San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua is a small village nestled in the hills between the volcanos Masaya and Mombacho, and has been known for centuries for its beautiful pottery.
The ceramics of old were made by coil, decorated with colors of mineral oxides and then fired in pits in the ground. Today most is done on a foot powered potters wheel. Many of the pots are in the style known as “inciso”, or incised, a traditional technique dating back more than 2500 years. Many are still decorated with traditional Pre-Columbian designs. Some of the potters of today are utilizing the techniques of old keeping the ancient traditions and styles alive.
There is also a long tradition of pottery manufacture for export. Nicaraguan ceramics have been found at burial sites throughout Honduras and Costa Rica. There are numerous studios in town producing pottery that will be sold through out the county.
Valentin Lopez’s Workshop and School of Ceramics has passed the potter’s knowledge from father to son for many generations and continues to pass the traditional skills to other members of the community.
Clay is gathered from surrounding sites around San Juan de Oriente. The clay is made pliable by stomping with the soles of the feet for hours at a time. Right sized chunks are placed on the potter’s wheel and molded to the desired shape and left to dry for a time. Local stones and nuts are used to smooth the surface several times.
The pots are then smoothed by hand and a liquid clay is applied. After drying it is burnished yet again. Once dry, colored oxides are applied with paintbrushes made from wood or the recycled plastic shell of a ballpoint pen. Depending on the intricacy of the design, the painting can take hours, each applied color undergoing still another hand polishing process. When all the painting is complete, the pot is set out in the open air and can take anywhere from two days to a week to dry.
Finishing the pot requires baking it in kilns made out of adobe bricks and other local materials to create a basic, wood-burning oven in the traditional bee hive configuration. The process of “firing” the pots begins with low heat, followed by hours of gradual increasing temperature. Once the maximum temperature is reached, it is maintained for several more hours. After the kiln has cooled – usually a whole day later – the pots are removed and shined with a soft cloth.
San Juan de Oriente is a great village to spent some time in. Shops line it’s narrow twisting streets selling the local pottery. You can follow the streets as they course upward until you come upon an overlook on Laguna de Apoyo, a spectacular crater lake. My next post will feature an image captured at the overlook.