Potter — 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 […]