Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

Amy spent winter break 2007-08 in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she and other SMU students explored culture, art and anthropology – visiting villages, churches and museums; participating in festivals; and working alongside the indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Amy is a junior from Austin majoring in studio art with minors in art history and women’s studies.

Read more from Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

The pottery workshop

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Agenda: Visiting the pottery workshop of Dona Rosa’s son and grandchildren in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca & visiting the house and family of wood carvers in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca.

Our group wakes early, has breakfast at the hotel (as we do each day, which consists of eggs, green mole and tortillas, yogart, fruits (fantastic papaya), cereals and juice. I find myself eating about six eggs each morning so that I am not exhausted by lunch.

Amy-1.jpgReady to go, we head to San Bartolo Coyotepec, the renowned site of Dona Rosa Nieto Real and her black pottery, now run by her son, Valente, and grandchildren, who make strikingly beautiful pieces (most decorative, not functional) everyday.

Our group unloaded and, thanks to Esther, was introduced to the herbs and cacti growing in the garden beds. The intensity of the smell – something similar to a pepper mixed with lavender, rosemary with sage, cedar with basil … very, very rich in both spiritual and functional purposes. Esther emphasized the importance of the herb in Mexican culture – the importance of natural healing; of healing the mind and the body (as cliche as that sounds to our Western mentality, it is very valid).

Esther then pulled several long branches from a large tree near the garden, its smell spicy, peppery and sweet. Its green branches resembled that of a cedar tree. I volunteered to participate in a demonstration she asked to give: a renewal and cleansing of the soul, through a ritual put into practice years before. This process invloved the pepper tree, as she used the pulled branches to tap several points of my body, releasing negative energies. I was instructed to stand upright, my arms lifted, making a “T” form. Esther then used the branches to tap my temples, stomach, knees, wrists, back and feet while lightly chanting for the negative energy to be released.

This was actually an intense experience, as the group was surrounding me, watching, their faces both blank and full. It could have simply been written off and deemed “amusing,” but rather the group was very serious and engaged in this process. I felt outside myself during this time. The intensity of smell, with Esther chanting, others acutely focused upon me, the sap of the branches accumulating on my skin – it was very real and very potent. Call it a placebo effect if you want, but I sincerely felt a sense of clarity and awareness after this process concluded. It was a kind of breakdown of an internal structure, an internal architecture: development towards lightness or a loss of weight. The smell of pepper was on my body for days. This experience reminded me of a piece written by Agnes Martin, a minimalist American artist. She says:

Moments of awareness are not complete awareness
just as moments of blindness are not completely blind.
In moments of blindness when you meet someone you know
well,
they seem hardly recognizable,
and one seems even a stranger to oneself.
These experiences of the mind are too quickly passed over and
forgotten,
although startling moments of awareness are never forgotten.

Amy-2.JPGWe make our way into the studio where Dona Rosa’s son, Valente Nieto Real, was working, demonstrating to the group this fascinating technique of making, of patience, of thinking and of integrating one’s body and mind together to make work.

A little background/additional information: Oaxaca is a state in which the indigenous groups and many of their pre-Hispanic and colonial cultural traditions persist. In the ceramic production within these communities, one can see the varied levels of technique, style and use in the utilitarian, ceremonial and ornamental pottery for which is made. Dona Rosa’s pottery is not as much functional as decorative. The black pottery cannot hold liquids as well as other pieces, but can be used for liquids if fired long enough. However this forces the pot to turn from a rich black with a full sound to a grayer piece with a hollow sound. The more gray version would be used to hold liquids such as Mescal, the local drink in Oaxaca.

Other background on Dona Rosa: She stood out as a unique artisan in Coyotepec for many years. Her studio’s work has received numerous awards and is included in collections world-wide including those of Rockefeller and the Smithsonian Institute in the United States. The technique she developed to give the black pottery its trademark sheen is the burnishing of the pot with quartz. No glazes are used and the process of working on the wheel is not with a machine but with two concave clay pots, resting upon each other, slowly spinning.

The group also saw the process of clay-making, all done on-site, through a fliteration system – concrete “bathtubs” that naturally sort/sift through, break down the clay to a pudding-like state. In addition to being introduced to Valente’s clay-making process our group was able to work with the clay as well. We each made pieces, a bird/dove, similar to the piece Valente demonstrated making; a few students made turtles, some made symbolic/metaphorical pieces. I felt like a cupcake with sprinkles, so I made one.

I remember taking a photo with Valente before we departed, he was very calm and wise. Gentle but nevertheless present. The manner in which he worked – his process – reminded me again of Agnes Martin. In her book “Writings/Scriften” she says:

Work is self-expression. We must not think of self-expression as
something we may do or something we may not do. Self-expression
is inevitable. In your work, in the way that you do your work
and in the results of your work your self is expressed. Behind and before
self-expression is a developing awareness I will also call “the work.” It is
an important part of the work. There is the work in our minds, the work
in our hands and the work as a result.”

We leave San Bartolo and the black pottery. Head for lunch.

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