being crushed and soaked in water. It is then stirred and sieved wet – at this point – am guessing that it’s spread out somehow to dry till it can be mixed with sand and wedged into a malleable state of plasticity before they proceed to make their pots. Alberta then demonstrated ‘throwing’ an open topped olla, or round bottomed cooking pot……..FA9A2894-998D-441C-88AF-2DCF4A2B7DD1………by firstly punching into a solid lump of plastic clay, patting it firmly on the outside whilst rotating it against a board to achieve a cone. Next she rolls a corn cob up the outside of the form whilst pressing the inside with the other hand. When Alberta has the clay cone to a uniform thickness, she then stands it up on her rudimentary ‘wheel’ – a piece of rock with a worn indentation, some fine gravel and a piece of old football. She continues to ‘throw’ and pull up the neck with the corn cob, finishing the olla off with a piece of scrap leather. 0956D08E-0B1C-4F97-8E3F-A6A95BBE298EThe pieces are all left to dry, and then the red slaked and sieved slip is applied by hand…….C4F79168-EA3A-4B01-8E12-967F964FD382…..and, once the right stage of leatherhard, the piece is burnished with a favourite rock until smooth and shiny.CBD7529B-B812-4803-B8AD-B9B73C7D2D2F Macrina then demonstrated a similar process to make a comal – using exactly the same equipment, only ‘pulling’ the clay into an open bowl form……….5D37AEF5-4B6A-48AE-BE3C-62530C6EEAB6…..scraping and smoothing it until the desired thickness – once leatherhard, she will scrape back and finish the base.1127DF81-DA17-48AF-8F21-E26BE43BF105The Mateo women had prepared a number of small bowls ready for our group to try burnishing – needless to say we were pretty rubbish at it. Sadly, the much anticipated firing was not to be as the weather was too windy, and the overcast skies threatened rain. The following images were taken from some prints that Macrina had in her small gallery which illustrate the dependency on good weather as this is an outdoor, firing without a kiln. D75F1562-048E-4FC8-9349-93922F575AC8By this time, we are starving and once again, our generous hosts serve up lunch…..1322D16B-5702-4830-BDCC-5713C0432CE7……..and it’s a joy to be eating off the plates that are made in this special place, with these special people.IMG_0471



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