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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.