September 1997

The Beginning

Looking back at how it all began...

I first came to Oaxaca in 1989 as a wide-eyed student of pottery and Spanish while working on my BA at Humboldt State U. in California. The school offered a semester program for 30 students in Oaxaca through the Spanish department. I didn't know where the heck Oaxaca was nor could I pronounce it (wah-HA-ka), but didn't care. I knew it was in Mexico and that I hadn't been there. That was enough, I got into the program.

As part of the credit requirements we had to do a project in Oaxaca based on our major. I was doing studio art, and had just recently muddied my hands for the first time in the ceramic studio. I immediately became an avid and fervent convert to the clay way. I have always been partial to that which is raw, basic, utilitarian and beautiful for it. Pottery hit that place in me immediately. I went to Oaxaca ignorant of what I would find there, only vaguely aware that there was some pottery being done in those parts. So I designed my project around that. I proposed to look at a potter, how she lived in brief, and how she made a pot.

Spanish Colonial architecture in Oaxaca
Photograph by Curt Rosengren

From the moment I first walked into the city at 5:00 A.M. one morning with the cool aroma of alfalfa from the moist fields in the air, ancient, fortress-like Spanish colonial buildings and churches surrounding me and the quiet swish swish of the street sweepers cleaning up with huge brooms made of branches, Oaxaca went straight to my heart. When I made the first amazing trip out to visit a potter in a nearby village I was completely smitten. There it was in the flesh: the raw, the basic, the utilitarian, the beautiful. Such was the pottery, such were the potters. After that semester all I could think of was getting back to Oaxaca. Here, I thought, is a place with many worthwhile lessons to teach.


During those four months of constantly walking around mouth agape, tongue lolling, I met a wonderful potter, Doloras Porras, who told me of a store in New Mexico that each summer had folk artists from all of Latin America come and give demonstrations of their work in the store. She also told me, tactfully, to close up my mouth and roll in the tongue lest I dehydrate.

Wanting more than anything to hang with Latinos, speak Spanish, and learn folk-arts, I talked myself into a job with that store upon returning to the US and spent a summer there hanging with guys from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Ecuador, speaking Spanish and learning folk-arts. I also got to know the owner and told him I was going to Latin America after finishing school. He said as long as I was going, why didn't I go and buy pottery for him.

Travel in Latin America, hang with traditional potters, make a living, all at once. Would I want to do such a thing?. . . It took a year to wipe the ear to ear, toothy grin off of my wide face. And only then because I thought myself too young to be getting such wrinkles as those being caused by my constantly contorted face.

Many, hilarious (in retrospect) and ridiculous are the stories of a heavily right-brained, mathematically challenged and extremely nonlinear thinker starting a job that immediately required accounting and organizational skills. I will spare you my bookkeeping tales, and only say that, when it comes to getting the numbers to work, I have found that what I lack for mathematically, I make up for with my artists' creativity.

Besides, I never came here to be a business guy, although that's what keeps the roof up. I came here to hang with potters, and therein lie the good stories.


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