Handicraft Villages of Oaxaca

In the small towns and villages that surround Oaxaca city, the people create some exceptional handicrafts. The most important of these are vibrant high-quality weavings, two forms of pottery, and painted wooden animals called alebrijes. To meet the artisans, observe their creative methods, and make my purchases more meaningful, I left the city to visit the handicraft villages of Oaxaca.

Rug Looms

Weaving Looms of Oaxaca

Using sheep’s wool, natural dyes, and manual spinning wheels and looms, the people of the village of Teotitlan del Valle produce some of the world’s most excellent and attractive weavings. Their hand-made carpets reveal traditional and artistic themes, and can take several months to fashion and complete.

Rug and spools

A Carpet in Production in Teotitlan del Valle

In the small village, I paid a visit to one traditional weaving family that demonstrated the entire process, from processing and dying the wool to spinning and weaving it into sophisticated designs. I was impressed by the speed and accuracy of the weavers, and their commitment to quality in each of their works of art.

Green glazed pottery

Pottery Shop in Santa Maria Atzompa

To see the production of green glazed earthenware pottery, I took a collective taxi to Santa Maria Atzompa, northwest of Oaxaca city center. In this small dusty town, 90% of the town’s people are dedicated to making their distinctive green ceramics.

Atzompa workshop

Typical Backyard Kiln in Santa Maria Atzompa

Smoke rising around town led me to several small kilns where the artisans were proud to show me their operations and talk about their time-honored processes. To preserve their pre-Hispanic traditions, the clay is still carried to town by donkey, the potters still operate their wheels by foot, and the earthenware is still fired in primitive backyard ovens.

Barro negro pot

Beautiful Barro Negro

To understand another Oaxacan pottery tradition, I made the short trip to the artisan settlement of San Bartolo Coyotepec, where 600 families are dedicated to the production of a black pottery called barro negro. For over one thousand years, local black clay has been hand spun into utilitarian pots and fired in underground pits.

Doña Rosa museum

Doña Rosa Real Museum and Home Workshop, San Bartolo Coyotepec

In the 1950s, a local potter named Doña Rosa Real used a curved quartz stone to polish the pottery before firing to produce a black glossy finish. This purely decorative style of pottery triggered a folk-art movement, so elegant and collectable that Nelson Rockefeller commissioned several pieces and promoted glossy barro negro throughout the United States.

Alebrijes Ferrets

Alebrijes (Are these Otters, Meerkats, or what?)

For something more whimsical, I visited the artisan enclave of San Antonio Arrazola to see the production of those fantastic animal figures called alebrijes. Originating in an artist’s hallucinogenic dream less than a century ago, this relatively recent folk art has currently gained fame in the Academy award winning animated movie Coco.

Alebrijes workbench

Alebrijes Painter’s Work Bench, San Antonio Arrazola

In workshops around town, I observed artists hand carving, sanding, and painting the soft copal wood. Meticulously decorated in minute and excessive detail, the alebrijes take the form of strange and colorful creatures, including mystical beasts and animal hybrids.

Rug wool demo

Weaving Demonstration, Teotitlan del Valle

Back in the touristy artisan markets of Oaxaca city, you can buy weavings from Teotitlan del Valle, green ceramics from Atzompa, barro negro from San Bartolo Coyotepec, and alebrijes from San Antonio Arrazola. By making my purchases directly from the source; however, I was able to observe the production process and creativity of the artisans, and now feel a stronger connection to the handicraft villages of Oaxaca.

Alebrijes Owl coloseup

More Colorful Alebrijes

14 thoughts on “Handicraft Villages of Oaxaca

  1. Hey Joe. Love the Barro Negro pottery! I thought about you and Es this past week. I was in the Alabama Hills on a photoshoot for work. I stared up at snowy Mt Whitney shaking my fist at that mountain claiming I would try again and remembering how much I appreciated Esthers company on the way down! Enjoy your travel in Mexico!

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    • Hey Deb, It is great to hear from you. I hope you shook your other fist at that damn mountain for me. Es is back in Mexico with me now and wanted me to tell you how much she appreciated your company too. Cheers to you and Jeff!

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  2. We visited several of the same places when we were in Oaxaca and it’s nice to see the beautiful artwork again. Although we purchased a couple alebrijes and a woven wall hanging, I wish we had bought a piece of the black pottery… it’s so lovely. I wonder if you were able to go to Jacobo and Maria Angeles’ alebrijes studio in San Martin Tilcajete? Their work is stunning. Let me know if you’d like more info. Good to know that Esther is back with you – it’s so much more fun to share your adventures with the one you love!

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    • Unfortunately, I did not make it to Tilcajete, but went to Arrazola to visit the alebrije artisans. I did pay a visit to the workshop of Angelico Jimenez whose work is much more detailed than the other workshops I found. Esther and I are on the Oaxacan coast for a week before returning to Oaxaca for the Easter weekend. It is like we are having a vacation within a vacation.

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    • Hola Amigo, I have been very impressed with the care and quality that the artisans put into their crafts. Seeing how they use ancient techniques adds to the mystique. The result are really unique and beautiful handmade works of art that are remarkably reasonable in price. Cheers!

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    • I so agree, Ann. The artisans have passed their skills down through the generations and sell their creations from their home workshops. Hopefully this keeps their overhead low, so that they can make a decent living from their efforts. The works are beautiful indeed, and the underlying history makes them all the more interesting and desirable.

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