It is interesting to note that a number of women have been in the forefront of the rise and transformation of Oaxacan handcrafts, pottery in particular. The work of these women has been instrumental in keeping pottery-making a traditional source of income, ironically by transforming what is made.
Santa Maria Atzompa is well-known for its utilitarian and decorative pieces which are marked with the use of a dark-green glaze, called loza verde. This pottery used to be sold widely in Mexico and even into the United States, but as the glaze contains lead, it is now sold only locally. There is one exception to this, which is the making of chia pets, which were originally made as a novelty related to Easter.
Teodora Blanco Nuñez (1928-1980) began by making loza verde much like her mother and grandmother did, as this work has been traditionally dominated by women. As Atzompa is near the state capital, Doña Teodora sold at the 20 de noviembre Market there. However, the decorative detail of her work stood out, catching the notice of a foreign visitor in the 1970s, who not only bought her entire lot, but became her first patron, encouraging her to continue experimenting.
This experimentation meant slowly moving away from loza verde to unglazed pieces. Most of these pieces are of natural beige, either monotone, or more commonly, with accents of reddish-orange (a clay slip) and/or smaller accents in paint.
Teodora eventually became famous for the creation of female figures with rich decorative detail, which have been playfully called “monas” (lit. female monkey), “muñecas” (dolls) or just figures. These dolls are a mix of several Atzompa traditions. The first that stands out is the use of small bits of clay laid over the main body to create raised deocoration. This technique is called “pastillaje,” a term that comes from the decoration of cakes. A number of her pieces are also allegorical, derived from the local tradition of having animal figures that do human activities such as playing musical instruments.
Her work was admired by many collectors including Nelson Rockafeller, who eventually obtained 175 of her pieces. She received numerous national and international awards and addressed the World Crafts Council. Her work made her rich by local standards and assured that even with the disappearance of loza verde, pottery would remain important in this Oaxacan town. However, she remained a “campesina” (rural, farm person) all of her life, spending her earnings on farm animals and the like.
Doña Teodora trained her oldest daughter take over, as per local custom, but it was her oldest son Luis Garcia Blanco who had the greater interest, taking over the main family compound on Avenida Libertad. A number of other family members have dedicated themselves to the craft, including some who have gone on to recieve artistic training; however, none yet have achieved the same level of recognition as the matriarch.
(Featured photograph courtesy of Friends of Oaxaca Folk Art, all others Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted)