Day 12: Nicaraguan Journal

Today we took in a town­ful of pot­ters at San Juan de Oriente, a place where every street is lined with pot­tery shops and every nook and cranny con­tains stu­dios, both large and small. The style of pot­tery here is the most well-known and, in some ways, the most sophis­ti­cated in the coun­try: pots are dec­o­rated with brightly-coloured slips (that are coloured with oxides) and bur­nished until they are com­pletely smooth and shiny so that they look as if they have been glazed. Unlike pot­tery that has been dec­o­rated with naturally-occurring coloured clays, pot­tery dec­o­rated with oxide-coloured clay is not food safe.

Achieving the same effect with glaz­ing would require costly chem­i­cals and much more fuel (wood) in order to reach a high enough tem­per­a­ture to mature the glazes. Electric fir­ing is out of the ques­tion here due to the unre­li­a­bil­ity and the high cost of elec­tric­ity, so even these sophisticated-looking pots are fired in wood-burnng kilns like the one below on the right.

Often, after the colour has been applied and bur­nish­ing is com­plete, fur­ther dec­o­rat­ing is done by scratch­ing pat­terns through the coloured layer (scraf­fito) or by chip­ping the colour away in solid sec­tions, leav­ing the raw clay colour but with a beau­ti­ful repet­i­tive tex­ture.

Duillio Jimenez and his wife Paola run a store and stu­dio in San Juan de Oriente. The store is at street level and the stu­dio, which includes the kiln in the photo above, is in the base­ment. Duillio demon­strated how he chips away the bur­nished slip to reveal the nat­ural clay (see photo on above right) and then he got his young son, Duillio Junior, to demon­strate his impres­sive com­pe­tence on the wheel. Since a woman taught Duillio how to throw and he taught his son, they both throw with both feet on the same side of the wheel, sim­i­lar to rid­ing sidesad­dle on a horse — since most Nicaraguan women wear skirts, this posi­tion works bet­ter for them.

When we arrived at the shop of world-renowned pot­ter Helio Guitérrez his daugh­ter ran around the cor­ner to fetch her dad while we mar­velled at Helio’s work. His sophis­ti­cated forms and dec­o­ra­tion were aston­ish­ing and sev­eral of us found room in our bud­gets and our suit­cases for pieces of his work.

Helio urged us to visit his teacher, Gregorio Bracamonte, who lives just down the road and who makes repli­cas of pre-Columbian pot­tery — beau­ti­ful shapes cov­ered with intri­cate dec­o­ra­tion. Even though our visit was unplanned, Gregorio ush­ered us through his house to his stu­dio and spent at least an hour explain­ing his processes and show­ing us exam­ples of his work. At the moment, Gregorio has only one appren­tice work­ing with him, a young man who con­tin­ued to painstak­ingly paint brightly-coloured designs on a large piece even as we wan­dered around ask­ing ques­tions and gawk­ing at everything.

When we had exhausted both our­selves and our wal­lets, we headed back to the Monkey Hut where we feasted on Maritza’s spe­cial chicken stew (we all agreed that hers was the best we had tasted, and we had tasted a lot of chicken stew) and then we sat around the table reflect­ing on every­thing we had expe­ri­enced over the past 12 days.

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