Driving northeast towards Chiqimula and the Honduras border, Siggy, two designers (one a potter), a university design student and I made the trip in three hours. From these distant hills we could see the volcanoes ringing Guatemala City and Antigua rising from the landscape. Siggy pointed out an occasional bush covered with tiny yellow flowers, saying "here they are shy, but on the road to Xela they are absolutely scandalous." Before the turnoff from the main highway we stopped for papusas - corn tortillas filled with cheese or other goodies. I picked out a cocoanut from the pile and watched while it was chopped open with a machete, a hole the ideal size to fit the straw inside.
San Luis Jilotepeque is in an area that becomes very dry much of the year, the agricultural yield is low and there is much poverty and hunger. We met at Juana's house, the head of the women's pottery cooperative. Bare adobe brick and dirt floors, no plaster or painted walls. A sheet of blue plastic was tacked to the wall and photos and other mementos hung on it. The house was entirely open on one side - all rooms opening on a courtyard area. Sheets hung over the bedroom and bathroom to afford some privacy. Buckets of water sat by the bathroom with a plastic tub, you pour water down the toilet to flush. No upholstered furniture - a few wooden tables, wood and plastic chairs. A tv and stereo incongruously blared in the living room, keeping a couple of boys spellbound, and there was a modern toilet - these items able to be purchased from the money Juana's husband in the US sent back.
At the back of the yard were the ceramic supplies - large bags of powdered clay, dug up locally and crushed by hand by these women. The brown clay, most malleable, is used to form the earthenware pieces, other clays - tan, red, black - are painted on in a slip form to decorate the pots, a process called engobe. The black clay is not available locally, it must be purchased and brought from El Salvador, so it is used sparingly. No traditional glazes are used, however ash is used in the firing process. Juana showed us a pile of fired pots used as molds. The pots are all handbuilt - each begins as a ball of clay, patted into a pancake then shaped around a mold. When the mold is removed, the opening is pinched closer to form a narrow neck or widened for a bowl. Finished pots are pit fired in a pile of wood, ash and dung.
The pots had been made during the last visit. Designers and potters together identified several forms. The artisans were asked to have ready three of each type for decorating on this trip - one would be theirs, one for the designers and one to go to a show in New York as a sample piece. The designers created designs based on the potters' local brush drawings, and the design student drew them on paper to bring. It was fascinating to see the participants discuss and define the designs to take shape: struggling artists willing to move beyond their timeworn customs and processes, designers working within the local framework to suggest new ideas and then direct their application, collaborating during painting, reworking and sometimes simplifying or modifying, an evolving synthesis of ideas. Slowly the new painted pots took shape throughout the afternoon, and during the day we got to know more about each other's lives through conversation.
Most of the women of San Luis do not wear indigenous dress, only one in the coop did, Otilia, an older woman with a twisted pink and black band wrapped around her head, colorful beads around her neck. The other women were dressed in their Sunday best for our visit. Several women came and left during the day, and some used different tools. Wet clay was smoothed with a hard piece of shoe leather. The handsome red clay that was the base of all pot decoration was applied with a scrap of fabric. Detailed brushwork was created with paintbrush or chicken feather. After the painted clay began to dry, the surfaces were burnished with large brown seeds. The table was soon filled with a stunning collection of vessels in earthy colors.
Flory, Juana's lovely daughter, a recent graduate hoping to find work locally as a teacher, attended to all the other household tasks. She makes about 50 tortillas for lunch and again for dinner each day. First she washed the corn and took it with a few coins to a man in town who does the rough grind into corn flour. A half hour later she returned, set up a black grinding stone in the kitchen, and cleaned and lit a wood fire under the stone grill called the comal. She kneaded the flour, pulled off a handful at a time, rhythmically slapped and patted it into shape and placed it on the comal. I tried making a tortilla, but despite my experience with clay, it was a hopelessly misshapen blob - I couldn't get it anywhere near as thin as hers without it ripping. The ash from the comal will later be used to fire the pottery. We traded our sandwiches and lunch goodies for fresh tortillas and cheese, black bean frijoles. We definitely got the better end of the deal.