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An ancient way of making pottery and a unique wood carver

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Donna Sophia Reyes and her pottery

DAY 10 — Talk about loving your work. Eighty-eight year old Dona Sophia Reyes is a potter who works seven days a week and hasn’t had a day off since she was eight, she tells us when she welcomes us into her studio and home in San Bartelo Coyotepec, a village about 25 minutes from Oaxaca City.

Our local guide Nicholas Garcia, arranged by Austin-Lehman Adventures, explains that this distinctive black pottery that Dona Sophia makes dates back to 500 BC. It lost its appeal for a while but has enjoyed resurgence among tourists in the last 60 years or so.

We watch enthralled as tiny, wizened Dona Sophia pounds the clay and then forms it into a vase — no potter’s wheel! Hers is a family operation that dates back generations. Her daughter and grandchildren now work with her.

She jokes that when she was a child, her mother and grandmother would slap her wrists if she did something wrong.

Still, she wouldn’t have her life any other way, she tells us through Nicholas, who interprets. She has never taken a vacation. She works every day, doesn’t drink. She was married for nearly 70 years, until her husband died just a few years ago. She is a great, great grandmother.

We watch as her 26-year-old granddaughter, Roxana Cruz Simon, decorates a pot by cutting designs from the clay by hand. From start to finish, it will take 20-25 days to complete a piece — from straining and preparing the clay, forming the pot, drying it before it is fire. Yet these pieces are so inexpensive. I buy a vase for $17 and a dish for salsa for $4.

We say our goodbyes and drive on to another town, San Martin Tilcajete, that is famous for producing the whimsical brightly painted wood carvings of animals-from tiny penguins and rabbits to huge bulls and owls.

We’ve come to visit Jacobo Angeles Ojeda and his extended family (www.Tilcajete.org). Jacobo is one of the most well known artisan and carvers and has exhibited around the world. The 36-year-old artist and his wife Maria del Carmen Mendoza employ 7 carvers and 40 painters supporting 10 families—all part of his extended family, he tells us. It is also heartening to see a family working together having fun, laughing and joking. If only all jobs could be this much fun.

A group, including the couple’s 13 year old son, sit around large tables painting various sized animals. It is difficult, precise work. “It is very special because we all get to work together,” Jacobo explains, noting that he has been a carver since he was 12.

The wood for these carvings come from the Copal tree that are grown right around here — with thousands of new trees planted every year with great ceremony. He shows us a block of wood and then we watch as a young cousin and nephew carve. It’s amazing the creatures they can fashion — dogs, coyotes, a giant peacock, a tiny cat, turtles and eagles. But to me it is the painting that makes these carvings so spectacular the bright colors — reds and oranges, blues and greens and the tiny designs.

Each person, according to Zapotec legend, has an animal based on their birthday. One of my daughters is a turtle; my son an eagle. I’m an owl.
We’re served an amazing lunch that we share with Jacobo Angeles Ojeda and Maria Del Carmen Mendoza Mendez. Their younger daughter Maria Sabina, 4, is playing with her friends nearby.

What a lunch — prepared in the traditional style by Maria’s brother who owns a restaurant nearby. We start with memela’s — small thick tortillas covered with fresh cheese – followed by soup made with Zucchini blossoms and a dish called Azucena Zapoteca, a squash blossom filled with cheese.

Desert is the best part. We watch as Maria grinds local chocolate on an old fashioned big mortar adding ground nuts, cinnamon and sugar. It smells delicious. It takes a lot of work. The women mix the chocolate paste with a little butter, sweet wine and water making the best chocolate sauce we’ve ever had. They drizzle it over ice cream.

We hate for the afternoon to end. We order a bull for my husband’s birthday that Jacobo will design to look like Bevo, the beloved University of Texas mascot. It wouldn’t have been my choice, but it’s not my 60th birthday coming up this year.

We head back to Oaxaca City for some shopping therapy — silver bracelets for the girls, a few more tiny carvings for their friends. This city is so vibrant, so full of life and energy. I’ve got to come back.

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