Potters Visit the Land of the Hopi - Part I
tale from Arizona in which two Zapotec potters, having made the
long trip north from Oaxaca, find themselves eating bacon, biscuits
and gravy in the house of a Hopi potter below First Mesa on the
Hopi reservation up in Arizona. It was near about the most exotic
food these two potters had ever swallowed.
One of them, never before having
strayed far from her home village back in Oaxaca, was hoping this was
as exotic as it was going to get. The other had traveled some back home
in Mexico and was familiar and comfortable with trying bizarre foods.
Hamburgers with pickles and ketchup were yet to come. A great deal had
gone into getting these two potters up here in the first place. The U.S.
isn't to keen on inviting low income Mexicans across the border. Oaxacan
potters qualify for that income bracket. But with proof of all expenses
paid by a generous folk art importer from Jerome, Arizona and a formal
letter of invitation from the Museum of Northern Arizona, U.S. Customs
saw fit to issue these young masters visas.
potters visit the Grand Canyon
I came along as the mouth, turning Spanish into English and visa versa.
I also made a stab at translating America, biscuits and gravy, into something
that made sense to Oaxacan potters. This was a bit more complicated. But
out there on the Hopi reservation, beyond breakfast, I didn't have to
work so hard. What they saw made sense; houses made out of recognizable
materials like stone and earth, people size houses (The sheet rock castles
that we'd been seeing, homes for two, had been hard to explain- I don't
have them figured either) folks out planting corn, and potters talking
about how they dig their clay, where they get their gourds, and what kind
of scrap metal works well for scraping (Spam cans for Hopi, barrel rings
for Zapotec). The polite Zapotec women, with their long braids and embroidered
aprons thanked our good hostess for the food. Dishes were cleared, the
table pushed aside and the linoleum kitchen floor became the workroom.
Clay came out, (San Marcos, Oaxaca special blend- one part fine creek
sand, one part red field clay) gourd ribs, worn corn cobs and pieces of
barrel rings were pulled from tattered plastic bags and the Zapotecs seated
themselves on the floor and went to work doing what they do best.
While we were munching biscuits
word had got around that the Oaxacan potters were going to make some pots,
so there were a few folks there to see the work. Folding chairs and upturned
buckets. The potters went to work. The Hopi women took bits of the clay
and felt it between their fingers, commenting back and forth in quiet
Of all the villages in Oaxaca
where I've seen pots being made San Marcos, where these two potters were
from, has to be my favorite. Back in the early days of hanging out there
I'd get thrills up my spine like a kid going to Disney Land watching these
women work. I found what they did utterly amazing. For the silence and
focus in that room as the Zapotecs began to from their pots I'd say the
Hopi women felt the same. Difference is they know the business a lot better
than I ever have. I think they appreciated what was going on pretty profoundly.
Of course the Hopis know how
to make pots too. Amazingly beautiful pots wonderfully, finely painted.
But they do it differently, slowly, pinch by finicky pinch. A grape fruit
size Hopi pot can take four hours to give form too. The Zapotec potters
had each finished a basketball size pot in about 15 minutes. As usual,
the pots were thin and symmetrical. They went on to their next pot. The
Hopis were wide-eyed. They'd seen pots made fast, plenty of wheels around.
But they'd never seen pots made fast the native way, with a gourd and
a stone and two good hands.
And the Zapotec women had some
wide-eyeing to do as well. Down in Oaxaca nobody does any fancy painting
the way these women do. They did, but that was about 600 years ago. And
then there was the detail about price. Just about everything in America
costs more than in Oaxaca. But there was a lot of fast Zapotec going back
and forth between the women when they found out that that grapefruit size
pot would retail for $1,000. Back home those basket ball size pots they
made would fetch 100 pesos on a good day. About eleven dollars.
It was obvious after the meeting
of masters that there were some trade secrets that needed to be shared.
The Oaxacan women liked the pretty painting, but had no idea were to begin.
The good news is that there is a rich legacy behind them to feed on and
plenty of pigments in the hillsides if one knows where to look. The Hopi
women would be happy to teach. And the Oaxacans wouldn't mind if a little
Hopi price magic rubbed off as well. And for the Hopis, they had something
they wanted to learn as well. It was like (the husband said) "I think
I'm gonna marry a Oaxacan woman. He was seeing that a basketball in 15
minutes was better than a four hour grapefruit. In the works now, creative
plans to fund an international exchange: Zapotec a week in Hopi and then
the other way around.
I'm hoping I'll be along for
the ride. I'd be happy to be there to explain breakfast to a couple Hopi
potters down in San Marcos. Ah...hot chocolate, steaming beans with salsa
and avocado and corn tortillas still warm from the comal.
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