By: Kim Gilmour
I discovered Potters for Peace (pottersforpeace.com) about a year ago in the classified section of Ceramics Monthly. They run an annual 2-week brigade in Nicaragua where you learn about what their organization does and you get to travel through the western part of the country to visit several different pottery villages. We went to places far off the beaten track. Places that are not in guide books. It’s not your typical “tour.” We did not travel in a fancy tour bus, we did not eat at expensive, fancy places, and we didn’t stay in high-end hotels. We ate in local restaurants, sometimes the only restaurant in town. We ate in people’s homes. Sometimes we even cooked our own meals. We stayed in everything from a dorm-style eco-lodge with 7 of us in one room to sleeping outdoors on cots.
This year’s brigade consisted of 8 people from across the country and Canada – Ottawa, Los Ojos, California, Missoula, Montana, Asheville, NC, etc. They ranged in age from 28 to 69 – 7 women and 1 man. Everyone was a potter or sculptor except for one – she was a Cultural Geographer and a collector of pottery. We were also joined by Robert Pillers, leader of the brigade and the PFP representative in Nicaragua, his son-in-law, Alvaro, Doña Luz from Jinotega who was our guest traveler – a Nicaraguan potter joins the brigade every year, and Jorge, our driver.
Potters for Peace is an organization that trains people to make ceramic water filters. These filters have been proven in over 40 research tests to eliminate 98-99.8% of bacteria. We visited one of their two factories in Nicaragua, in a town called San Marcos, just outside of Jinotepe. The clay they use comes from the local region. They mix it with water and sawdust in a Soldner clay mixer. It’s then formed into 15 lb blocks and formed into filters in the hydraulic press mold. Once it’s bisqued, it’s painted with a thin coat of colloidal silver. They cost $12 (a few $ more if you need the plastic bucket with spigot) and last an average of 2 years. More cost efficient than a Britta filter which is why I brought one home with me!
Each place we visited we were told the history of it, given a demonstration, and then were allowed to get our hands dirty. This was my first experience with a kick wheel, which is all anyone in the country has. What a workout! Each of us on the brigade also got to demonstrate and teach. Everyone has different skills and skill sets – production potter, professor, student, etc. I learned more in these 2 weeks than I think I ever learned in the 8 years of classes I took.
The first pottery village we visited was up in the mountains, just outside Jinotega. The last 30-45 minutes of the drive here was along a road where a lot of the fighting happened during the revolution in the ’80’s. Ceramíca de negra, a cooperative of several women, headed by Doña Luz, who was the Nicaraguan potter selected to travel with us this year. Once they throw their pieces, they cover them in a slip, then burnish them with stones 2 times. The 3rd and final burnishing is done with a cedar stick. They are then fired once in a wood fire kiln for about 2 hours. As soon as they remove them from the kiln, they cover them in cedar chips or dry pine needles which turns them black.
Ducuale Grande is in Condega and the women here are known for their slip decorating. The slip is “painted” on the pieces, fired, and then washed off. This process leaves behind a beautiful shadow-like design. Several years ago they had a large order of 18,000 pieces from Pier I Imports, which enabled them to build several kilns. They are still fairly busy, but their leader died a few years ago and there hasn’t been anyone charismatic enough to replace her. Their sales have been slipping recently because of this. Also, the older women are reluctant to teach their skills to the younger women in the village. PFP has been trying to encourage them to change and adjust, but it’s been a slow process.
An hour plus ride over the mountains on dirt roads to San Juan de Limay. El Calero and La Naranja are two tiny (4-6 houses) villages. In El Calero they make chicken water jugs. These jugs are entirely hand built. They recently received a kick wheel, but no one knows how to use it yet. PFP will send a volunteer up there soon to spend about a week with the women teaching them. El Naranja is a small studio with Carlos, one of the few male potters we visited, his mother, and sister. They also make the chicken water jugs, plus small drums. Carlos was an excellent thrower and used many different and unique tools to create texture on his pots. He also showed us how he made his clay.
The favorite place for most of us was Santa Rosa, a socialist cooperative started in 1983, just as the revolution was beginning. It’s the only community of its kind that has lasted this long. The potters in the village are a young couple – Isidro and Consuela, their 10-year-old dauther, Cindy, and Consuela’s mother and aunt. Isidro does all the throwing and Consuela does most of the decorating. This was the homestay part of the trip – we all got to stay in the homes of the potters and their family. The community is on 700 acres of land. They found their clay out past all the houses, across a field, and a short ways into the jungle. It’s black clay, but turns a light brownish/reddish color once it’s fired. I showed Cindy how I make my shell bowls and a few minutes later I looked over and she and her aunt are standing there making them! Much of the clay in the country was too groggy and not very conducive to my bowls, but sometimes it worked quite well.
Somotillo is not far from the Honduran border. Loma Panda is a tiny community about 40 minutes outside town and we had quite an adventure getting there. In order to reach Loma Panda we had to ride along a bumpy dirt and stone (sometimes boulder)-ridden road standing in the back of a pick-up truck. The years of subway riding came in handy! Then we had to hike up a small mountain for about 30 minutes. This village was completely wiped out by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, but the women rebuilt and kept their livelihood going. They make dolls with moveable limbs and teapots. They use the 100 Japanese teapots poster for inspiration – mimicking the designs, but using their own style.
The next day we crossed over into Honduras for a day and a half to the southwest port town of San Lorenzo. We had a lunch of ceviche and fried fish on the waterfront and then took a boat ride around the Mangrove swamps in the Gulf of Fonseca. From the water we could see Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The pacific was on the other side of the Mangroves. We visited Alfareria Lenca Magu. Apparently there was a misunderstanding and they didn’t expect us that day. They were busy trying to get a large order done, but still were happy to tell us their story as they sat there burnishing large pots. Most of their pieces are heavily decorated black and white designs. They get the clay black by smoke firing them after they’ve been bisque fired and decorated.
El Ojoche was the probably the least experienced group of potters we visited. But, they were some of the most eager to learn and to really start moving their business forward. 7 women had already formed a cooperative and they all had their assigned jobs – quality control, treasurer, etc. They also had a kiln, but they didn’t have a space where they could all work together. At the moment they were working individually. They didn’t have much clay for us all to work with, but what little they did have was used for a few demonstrations by a couple people in the brigade. These women were very eager to learn. One of the other brigadistas, Julie, and I had brought over some tools to donate. The last bunch we had we gave to this group – Alvaro helped them record an inventory of each piece. Our group pretty much decided that we wanted to sponsor these women, so we’ll each send whatever amount of money we can periodically that we’ve been assured will go directly to helping these women build a communal studio space and whatever else they need.
The last pottery village we visited is the famed San Juan de Oriente, about an hour south west of Manugua. One of the more prominent potters in this community is Valentín Lopez. He put on an elaborate performance for us of the history of Nicaragua and how San Juan de Oriente came to specialize in pre-Columbian style pottery. San Juan de Oriente is more a small town than a village. We visited several of the potters around town. They all have a similar style, but some are definitely more talented than others. Because of its close proximity to Managua, the capital, and Granada, the well-known colonial city, San Juan de Oriente is a stop on the tourist route. Fortunately for us, we were the only tourists around that day.
This trip exceeded all my expectations. Potters for Peace is doing amazing work with these communities. I’m not a group traveler, but this group of people and all the people we met in our travels were amazing. I learned an incredible amount from all of them and from Robert and Alvaro. My Spanish improved a little bit too. Nicaragua is a beautiful country with beautiful people. The trip and all the people involved provided loads of inspiration for me, so hopefully I can find enough time this year to put it all to good use!
The trip wasn’t ALL about pottery though. There are 14 volcanoes in Nicaragua, with San Cristóbal being the largest. And, we got to spend a beautiful afternoon and overnight next to Laguna de Apoyo, the largest volcanic crater lake in Central America.