The Family Business

No trip to Oaxaca is complete without checking out the famed black pottery.

Dating back to the Neolithic era, pottery has served as an important art form and practical tool for more than 7000 years in nearly every civilization! Excavators found clay pieces at Monte Albán, and from this evidence, they think the Zapotec made decorative pottery as far back 450 BCE.

In the 1950s, carrying on with the Zapotec tradition, Oaxacan potter Doña Rosa developed the technique of adding a black sheen to her pottery by polishing it with quartz. Since then, she and her work have become legendary in Oaxaca.

Once a closely guarded family secret, the process of creating black pottery, or barro negro, remains a family tradition even though Rosa has long since passed. Today, it is practiced by three of Rosa’s relatives – her son, her grandson, and her great-grandson. Her grandson, Jorge showed me how his great-grandmother shaped the clay atop two inverted plates, in lieu of a throwing wheel. The Rosa family creates hundreds of pieces a year using this same technique, preserving this Oaxacan tradition in their entirety.

The unique clay used to make barro negro can only be found at the nearby quarry in San Bartolo Coyotepec and is only available to local artists. This restricted access ensures the tradition of locally produced black pottery in order to stimulate the region’s economy.

Then, the clay is shaped and decorated using a variety of tools made out of bamboo and gourds. My favorite part was using water to even out the bumps and wrinkles, making the surface silky smooth and ready for the kiln. My first attempt wasn’t bad, but I think I’ll stick to my day job.