Black clay as art

While the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca has a number of notable artisans who work with its famous barro negro, two names are absolutely essential. Doña Rosa, profiled earlier in this blog, and Carlomagno Pedro Martinez.

Parish of San Bartolo, barro negro pots adorn the gate and fence columns.

Doña Rosa may have invented and popularized the now-dominant technique  which makes the finished product a highly-polished black, but Pedro has expanded what can be made, reaching into the realm of art.

Pedro is the son of two local potters, but no relation to Doña Rosa. His highly unusual first name comes from the fact that his was named after Charlemagne, who his paternal grandmother admired greatly.  The kingly name is contrasted by his demeanor. He is a man of few words, modest, who is happiest working and talking about the art and culture of his region.

Skeletal figure before firing at the Pedro workshop

He began working with the clay as a small child but developed a preference for the creation of figures, imitating Aztec warriors, Mexican soldiers and other figures he saw in books. The ability to stretch into art came when he was 18, enrolling in the Rufino Tamayo Workshop in the city of Oaxaca (named after a famous Mexican muralist). His work soon attracted notice, eventualy winning awards on the national level such as the Premio Nacional de La Juventud Presidencia de la República in 1987. This led to a scholarship to study art in the United States.

Carlomagno and sister Adelina giving a talk in the family workshop in San Bartolo.

Like many artisans, Pedro finds inspiration in the life and culture of Oaxaca, especialy his hometown. But unlike many artisans, he sees working in clay as a means to express his emotions, much like painting and writing, rather than just making things to sell. One common theme that appears in his work is death and Mexican attitudes towards it, meaning that it is not depicted as something horrible or grotesque. This expressiveness has earned him commissions allowing for large works, including murals such as the 2008 work that covers a portion of the Baseball Academy in San Bartolo.

Tzompantli, by Pedro Martinez, in the MEAPO museum of Oaxaca

Despite the loftiness of his pieces, the environment in which they are created and techniques are very similar to those of his parents. The workshop is part of the main family house, not much more than 4 cinderblock walls and a roof (though significantly larger than most workshops). Pieces are worked on old wood tables and if spinning is desired, Pedro still uses the traditional proto-potters wheel of the region. This is simply a plate balanced over an inverted curved plate or bowl, which requires skill in turning.

Proto potters’ wheel in the workshop of Pedro Martinez

Pedro’s reputation is such that when the state of Oaxaca decided to open its handcraft museum over a decade ago, it was placed just off the main square of San Bartolo and Pedro was named its director. To this day, Pedro divides his time betweent the museum and comissions for works for museums, galleries and other organiziation in Mexico and abroad.


All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.

Featured image courtesy of the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art.


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