Oaxaca (wah-HA-ka) pottery (c. 1500 B.C.E. – present) comes from a region in southern Mexico. San Bartolo De Coyotepec is the city in Oaxaca best-known world wide for its pottery. The potters: Zapotecs; Mixes (ME-hays); Mixtecs (MEESH-tec) and Triques (TREE-kays) have been creating clay pieces for thousands of years. A great variety of objects are created some of which are bowls, jars, vases, candleholders, figurines, and open dishes.
The technique used has been passed down, traditionally from mother to daughter, for centuries. Most potters don’t use a wheel, but instead use only a piece of gourd, a strip of leather, and fire.
After the clay is molded it is warmed in the sun. After the clay is warmed the piece of gourd is use to burnish, or smooth out, the surface. When smooth, intricate patterns are cut into the clay by hand. The process is painstaking and the result is unique.
Oaxaca pottery is known for its rich black color. It gets this distinctive pigment during the firing process. The kilns are built directly on the ground. The fire is starved of oxygen creating carbon. The carbon filled smoke is trapped inside the kiln by covering it with rocks and broken bits of pottery. The carbon is what gives the surface of the pottery a black finish. After the firing is complete the pottery is buffed with a cloth. The result is simple and functional.
Aside from the color, Oaxaca pottery has some other characteristics such as asymmetry that make it one of a kind. Since each piece is hand crafted they often have imperfections. These imperfections are embraced, following the Mexican proverb “Better grace without perfection, than perfection without grace.”
In some villages variations on the traditional black pottery can be found. One such location is the village of Atzompa. Here the pottery is sealed with a green tinted glaze over tan clay. The potters of Atzompa use a wheel that is no more than a plate or saucer balanced on an object such as a rock. Atzompa is known for creating many innovations in Oaxaca pottery such as multi-colored glazes.
At one point the standard when glazing the pottery was to use a lead-based glaze. Most of the potters whom apply a glaze now use lead free glaze, but before using a piece for food or drink one should take caution.
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