POTTERY — THE ACT of turning earth into clay and transforming its properties with fire — is one of humankind’s earliest inventions. Throughout history, certain techniques and styles have been particularly coveted, including Japanese raku ware, Turkish Iznik pottery, Persian earthenware, Italian majolica, Dutch delftware and Native American pottery. The secret of Chinese porcelain making, the pursuit of which involved spying, reverse engineering, imprisonment and alchemy, was a holy grail for centuries, eluding the Ottomans, Koreans, Japanese and Europeans.
But there are also scores of less famous pottery traditions. In the Mexican state of Oaxaca City, there are around 70 villages in which the majority of people make and sell pottery. Apart from Santa María de Atzompa, which uses a green glaze, and San Bartolo, where the clay is fired to black, the pottery in this region is simple, drab brown and mostly unadorned: not the kind of thing outsiders get worked up about.
In San Marcos Tlapazola, a rural Zapotec village of about 1,100 people an hour’s drive from Oaxaca City, the 300 or so potters are all women. For 20 generations, the village has specialized in cookware: comales, platters used for making tortillas, and ollas, pots for cooking, as well as bowls for preparing meals, which they sell to neighboring villages at a weekly market. On a fall day, I drove past the Sierra Sur mountains to the Mateo household, a hot-pink house with an electric-blue door, where eight potters — sisters, in-laws and nieces — live. Elia Mateo Martinez, 38, was the only one home. In the entry, balls of clay were drying under a ceiling painted with an image of the Virgin Mary. Elia showed me how she makes a comal. Her tools are a corncob for lifting the clay, a bit of gourd for scraping, leather for shaping and a makeshift potting wheel consisting of a bowl-shaped piece of an old basketball, which she spins by hand, and which sits atop a piece of stone. In the courtyard was an enormous fire mound. When the women have made enough pottery, they load the mound with wood, grates, manure, pots and kindling, and then light it.
POTTERY WAS DISPLACED at the beginning of the 20th century by glass, aluminum, tin and plastic — materials all cheaper and better suited to most tasks than clay. In America and Britain, the Arts and Crafts movement decried the loss of the handmade in the face of encroaching industrialism, giving birth to the studio pottery movement, as well as to the concept of a ceramist or artisanal potter. Pottery as an art or a craft is not in jeopardy. But pottery as a way of life is.
The modernization that swept through Mexico in the ’30s didn’t make its way to San Marcos for almost another 50 years. While not far from the city, the village remained isolated by geography, culture and language barriers (Zapotec is a Mesoamerican language, just one of roughly 15 non-Spanish languages spoken in this region), as well as by a lingering stigma of indigenous people as backward. When, in the 1990s, Eric Mindling, an American expat and the founder of Traditions Mexico Tours, set out to map these villages, he met an old-timer in San Marcos who could recite on one hand the years in which outsiders had visited.
By the mid-80s, when pottery sales had dried up, the Mexican government initiated programs to teach the potters new skills. Traditionally, women hadn’t been encouraged to leave the village, but Elia’s sister, Macrina Mateo, then 18, was determined to learn. She went to Oaxaca City alone, and then on to Guadalajara for a 10-day stay, where she was exposed to the work of a potter who made different forms, including flower vases. As simple as it sounds, no one from San Marcos had ever thought of making a vase because they had no use for one. She also went to an artisan fair, where she met urban Mexicans who bought flower vases simply because they liked the way they looked. Macrina and her family were, for a time, ostracized by their community for her willingness to experiment. “The village is an organism that all does the same thing in the same way,” Mindling explains. “We’re not good at tradition,” he says, referring to Americans, “and they’re not good at innovation.” But Macrina was adept at both, and slowly, others began to follow her lead. Today, Mindling estimates about half the potters in the village have likewise expanded into other pieces — pitchers and vases, dishes and mugs — which they sell to tourists and Mexicans who appreciate their aesthetic. The adaptability and openness of the Mateo women has made it economically possible for the community to carry on with its own tradition of making and using cookware. (And for women to leave the village whenever they feel like it.)
The designers and social activists Diego Mier y Terán and Kythzia Barrera Suárez founded Colectivo 1050, a retail pottery operation in Oaxaca City, about 10 years ago, to fund their nonprofit devoted to creating opportunities for potters in this region, including bringing them together for brainstorming and workshops. (They helped René Redzepi source nearly all the pottery for Noma Mexico.) And yet, Mier y Terán tells me, “It’s not the pottery we need to preserve, or even the technique. It’s not even the people,” he stresses. “It’s the civilization.” The object, he explains, is part of a way of living in the world. “As designers, we are trained to make things, but these things are about a culture, a worldview.”
No one wants an ancient tradition to vanish, but most do and more will. After all, it’s not the object that matters — those comales are made of just earth, water and sand. Yet each is slightly different in shape and texture, owing to the hand that formed it, and distinct in its random markings, with traces of smoke and soot from the firing. They are, in fact, very beautiful. It seems the more basic the process, the more magic the object can hold.