Tía Isabel -- Our Famous Potter of Tiestecitos

In the area surrounding Tutazá (mentioned yesterday), there are many areas -- called veredas. A vereda is a small geographical region that usually has a collection of homes and farms in a rural area -- like a hamlet. One of those veredas is called Tuaté. It was there in a small adobe house with a red, tile roof that my father-in-law was born. His family made their living as potters, a tradition handed down from the orginal inhabitants of the area, and as a child he travelled all over Boyacá, Santander, and Cundinamarca with his father selling the pots and other things that his family made out of clay.

Though he left his home at 14 and became successful at something other than pot making, his youngest sister, Isabel, remained and inherited the family home. There she continued the family business. However, her inginuity and creativity lead her to be recognized by a famous French potter -- Dauphine Scalbert. In 1994, Ms. Scalbert wrote an article about Tía Isabel and her pottery and techniques for a European ceramics magazine (Revue de la Céramique et du Verre, mai/juin 1994 # 76). In 2002, Tía Isabel was invited to participate as an exhibitor in Expolain 2002, where 50 potters from around the world were to display their wares.

(T'ia Isabel in her Kitchen -- a few years ago they installed the Lorena Stove to keep the smoke out of the Kitchen --
but she still cooks her food over a fire)

Because of the importance of the Tiestecitos in the Independence and in this part of Boyacá, I thought I would make this personal connection. Here is a Babelfish translation of the article:

Boyaca is one of the splendid departments of Colombia for its landscapes and its vegetation, and of most interesting for its history. The famous battle of Puente de Boyaca put an end to Spanish colonization; Simon Bolivar had passed by the village of Tutazá, where he had requested the Virgin of the Rosary, and when he had called upon “the Blessed Virgin of over there where they make pots”, he had been victorious in the famous Battle of Pantano de Vargas; the statues of the Virgin and Bolivar thus decorate the center place of the village, and now, the “Virgin of the small pots”, thus it is called, is venerated every year on the first Sunday of October and those which precede the Ash Wednesday. These days, the village is literally besieged by an huge crowd of pilgrims who visit the church in an attempt to receive a hoped for miracle.

Very many tradesmen unpack their wares around the church, and the potters of the surrounding areas bring their earthenware jars, their pots and areperos...The potters are not very numerous anymore, and almost all come from the hamlet close to Tuaté, whose inhabitants are dispersed on the majestic hills. They preserve rudimentairy but beautiful techniques of manufacture and baking; that is nowadays very rare in Colombia...the baking of the pottery on the ground, without furnace, such as the original inhabitants of America before the conquest had practised it.

We went from Belen to Tutazâ on foot through the wet and green landscape, among the morsels of corn and barley, the animals in the valley, the nets of smoke rise from the baking of the last pots, the maletas (carrying cases) - the pottery is bond tight in the nets of hemp cord, between each of them they are protected by some grasses or some ferns - and are placed on the backs of small donkies or on the backs of the potters themselves. And like this, the peasants of Tuaté prepare for the festival of the Virgin of the Pots.

We have appointment with Isabel Garcia the valiant potter. She awaits us and watches for us from her house -- a tiny adobe at the foot of a gigantic fir tree, which agitates its arms as a sign of welcome. The dwellings of Tuaté are all built in the same way -- two small buildings facing each other. One is the kitchen, very dark, with its open fire or its three stones for the hearth. On a frame of braided branches under the roof the pots are placed for final drying. Facing the kitchen, is the other small building. This one has two small rooms with wood beds and a storage area containing the grain, the potato bags, and corn hanging from the ceiling out of reach rodents. There are calendars or holy pictures on the walls. The meals are eaten outside under the roof the connects the two buildings. It is there that one rests with shelter from the sun or the rain. It is there that one works the clay.

Within three steps of the house, there is a laundry area where clear and fresh water runs continuously.

When we arrive at Isabel's, with gusto, we drink the guarapo. This corn drink is sweetened, alcoholized a little, and refreshes. Isabel speaks to us about her work. The mines where the clay is gathered are rather secret places. William will take us along with the permission of his aunt who will have considered us to be worthy of such a confidence. The child's eye follows the birds which cross the valley. He explains to us where the devil is shown at night, and how the Blessed Virgin appeared to the little girls of the village to teach to them to spin wool and to make pots.

The mines are far away and it is a challenge for the potter to get there.. The clay is extracted with wood tools because the use of metal risks exhausting the resources of the mine, according to the local belief. The potters are helped but little by their husbands who are occupied in the fields and it is necessary for them to bring back the dirt on their backs, sometimes walking several kilometers.

Much of their work is intended for culinary use. They mix a black and sandy clay with a yellow plastic clay. Upon the quality of clays, depends their success when baking. For the small parts they are satisfied with a more common clay that they find more close to them.

As the dirrt leaves the mine, Isabella prepares a large stone slab. She also uses a rammer made of a very hard wood -- a pizon. It is hard work, Isabel is in sweat. She mixes two clays and makes a heap with them. She crushes the earth with the pizôn and unceasingly starts again. When there appears any impurities, she removes them one after the other. She adds water and is protected from the splashes with a plastic bag tied around it. Isabel prepared the dirt for eight wet (pots) in one of which she will be able to cook the potato soup or ferment the guarapo.

She kneels in the air shaft at the foot of the low wall, her tools and the eight molds within reaching distance. What she calls her molds are true spinners, actually plates with a round bottom. They turn well, balanced some on their axis, and the potter nimbly outlines her pots there. In less time than one would usually need for it, I observe that she forms a coarse plate that she rounds like a cone, and then the plate becomes a pot when she fixes it on the firm mold with punches. She adds clay wads, the clay goes up, the pot turns, already outlined, the edge carefully is turned and smoothed. Later in the afternoon, she will work on them again by rounding the interior form with the rubber sole of a shoe. Tomorrow she will refine them with a sheet of metal, like others would do it on the lathe with a tournasin. The thickness will be equal, the light pot, the natural and silky form.

Isabel finishes her eight pots and covers those from yesterday with a cloth. With a heavy rag cloth, she coats the still wet pots. After drying, she can polish them with a fine stone and a patient rhythm.

Her daughter, Nancy, returns from milking the cows and helps her mother in the domestic tasks. Her son, Javier, is studying catechism as he has returned from school. Luis Alberto is in the fields with his father collecting potatoes. Daily life for the peasants -- this is the rhythm for Isabel, who like the other potters of Tuaté, work only when they have an order, or for the festivals of Tutazâ, and the fairs of Duitama, Santa Rosa or Sogamoso.

Isabel has prepared 100 pots that need baking. If the day's hot and the sun is shining, they will be dry. Thus commences the work of pre-heating. For this, a fast baking is essential. It is necessary to go to seek the pots on the sarzo -- the frame of branches braided placed near the top of the fire in the kitchen for the arrangement and the pre-heating of the pots.

Isabel carries those which already hot and are smoked out. The surface used for baking is vast, Isabel cleans it and spreads out a layer of ash distributed -- for this she uses a branch. Not a lot of wood is used for baking, but an interlacing tightened, thick, form of flexible wood is used to receive the pots. The large ollas (pronounced OY - Yas), or pots, are filled with smaller pots, chorotes or miniatures. Thee aligned, some encased in others, it appears to be in a pleasant geometric shape with many generous curves. At the four sides of the bed of branches Isabel places the trancas which are large split or notched pots which make it possible for the fire to breathe under the bulky branches. And finally she covers all these pots with the areperos thus resembling roof tiles -- which serve to store the heat. The men brought on their backs two wood loads and two loads of dry grasses from the hills, which are very dense, which is a necessity. For air circulation. Isabel lays out some tufts on the pots, lights fire and orders it exactly according to her liking.
To read the article in its French Original -- click here:


Tradesmen said…
Fascinating article, thank you for sharing.

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