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Pottery: The Mexican Trade That Doubles As Art

Creative and utilitarian, such pieces are the most sought-out Mexican souvenirs.

In Mexico, there is a trade that transcends tradition and family and becomes art: pottery.

Pottery defines all work related to ceramics, vessels and objects made of hardened clay and baked in an oven. Pre-Colombian civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Mayans, or Olmecs, practiced pottery centuries before the Spaniard’s arrival; it is ancestral.

There are several pottery styles in Mexico, although the most famous ones are Oaxacan, Michoacán, Mexico State and Hidalgo.

In indigenous populations, people dedicate themselves to producing personalized workshops and services, ranging from typical coffee mugs to complete dishware for everyday use.

Potters decorate their natural clay pieces with colored flowers or other insignia referencing their origins. Families usually pass down their pottery techniques from one generation to the next.

“In a potter family, you are born with the clay in your hands,” said José Luis Treviño, a 55-year-old master potter. “I started to practice it since I was a kid, with my dad teaching me everything he knew.”

Potters are renowned for the work they do in molding objects with their bare hands on a wheel. The technique consists of rotating a flat disk horizontally on a pivot to make the desired result, molding it with their hands.

“Pottery goes hand in hand with imagination. No matter if you know how to make any piece, the execution comes down to whatever detail or unique design you can craft to make it your art,” said Treviño. “Whenever I decorate anything, I try to capture what being Mexican means, with symbols and iconography representing Mexico both from the inside and the outside.”

Pottery consists of molding clay over a spinning wheel. (Ritesh Singh/Unsplash)

“As true artisans, we can do everything, or at least, almost everything. We do any custom design that people ask us to do, as long as they bring us an image or a photo of the design,” said Treviño.

Sadly, the economic crisis brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged every profession in Mexico, and pottery is no exception. The restaurant industry, the pottery’s primary consumers, has had to pause the acquisition of new pottery items since most restaurants in Mexico are closed.

“Due to the pandemic, we had to struggle through some months when we had to reduce how much we worked, as people were unable to leave their houses,” said Treviño.

The decline in tourism also damaged the industry and its artisans’ income. Foreigners would usually buy traditional pottery items as souvenirs.

Pottery towns continue to work hard, however, even though their sales have dropped. They remain dedicated to delivering a quality product in the hope the health situation stabilizes soon.

Drinking coffee in a handmade mug is one of Mexico’s most delicious experiences, a badge for good national consumerism.

“There are stews that taste better when seasoned in clay pots, such as pipián, mole or beans,” said Rosa Obdulia Jácome, a housewife. “We also have ‘café de olla’ and pork rind in salsa verde. Some flavors are unobtainable by pewter or aluminum.”

Pottery is a trade that uses both hands and imagination to create art. (Quino Al/Unsplash)

There are also toys and instruments made out of hardened clays, such as flutes, cars and other pieces to delight children.

Pottery’s origin dates back almost 12,000 years ago, when families had to cultivate their lands as their main livelihood during the dawn of civilization. Japan has the oldest clay archeological objects. There are also clay fragments in Peru dating back to 1850 BC, objects used for sacred rituals or decorative containers.

Mesopotamia was the first civilization to use tools to help handle clay, where pottery techniques started. As the civilization expanded, objects related to agriculture and gastronomy were created.

Today, pottery is more than just utilitarian items; it is a symbol of artistry and culture.

(Translated and edited by Mario Vázquez. Edited by Fern Siegel)