Oaxacan Diary: Day Eight – Part One.

Today we’ve all packed up our bags and pots (those bought to date, having sourced copious amounts of bubble wrap, cartons and tape the previous evening) as we have to vacate our rooms for one night to head out of town and deeper into unknown territory.

Boarding the van with only our overnight gear, we’re introduced to Cesar, our driver for the next couple of days. This time, we’re headed into the mountainous regions of Mixteca, to Santo Domingo Tonaltepec, some 2,511 metres above sea level and about an hour and a half away from Oaxaca City.

Coming off the highway, and just outside the township of San Bartolo Soyaltepec, we hit the dirt roads until we’re stopped by a guy in a red anorak – this it transpires is Gregoria’s husband, who has come to meet us to take us to his wife’s pottery. We finally run out road……..IMG_0489………so we all pile out of the van and set off down the 1 1/2 km hike to our destination. This is the only way in or out of Gregoria’s place, and as we start out, we’re overtaken by a guy who, it transpires, is bringing in feed for the family’s animals. 70DB0EDC-2D82-4277-AD61-0C7691F0FCF1IMG_0491F34A5CB1-98C5-4CC4-8A82-5C475834B911We are greeted with hugs and kisses of welcome – already we are feeling at our ease despite the cold. We were warned to bring warm clothing and despite our brisk hike across the mountainous terrain, we’re all feeling the chill. So Diego wastes no time in introducing a warm up party game to introduce ourselves, and we all feel a little daft saying our names and enacting our professions. It amuses our hosts no end, and certainly breaks the ice.

Once again we are introduced to the clay of which there are two kinds – a blend of a plastic and a grittier clay to get the right consistency for working and firing. Firstly it’s crushed, sieved dry and slaked in water……AD62743E-6DED-45B2-906A-6BB8FAE1093197939F6A-F2DE-4A20-AE70-9832C68FDE5A……… Gregoria then hand picks out any larger stones before sieving it into a cloth lined container. The clay is then lifted out onto the concrete in the cloth, and laid into a temporary bed of bricks until firm enough to wedge.

At this stage, Teresa brings out some of the finished products so that we can see the range of work they do before Gregoria proceeds to demonstrate how to make it. They produce a range of jugs – with a simple ochre slip…….86E97467-7630-4814-915B-6A7B4B9E8B42137D9C67-2C6A-4B5F-AA4A-AA2BCD86F7DB…….ollas, bowls and most intriguingly, the cántaro…………IMG_0650………….which Gregoria shows us how it is laced up with (thinner rope than illustrated) to act like a back pack water carrier. B8EDDBE8-FB85-4542-B541-FA8F19FA5F20Gregoria then sets up her tools in readiness to show us how to make a cántara (water carrier) and we all huddle gratefully into their small house out of the wind and into relative the warmth of our own collective body heat.

After wedging the clay…..42F94C11-F7DA-47BC-8DAD-FD9300BB94F9………Gregoria prepares her equipment…………7B532799-C4A8-46C8-94C8-983E3E917495………a  couple of besser blocks raises the height of her work ‘bench’ – she fell awkwardly a while ago and hurt her back so she can’t bend so easily – some coarse grit and a piece of broken tile make up her turntable. She then proceeds to thump out the centre of a cone, scraping at the inside of the pot with one hand, while patting and rotating with the other. The walls of the pot raise as assuredly as they would on the potter’s wheel – she adds the cántara’s handles as she goes……..B3BF2CF2-DE4C-4EEF-BD44-23A5937A67C0……finishing off the neck of the pot with a few extra coils and a wet shammy.

Mewanwhile the kiln is making very slow headway and it’s beginning to look unlikely that we’ll get to see the end of the firing as we need to get back up the mountain track before dark…….IMG_0879437D96C1-F1FF-4E58-A567-CEF96500EB56……….so we head back into the house for the lunch that Gregoria and the family have prepared for us.7C4BF3E0-C6F3-401D-B9E6-64E4E93DCED8Despite the fact that the kiln is still a long way off reaching temperature, Gregoria has decided there is just enough heat to be able to pull out a pot and to demonstrate their decorating technique. The Tonaltepec potters are the last to produce a type of ware that uses tannin, post firing as their decoration in Mexico – however, a similar tannin dye made from mangrove roots, is used in Vitoria, Brazil.

The tannin rich bark comes from native oak which they strip off felled trunks and boil to produce a ‘soup’ of dark red liquid.D161E305-14BE-4F94-8073-090D48962239When the temperature is right, and the pots are red hot, they are hauled out of the top of the kiln with a long stick…….IMG_0599………..and traditionally, the liquid tannin would be patted and dribbled on with a cloth. Gregoria has come up with a more contemporary version – that of placing the tannin juice into a plastic bottle with a hole in the lid, and squirting and dribbling it on – Pollock style!5226EFA1-6983-4CA8-BEE2-15B7B79640D0Once again, we are in awe of the strength and simplicity of these pots – their link to cultural traditions and the passion in which they are held by their makers. Once again, we have been treated with affection, feeling honoured and humbled at what has been so willingly shared.78223802-A604-49DC-8EC5-73994423CE05

We walk back in medative silence, enjoying the feel of the place.





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