The Village of Atzompa

"Buenas tardes..." Eric opens his first conversation with a Oaxacan Potter after stepping off the bus in the village of Atzompa - and at the same time opens the gateway to pottery adventures to come...

From Oaxaca city the bus ride out to Santa Maria Atzompa is quick, maybe ten minutes. It's easy if you know how to get there. However, the first time I went to Atzompa, not even knowing my left from right, it took much longer. One is forced to navigate the entire length of the second class bus station to catch the bus. With buses going to every backwater and lost arroyo in the region, the station is filled with crowds of hillbillies and peasants, mountain folk, coastal folk, ridge and arroyo folk. For a quick tour of the people of Oaxaca, this station is the place to come. For the bus to Atzompa, this is also the place to come, you just have to get by all of those people, their bundles of market goods, blanket rolls, assorted livestock and passels of children. You will also have to survive the beggars and loud speakers, not fall victim to the abundant pickpockets, find the ticket agent and get yourself onto the right bus. But once on the bus there is peace, and the next thing you know, you're in Atzompa.

This old town lies on the slope of one of the dry hills that is capped with the immense pre-Hispanic ruins of Monte Alban. These ruins were one of the mighty centers of Middle American civilization a handful of centuries ago. I do not doubt that Atzompan potters were supplying those people with pottery as they are supplying Oaxacans today.

Atzompa is, without question, the powerhouse village in Oaxacan pottery today. There are probably 800 actively producing potters in this village. The pottery they make finds its way to every little market in the state, selling well wherever it is offered. Much to my amazement and consternation, even in other pottery villages they use Atzompa pottery. The reason for this is that, 450 years ago, the Spanish introduced glazes and kilns to the Atzompa potters. As a result, their pottery is sturdier, fancier and easier to wash than all the unglazed, bon-fired pottery that everyone else is making. No one seems to have any idea or care that this green glazed pottery is high in lead. I do my preaching, but it falls on deaf ears. They say, "How bad can it be? Here we are." And it is true, folks seem fine.

The pottery here is produced on a very simple and ingenious lazy-susan type wheel. The potter places a round bottomed bowl upside down on the ground in front of her, and on top of that a plate. The point of contact provides a pivot point that, when handled with practiced agility, is an excellent tool. The clay is placed on the plate which the potter rotates as she works. The pots are formed using a fast type of coil building which I call, for lack of a fancier word, the smear technique. She forms fat coils which she smears onto and above the previous coil, quickly bringing her cylinder up. This is then shaped using a piece of gourd and a strip of leather or old hat felt.

Doloras Porras

Most of the pottery is kitchenware: casseroles, round pots, pitchers, bowls, water cisterns. However, Atzompa is also famous for its decorative pottery. There are dozens of potters who do highly adorned pots covered with raised flowers, vines and animals. In the 60's and 70's Teodora Blanca became famous for her figures decorated with animals and flowers and was a favorite of the Rockefellers, who were big into collecting Mexican folk art One of the women who worked for her, Dolores Porras, has pioneered the use of multicolored glazes and painting in the pottery which has become a hit in Atzompa. Another town potter, Angelica Vasquez, has gone far beyond pots and does incredibly detailed pieces covered with tiny figures depicting myths, legends, dreams and stories. She is arguably one of the best and most inspired potters working in Mexico.

Of course I didn't know all of this the first time I bused out to Atzompa. This was the first village I ever visited. Fresh and green from America, having grown up with mowed lawns and tidy neighborhoods, I was bowled over by this town. I thought I was in a movie, for in no way had anything in my real life prepared me for such a place. The streets were all dirt, reckless and deep with arroyitos. The houses, adobe and Spanish tile, with sheets of tin, cactus fences and random applications of stone and brick, followed no rules. They appeared to have been built and added on to in an entirely whimsical and haphazard fashion. There was life everywhere, wandering donkeys, chickens pecking about, snorting pigs, women with long ribboned braids and black shawls talking in the shade, men in leather sandals and straw hats chasing herds of goats and oxen, plumes of wood smoke rising from kilns here and there, stacks of pottery all over and a potter in every yard. My eyes watered with the greed of wanting to see and know it all, so much life and texture. I celebrated the deep ruts in the streets, marveled at the cacophony of the architecture and the smell of the animals, and secretly observed all the people about, thinking how beautiful and like the earth they all looked.

Since then, and to my deep joy and satisfaction, I've found that Atzompa isn't a bizarre and unusual village at all. Every village I visit down here is like Atzompa in some way or another. These days the bizarre and unusual villages that I visit are all north of the U.S.-Mexican border line.

I got off the bus at the end of the line, the Atzompa town square, walked ten yards to the first house I saw with a kiln in the yard and potters loading it up and said, "Buenas tardes". There began my first conversation with a Oaxacan potter. It is a conversation that has carried me for seven years down here, opening doors into the homes of potters in the most remote edges of this land. Through it I have shared in lives and stories and have spent many afternoons in good, easy laughter with clay-minded folk. With those first Atzompa potters , and so many since, we have come together talking about pottery and through pottery we have met.


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