Clay Culture: Inspired by History

A chance encounter with a potter in Yucatán, Mexico, underscores the importance of historical pottery as both a tool for learning about the past, and a potent source of inspiration.

When I was young, my father would read to me from Richard Halliburton’s, Book of Marvels. Halliburton was an American travel writer, adventurer, and author in the 1930s. Beyond a doubt, Book of Marvels inspired both my travels and writings. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve traveled to many of the places he wrote about, including Mt. Everest, Machu Picchu, and The Great Wall of China.

Before I travel, I try to acquaint myself with both a few words and phrases in the country’s official language as well as some of the customs. The following advice, which I read while preparing to visit Mexico, was included in a Spanish-language study guide by Charles Berlitz. “When you admire a possession that someone has, or is wearing, he will say ‘It is yours’ (‘Es suyo’ or ‘Es suya’), depending on the gender of the thing admired; to which you should reply, ‘Very kind’ (‘Muy amable’), without accepting the implied gift.”

1 Bottle form by Patricia Morales that Carol Hinshaw purchased.

2 The piece of Patricia’s purchased by Craig Hinshaw.

A few years ago, my wife Carol and I toured the state of Yucatán in Mexico. We arrived in Cancún to meet up with the eight other people in our group at the same time tropical storm Alex also chose to blow in. 

Despite the rainy start, we were able to experience historical and cultural treasures and appreciate the region’s natural beauty. We climbed the ancient stone steps of Maya sites; including Chichén Itzá, Palenque, Tulum, and Uxmal. 

Vitality in History

The Maya arrived in the Yucatán around 200 BCE. Around 250 CE, and for the next 700 years, they constructed amazing cities. Around 900 CE their whole civilization in the southern lowlands began to collapse; droughts, warfare, and overpopulation were potential contributing factors. Their colossal structures and the art they made in the region were reclaimed by the jungle. After the collapse, the Maya built other cities in the northern lowlands, including Chichén Itzá. The last of the Maya cities were invaded and taken over by Spanish troops in 1697. The ancient cities began to be rediscovered in the 19th century by explorers and archaeologists.¹

3 Patricia Morales in her studio.

The Maya continue to live in their original homelands in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.2 Much of what we know about the ancient Maya comes from their carved steles and pottery. These speak of kings and nobles and their conquests, rituals, dress, and activities. The culture’s secrets are continually being unlocked as more sites are unearthed and scholars learn to decipher Maya glyphs. But it doesn’t take a scholar to sense the vitality that ancient Maya art exudes; they were on top of their game.

Interconnected

On the drive to Uxmal, we stopped at the ceramics studios of Rodrigo and Patricia Morales, who are siblings. I had seen Patricia’s exquisite Maya pottery replicas in the city of Merida the previous day in an upscale gallery. The pieces were museum quality, beautiful, and expensive. Because of the tropical storm’s downpour, the Morales had closed their studios, but graciously opened their doors for our group of ten.

4 Patricia’s wood-fire kiln.

5 View from outside Patricia’s studio.

Entering Patricia Morales’ studio made me feel like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to look at everything—her pots, kiln, studio space, and her vast library of Maya pottery books; however, we could only stay a short time in order to get to Uxmal before it closed at 6pm. I asked the Morales about their clay (a mixture of three local clays), pigments and oxides (pre-Columbian potters didn’t develop glazes), and kiln (sprung arch, wood fired with an open door, reaching low-fire temperatures).

Patricia explained that she learned this work approximately 35 years ago with the support of her brother Rodrigo, who from a very young age had begun working with clay and creating ceramics and other types of Maya art, such as stone work and sculpture. The siblings developed their ceramic techniques over time.

At the beginning, Patricia and Rodrigo started working together in a single studio, but as they progressed, they became independent, and for the last ten years, they each have had their own workshop. Patricia works with her husband and children, and Rodrigo works with his family. “But even so,” Patricia said, “we can say that we form the same workshop or school since we share many processes and techniques.” The techniques they use are known through archaeological studies of Maya vessels and include coil and slab building, the use of colored slips and ceramic pigments, as well as reduction firing for pieces where a black surface is desired.

6 Patricia Morales’ lidded vessel.

7 Quartz grinding/burnishing stones in Patricia’s studio.

Patricia’s inspiration comes from various events, knowing the great complexity of the Maya culture, and understanding the great artistic development achieved by the ancient Maya artisans. She strives for artistic development very similar to what her Maya ancestors managed to do, while acknowledging that “if it is difficult for us to make them, for the ancient Maya it was much more difficult to develop their ceramic forming and decorating techniques.”

Each piece Patricia makes presents new challenges, which makes the work more interesting for her. She added, “I have learned that you cannot have a single error; if that happens the pot will not be good.” While Patricia is primarily focused on creating reproductions of pre-Hispanic Maya vessels and figurines in ceramic, she also makes Maya and other Mesoamerican codices. And, on special occasions, she also creates small jade stone works in the same studio.

One of the many things that caught and held my attention during the visit was a small dish on Patricia’s studio table containing polished burnishing stones. These hand-worn stones were clear quartz and seemed to radiate light and glow from within. Patricia said they were “from the volcano.” As Carol and I each selected a pot to buy, I asked if it was possible to also buy one of the burnishing stones.

As we left to travel on to Uxmal, Patricia selected one of the stones from the dish. “Es suyo,” she said, handing it to me. I tried to refuse the gesture, “Muy amable, pero no,” but even our Mexican guide said she would be disappointed should I not accept.

8 Patricia Morales’ lidded vessel.

9 Patricia painting a piece in her studio.

As I compose this article back in Michigan, I relish the small transparent stone resting near my computer. It speaks of geological forces before the Maya ventured into the Yucatán. But mostly it speaks of the interconnection I have felt with others who, like me, try to manipulate clay into meaning. This inner bond transcends both time and space.

the author Craig Hinshaw is an artist and instructor living in Davison, Michigan. He is the author of Clay Connections, a ceramics book based on the articles he wrote for Pottery Making Illustrated. Learn more at www.craighinshaw.com.

1, 2 Nix, Elizabeth “This is Why the Maya Abandoned Their Cities” History.com (website) www.history.com/news/why-did-the-maya-abandon-their-cities. Accessed August 4, 2020.
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