Potters of Ixtaltepec

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 4.39.55 PMBy Brooke Gazer

When I think about traditional Mexican design, the first image that pops into my head is a huge terra cotta pot filled with plants. This may be a personal bias because I was a potter in a former life. I learned to pot on an electric wheel, never advancing beyond a large salad bowl or a two-liter casserole. Few potters do because it takes so much upper body strength and energy to handle more clay, even if it is added in segments. This makes me I appreciate the amount of work and skill that goes into throwing those enormous pieces.

Oaxaca is rich in both clay and wood, the materials used to make and fire this art form, so there are many potters in our state. Much of the terra cotta you see in Huatulco comes from Asunción Ixtaltepec, a town about two and a half hours south, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

An Ixtaltepec potter needs extraordinary coordination, since he works without electricity on a “kick wheel”. While keeping his hands, arms and shoulders steady as he centers a lump of clay on a rotating wheel, he develops a separate rhythm with his leg, kicking a plate at floor level. Once the clay is centered, he uses his fingers to gently coax the clay up into a hollow cylinder. For extremely large pieces, coils of clay are added to the cylinder wall and smoothed out as the wheel continues to rotate. Keep in mind that the clay is very wet and pliable, allowing the artist to merge the new clay into the spinning form and to the shape it into something pleasing. It is so soft that any false move will cause the shape to collapse as the wheel turns. If this occurs the clay must be reprocessed before it can be used again. Potters cannot afford many mishaps.

Once a piece is completed, it is set aside to dry before being fired in a kiln. The kilns used here are pits dug into the ground, often but not always lined with clay. Once dry, several very fragile pots are stacked into the kiln, and the kiln begins to heat up from the wood fire. During the firing process, the clay becomes harder and stronger as the last remnants of moisture evaporate.   These pots are fired at about 1100 C., a relatively low temperature for pottery, making them quite porous.

During the firing process, clay changes from grey to pale orange or tan depending on the minerals within the clay body. As the fire burns, combustion requires more oxygen, and it extracts oxygen from the iron oxide molecules in the clay.   This, and the flames themselves, cause random patterns of black flashing across the surface, contributing to the unique nature of each piece.

I would normally encourage visitors who have time to make the 2½ hour day trip to Ixtaltepec, where they can watch artisans work and take in the colorful market in Juchitan, just fifteen minutes away. However, Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the southern coast of Oaxaca in September and although we give thanks that Huatulco was not affected, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was devastated. (See “How Juchitán and Ixtaltepec Are Surviving the Tragedy”on page 17.)

Brooke Gazer operates an ocean view B&B in Huatulco www.bbaguaazul.com

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