Leopoldo's Pots

A traditional potter talks about form and function...

The other day I drove to San Bartolo Coyotepec, about twenty pot-holed minutes outside of Oaxaca City, where the burnished, black, reduction pottery is made. I went there to visit Leopoldo Barranco and see about some pots I was having him make. Leopoldo is the last traditional potter in Coyotepec. He's not the oldest potter in the village, he's probably only 50. He's certainly not the only potter who knows how to do the traditional pottery, all the old timers do. Indeed just about all the pottery made in this village of potters is pretty closely tied to the traditional forms. It's just that everyone else in town aside from Leopoldo now makes the smooth, slick, shiny and under fired version of the old functional pots that were once the villages mainstay. But the slick stuff sells better to the tourists, and they are a much better market than the poor peasant farmers of Oaxaca ever were.

Leopoldo Barranco etches the
design onto a pot which will be
fired in the traditional Coyotepec way.
Leopoldo is the last guy who makes that old style pottery. He is about the only potter in town who gets the kiln up to temperature so as to make the pots water resistant. He is certainly the only potter left that just makes the traditional, functional forms. And he is the last potter that still sells Coyotepec functional pottery in the weekly markets. I've seen old sepia photos of the markets back in the 40's with piles of Coyotepec pottery and dozens of potters selling away. But those days have gone. Leopoldo just happens to be the last potter holding onto the old style. I'm not sure why. Perhaps there is still enough residual market left to support one Coyotepec potter, just enough old folks out there who still do things the old way and can't do without their Coyotepec well jug. Or maybe Leopoldo just never bothered to learn the new style. He's a loose potter with a quick touch. He doesn't get caught up in refinements and the new pottery is all about refinement.

I like the new pottery. It has beautiful lines and a stark, fine look to it. But for me, it doesn't come close to Leopoldo's rough, old, working pottery. But I'm a sucker for function.
Leopoldo didn't have all the pots I'd ordered ready that day. Short a kiln load. It has been raining since about two weeks ago when he loaded his kiln and there is to much ground moisture in his subterranean kiln to fire with. So the pots are sitting there waiting for their fire. And Leo and I sat there and got to talking, as we often do, in his earth floor, adobe house, illuminated by the slant of cloudy day light coming in through the open door. We talked about the Coyotepec pot shapes. This village has some very distinctive forms which I've always assumed have rhyme and reason but could never figure it. Leopoldo knew, and he explained the pots to me.

The iconic Coyotepec form is a jug, round bottomed and shaped like an egg standing with the pointy end down. At the other, broad shouldered end is a very short-necked mouth about 3" wide with a stout little splayed out lip (these pots do not stand up by themselves). This jug, Leo explained to me, used to be one of the most important pieces of pottery in a Oaxaca household. It was a well jug. A rope was tied around that short little neck to lower the pot 30 feet down the household well. Hitting water the elongated bottom would cause the pot to roll onto its side, lowering the mouth into the water until it filled. Then with a little pull on the rope the pot righted it self again and it was pulled out. Those broad shoulders gave the pot volume, it held lots of water, and the narrow mouth kept the water from sloshing out while walking to the house. ...Pumps and pipes handle this job now.

There was also a smaller version of the well jug, a bit more narrow shouldered and elongated. This was an irrigation pot. It was also lowered into wells, functioning the same way. It was narrower though so that it would fit well under ones arm, supported horizontally by the forearm, the way a football is carried. The irrigator would carry the jug like this along his rows of chile or tomato plants, pouring water onto each one. But there was a trick to this which insured that just enough water went just where is was needed. With the thumb of his free hand stuck in the mouth of the pot, middle three fingers closed and pinky extended, like a baby sucking her thumb with her pinky sticking out, the farmer could create for himself a spout which directed the water just where he wanted. Water, cohesive stuff that it is, would grab on the thumb, flow across the palm and down to the point of the pinky where it then straight lined for the earth. ...Hoses take care of irrigation these days.

Another very distinct Coyotepec pot is the Mescalero. This is essentially the well jug flipped over, fat end down, point to the sky. Looks just like a pear, it they weren't so lumpy (the pears). The mouth of these pots, again very short necked, are never more than an inch or so wide. These pots are used in the fabrication of mescal (very similar to Tequila). They sit at the end of that copper tube that comes out of the still, receiving the hot, freshly distilled fire water. They are then corked and taken off to market. Leopoldo couldn't adequately explain why these jugs hade such a distinctive form. He said that they fit well into a cane basket this way and where then transported like that. True. But lots of pots fit well into cane baskets. I'm still investigating the 'why' of the form of the Mescal Jug. Maybe it is something a bit intangible, this odd shape, because even today the finer distillers won't use anything else to catch the hot mescal at the money end of their stills.

Leo explained a few other pots to me, the 3 handle water canteens with a corn cob for a cork that would hang off the sides of wagons heading into the fields, the perforated colander pots called "Pichancas" used for rinsing corn grains at a certain stage in their preparation for tortilla making, the wide bowls used for making "tejate", a traditional beverage with the pick-me-up of coffee and the wide mouth pots for holding drinking water.

So it was that Leopoldo illuminated for me the rhyme and reason behind many of the Coyotepec forms. And these forms can be seen echoed in much of the new pottery being made in town. Unfortunately the new stuff won't hold water. It is fired too low, so as to keep that mirror like burnish from roughing up. And it doesn't need to hold water these days, just needs to sell


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