During my graduate studies, I began to research the beginning of pottery making I cultures around the world. It came to my attention that one could travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, and learn the ancient traditions that are still being practiced today by women in the villages throughout the state. This led me to taking a hands-on trip learning how to dig clay in the desert, refine it, and create pottery in the tradition of ancient times. We were based in the small village of San Marcos, and worked with two women who were amazingly adept and skilled. Most of the people on the tour were potters, and we were humbled at our inability to form the clay using the very simple pooka and hand tools- a rib was fashioned from a piece of gourd, a chamois was a Levis leather label. People use what is at hand.
Attending this workshop brought to light methods and techniques that have been used for 5,000 years, and passed on from mother to daughter..so in a sense we were seeing how pottery was made 5,000 years ago! I was researching prehistoric pottery from many cultures at the time, and this hands-on experience validated theories I was developing on how original pottery was formed, fired and decorated. Soon I would be traveling to Belfast and have a day in the Ulster Mseum, where I was able to study and photograph pottery that was VERY prehistoric, some pieces over 6,000 years old. It is so interesting to me that humans were making similar pots in nearly every culture- using local materials and available resources, but for similar needs.
The ancient cities in Oaxaca were fascinating as well. I was particularly amazed at the carved stellae at Monte Alban which depicted many things, including “maps” of internal organs. Speculation that people were able to do surgery and had accurate knowledge of the by is borne our by these carvings.
I returned and developed a curriculum for teaching a college level course on Mexican Folk Art History, which I taught over the next few years. We traveled throughout Oaxaca and discovered so many level of culture. We were invited to artisan’s homes and workshops, learning about and seeing demonstrations on basketry, gourd carving, pottery, wood carving and sculptural animals, fabric dyeing using local materials, and folk art sculpture. Oaxaca is so rich with art, and each village had a certain craft that everyone in that village did..so, redware pottery was done in one place, in another, baskets, and so on. The stress on individuality in this country is not seen there. The village is more important than the individual and traditional expression trumps individual creativity. Interesting concept, one I think has been around a very long time in cultures around the planet.