San Bartolo Coyotepec: Where the Black Clay Shines

When we think about utensils or figures made with clay, shades of brown, terracotta or sepia come to mind. Nevertheless, in the Oaxacan town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, potters create black, shiny pieces without the necessity of paint or lacquer.  And when I say shiny, I am referring to a luster comparable to the surface of a mirror.

The use of black clay in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca can be traced to the glory days of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs (some say 2,000 years ago).  This type of clay has been used for hundreds of years to create utilitarian pieces because of its sturdiness. Plates and jars can last long even when they received hard blows.  For many years, the pieces had a dull gray (almost brown) color.

Everything changed in the ‘50s when a potter named Doña Rosa Real discovered a way to make the final pieces shine.  She discovered that polishing the clay, before it is completely dry, with a quartz stone, would yield a piece with a shiny, almost metallic, black finish.

Since that time, the fame of the black clay pottery grew inside and outside Mexico.  Nowadays, 600 families in the San Bartolo Coyotepec area are dedicated to the craft.

Materials used to create black clay pottery

Materials used to create black clay pottery

 

The Creation Process

According to our guide, the black clay is extracted from deposits known and protected by locals.  Impurities are removed by soaking the extractions on water and letting the clay separate from common soil.  I saw the clay in its natural state and it doesn’t look special.  This fact makes the process even more interesting (creating something so beautiful from a simple material).

Black clay in its natural form

Black clay in its natural form

 

Once the clay is clean, it is mixed with water using the feet. A piece of clay is taken and placed over one closed hand.  A cylindrical shape is given to the clay by rotating the material with the other hand.  The walls of the “cylinder” are thinned and elongated by hitting the clay with an openhand. Then, it is time to pass the piece to the “potter’s wheel” to give it a more refined shape.  In Oaxaca, the potter’s wheel consists of two plates or a plate balanced on a rock (modern instruments are not used).

Plates used to shape the pottery, the wooden sticks are used to create shapes in the pottery surface once it is almost dry.

Plates used to shape the pottery, the wooden sticks are used to create shapes in the pottery surface once it is almost dry.

 

Large pieces such as big water jars are created from the bottom by adding clay as the piece grows. After the pieces are modeled, they are left to dry.  When the pieces are almost dry, the surface is moistened and rubbed with a quartz stone.  This is also the time to add designs such as flowers.

Color of dry black clay (this one hasn't been to the oven)

Color of dry black clay (this one hasn’t been to the oven)

 

After all this process, the pieces are ready to be baked in underground pits. The pieces end up having a shiny black color.  There is just one caveat.  The shiny pieces are only for decorative purposes (because they are baked at lower temperature or left less time on the oven). They cannot be used for example to hold water. If you want an utilitarian piece, you have to forget about the shine.

Oven

Oven

 

Nowadays, figures such as cats, owls, hearts and many others are created from black clay.

Here is how the finished pieces look:

Black clay figures

Black clay figures

 

Black clay figures

Black clay figures

 

Black clay figures

Black clay figures

 

Black clay figures

Black clay figures

 

Black clay figures

Black clay figures

 

As I said before, it is incredible what skilled potter can make from such a simple material.  It is incredible all the different pieces and designs they have developed over time.

What do you think of the black clay process? Let me know in the comments section below.

 

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