A Study in Livelihoods

The dirt we came from drew us together.

Potting in a pueblo in Bolivia is slightly different than potting in a studio in the States. My mother and father run a successful clay studio called Wichita Pottery from the downstairs of their home. Álvaro, our clay man, alongside his family runs a potting business out of the dirt in the yard of his home.

Almost all Bolivian homes of any economic standing are surrounded by walls. Most of the more humble dwellings are built progressively. A plot of land may start with nothing more than the wall and a room. The family lives in the room and builds as they can adding rooms that all have their own door to what may be called the courtyard. All these rooms with doors to the outside are lined up on the perimeter of the plot. Essentially the growth of the family necessitates the adding of new rooms, each room occupied by a unit within the whole. The grown brother and his wife have a room. The sister, her husband and their small child have another. The grandparents are in one room. The main owning couple in another, and so on and so forth. They most likely share a bathroom. The washing area is in a corner of the property. The kitchen may be in a room, or as is the case with Álvaro’s family, a corner of the courtyard with an open fire.

We were invited over to a covered pit. Álvaro began right away to explain how they treated the dirt in this section of the dusty yard to prepare clay. With a few fell swoops of his pick ax he broke off a chunk of the moist earth and threw it over to the side on a large, plastic, burlap-type bag. Stepping out of the shallow pit he began to stomp the clay. The technical term escapes me. I translated back and forth. My mother explained that in her shop they have an electric machine that does this step of the preparation. After many stomps and turns and flips of the clay Álvaro then moved the large lump to a stone where he began to massage and kneed the clay with his arms. Under the heat of the full morning sun the perspiration and shortness of breath were understood as he tried to speak while working. Now the clay was carried to the wheel. He asked if the wheels my mother uses are electric as well. She told him they are.

He leaned the back of his body against the adobe wall and situated his legs, one braced on a metal bar cemented in place and the other positioned to create torque for the spinning of the wheel by way of rhythmic kicking. The wheel seemed to spin effortlessly as he wet his hands and subsequently the clay from the bucket of muddy silt in front of him. The awning held up by rough poles gave him shade and kept the lump of clay from drying too quickly. Applying the full force of his body the clay began to yield to his movements. Magically concave shapes began to emerge. In minutes he had thrown, spun and cut from the lump with a wire four of his most common pieces. It was simply fascinating. He was delighted at our amusement and gladly offered answers to our many questions.

Then he asked if my mother would like to give it a try. Oh, she was so excited! This is one of the things she wanted to do most in Bolivia. She climbed up and situated herself. She got the wheel going enough to throw a pot. The juxtaposition was intriguing. She invited her grandkids to give it a try. She kicked and they moved their hands over the clay. I even got to give the kicking a go to relieve my mom. It was truly an amazing experience.

We paid him thanks and the fee he asked for. My mom also gave him a clay piece she had made in the States. They brought out little pots to sell, as well. We were all very satisfied with the demonstration and the opportunity to try throwing a pot manually.

On our way out of town the guide suggested we stop at Huayculi’s town square for a snack. He had brought a pork meat called enrollado, hot peppers called locoto and some bread to share with everyone. Then we were on the road again. A bit sad to be leaving the adventure a thought occurred to me.

“Fernando, you said we would get to see the Pegasus today,” I said.

“Ah, yes. You still want to see it?” was his coy response.

“Yes. Tell me how to get there”

“I will show you.”

To be continued…

Click thumbnails to enlarge.


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