Published January 2001
I first came to Oaxaca eight years ago as a wide eyed student of pottery and Spanish while working on my B.A. at Humboldt State U. in California. The school offered a semester program for 30 students in Oaxaca through the Spanish department. I didn't know where the heck Oaxaca was, nor could I pronounce it (wah-HA-ka), but didn't care. I knew it was in Mexico, I knew I hadn't been there, and I figured out that it would cost less than a semester in California. That was enough, I got into the program.
As part of the credit requirements we had to do a project in Oaxaca based on our major. I was doing studio art, and having just recently muddied my hands for the first time in the ceramics studio, I was an avid and fervent convert to the clayway. I have always been partial to that which is raw, basic, utilitarian and beautiful. Pottery hit that place in me immediately. I went to Oaxaca ignorant of what I would find, only vaguely aware that there was some pottery there. So I designed my project around that. I proposed to look at a potter, how she lived, and how she made a pot.
From the moment I first walked into the city at 5 AM one morning with the cool aroma of alfalfa from the moist fields in the air, ancient, fortress like Spanish colonial buildings and churches surrounding me and the quite swish swish of the street sweepers cleaning up with huge brooms made of branches, Oaxaca went straight to my heart. When I made the first amazing trip out to visit a potter in a nearby village I was completely smitten. There it was in the flesh: the raw, the basic, the utilitarian, the beautiful. Such was the pottery, such were the potters. After that semester all I could think of was getting back to Oaxaca. There, I thought, was a place with many worthwhile lessons to teach.
During those four months of constantly walking around mouth agape, tongue lolling, I met a wonderful potter, Dolores Porras, who told me of a store in New Mexico that each summer had folk artists from all of Latin America come and give demonstrations of their work. She also told me to close up my mouth and roll in the tongue. Wanting more than anything to hang with Latinos, speak Spanish, and learn folk arts, I talked myself into a job with that store. I spent a summer there between semesters hanging with guys from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Ecuador, speaking Spanish and learning folk arts. I also got to know the owner and told him I was going to Latin America after finishing school. He said as long as I was going, why didn't I go and buy pottery for him.
Travel in Latin America, hang with potters, make a living, all at once. Would I want to do such a thing?. . . Friends, it took a year to wipe the ear to ear, toothy grin off of my wide face. And only then because I thought myself too young to be getting such wrinkles as those being caused by my constantly contorted face.
Many, hilarious (in retrospect) and ridiculous are the stories of a heavily right-brained, mathematically challenged and extremely non-linear thinker starting a job that immediately required accounting and organizational skills and lots of adding. But this isn't about business, so I will spare you my bookkeeping tales. I will only say that, when it comes to getting the numbers to work, I have found that what I lack for mathematically, I make up for with my artists' creativity.
Besides, I never came here to be a business guy, although that's what keeps the roof up. I came here to hang with potters, and therein lie the good stories.
Lorena's Note: The Peoples Guide to Mexico Website will be publishing a series of personal essays by Eric Mindling on his adventures in the "backcactus" of Oaxaca. Visit Eric's homepage for his latest tale.
Oaxacan Traditional Arts Workshops and Journeys
Eric Mindling leads journeys and workshops in backcactus Oaxaca among potters, weavers and traditional artists. These trips take us into the depths of old Oaxaca to experience pottery, weaving, hospitality and other arts as they have been practiced for 4,000 years. These are dusty road and crowing rooster trips into the fabulous yonder with eight participants and two guides who will take you off the map.
For more information visit www.manos-de-oaxaca.com (look forWorkshops and Journeys) or write to Eric Mindling at <email@example.com>
© 2001 by Eric Mindling