Feature photo: portrait of Doña Teodora by Paul Petroff, courtesy of Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art
Teodora Blanco Nuñez is one of a number of renowned artisans who, in the 20th century who shifted the pottery in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca to decorative pieces and thus, kept a traditional means of making a living alive.
She was born in February of 1928 in the town of Santa María Atzompa. It has been a ceramic community since long before the conquest. By the time she was born, its traditional work was utilitarian pieces coated with a green glaze, along with chia pets (which were a fad in the US in the 1970s).
In Atzompa, pottery making is dominated by women. She began working at age six, with her decorated ashtrays standing out in local markets. By the 1970s, a foreign collector noticed her work, and sponsored her so that she could develop new decorative pieces.
Over time, she shifted towards the making of unglazed pieces, taking advantage of the natural colors of the local clays. These clays, after firing, turn anywhere from beige to ochre and many of her pieces take advantage of the contrast.
She is best known for human doll-like figures called monas or muñecas. Her figures were almost always female, and often with a bit of fantasy thrown in. The figures reflected life in rural Oaxaca, such as taking care of children, dancing, and playing musical instruments… almost always in regional attire.
Many of her pieces have elements of fantasy and allegory, sometimes with animal parts. These figures are influenced by a regional belief in naguals, animal spirits said to protect and guide people from birth. In most communities, naguals are almost always benign, but in Atzompa they are not always benevolent. For example, if a person’s nagual dies, s/he may die as well. Her female figures were also often based on the potter herself. They often have a tranquil expression with far-apart, slightly Asian-looking eyes, as she had.
Over time, her figures became more detailed and ornate, taking cues from various pottery decorating styles. But she became most noted for pastillage, the addition of finely-molded bits of clay that are meticulously arranged onto the main body as a form of raised decoration. This technique can be seen now on many different forms of pottery in Atzompa, including the traditional green glazed type.
Her work became highly successful, capturing the attention of possibly one of the most prolific collector of Oaxacan handcrafts, Nelson Rockfeller. He would buy everything she had on each visit, eventually putting together 175 pieces of her work. She won many national and international prizes and attended meetings of the World Crafts Council. The family became wealthy by Oaxacan peasant standards, staying on the same land but buying farm animals and sending children to the city of Oaxaca for their education.
Her work benefitted the town of Atzompa as well, becoming influential, although she complained about copying, right down to her signature. More positively, it has been reinterpreted by many potters in the area (including her family), assuring the town’s future as a handcrafted pottery producer.
Blanco died in December of 1980. She has been described as being “witty and forceful with charm and presence” as well as having “an active and creative mind. She was the matriarch of the family while alive. She taught all of her children what she knew, with the expectation that daughter Irma would take over her legacy. Today, pottery based on her work is made by her, along daughter Leticia, brother Faustino Avvelina, and sister Bertha. But it has been son Luis who has taken over the family business to keep her name alive, still work in the same family compound.