Pottery and Ceramics
The Valley of Oaxaca is the focus of a vibrant pottery tradition. Many of the most celebrated examples come from the village of Atzompa, a few miles northwest of the city. Traditionally popular for their green-glazed clay pots, dishes, casseroles, and bowls, Atzompa potters have evolved a host of fresh styles, from graceful vases and plates blooming with painted lilies to red clay pots and bowls inscribed with artfully flowing blossoms.
San Bartolo Coyotepec village, south of the city, has acquired equal renown for its black pottery (barro negro), sold all over the world. Doña Rosa, now deceased, pioneered the crafting of big round pots without using a potter’s wheel. Now made in many more shapes by Doña Rosa’s descendants, the pottery’s celebrated black hue is produced by the reduction (reduced air) method of firing, which removes oxygen from the clay’s red (ferric) iron oxide, converting it to black (ferrous) iron oxide. Workers burnish the result to produce an exquisite, pearly sheen.
Although most latter-day Oaxacan potters are aware of the health dangers of lead pigments, some for-sale pottery may still contain lead. The hazard comes from low-fired pottery in which the lead has not been firmly melted into the glaze. Acids in foods such as lemons, vinegar, and tomatoes dissolve the lead pigments, which, when ingested over a period of time, can result in lead poisoning. In general, the hardest, glossiest, high-fired stoneware, that has been twice fired, is the safest for dinnerware.
Although Mexican pottery tradition is as diverse as the country itself, some varieties stand out. Among the most prized is the so-called Talavera (or Majolica), the best of which is made by a few family-run workshops in Puebla. The names Talavera and Majolica derive from Talavera, the Spanish town from which the tradition migrated to Mexico in the 1500s. Prior to that, it was extensively crafted on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Majorca (thus the majolica label), from a blending of ancient Arabic, Middle-Eastern, and North African ceramic styles. Shapes include plates, bowls, jugs, and pitchers, hand-painted and hard-fired in intricate bright yellow, orange, blue, and green floral designs. So few shops make true Talavera these days that other, cheaper look-alike grades, made around Guanajuato, are more common, selling for a small fraction of the price of the genuine article.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition