Deep in Central America, there is a place called San Juan de Oriente. Like many small towns, it has a preschool, an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, each sufficient for its citizens. But there is no university. The town has a bar and pool hall popular with local residents. It has a beautiful church of pure white, built in the colonial style in 1612 by Gervasio Gallegos de Galacia and Juan de Bracamonte y Peñaranda. The town claims John the Baptist as its patron saint, and celebrates him annually.
Geographically, San Juan de Oriente is distinct because it is situated on the shore of a volcanic, saltwater lagoon - a crater lake. The town is nearly two hours from the nearest big city, and it relies on that city for electricity. So, not surprisingly, there are blackouts from time to time. Water access comes from a plant servicing several municipalities, so they all take turns with service; as a result, San Juan de Oriente gets running water every other day. They have a new health clinic, and ample cellphone service. Such is life in this small, Central American town.
What truly distinguishes San Juan de Oriente is its thriving population of artisans, who have been specialists in ceramics for centuries. Though their production techniques are more updated - potters today typically use a foot-powered wheel instead of hand coiling clay - these artisans still make their pieces by hand. Further, most contemporary potters learned their craft and the specific details of the art from their parents and grandparents.
The process is painstaking, in that their clay is essentially "raw" and must be picked clean of twigs, roots and rocks. It is softened and pounded over days of preparation, and then thrown on the wheel, after which it is burnished and smoothed by hand with smooth stones until all surface imperfections are removed.
Metal oxides are often used to color the clay surface, but they also use a black slip (liquid clay), which they prepare via an elaborate straining process, especially for coloring the pieces. Additional paints are used to apply beautiful designs, many of which are consistent with pre-Columbian motifs. Drying time varies according to season.
The artisans maintain a deep reverence for a particular technique dating back 2,500 years or more; known as "inciso," the method amounts to a relief style carving that removes only the smoothed, painted surface of the clay, exposing the rough surface just beneath. The result is a highly artful, often geometric effect that outlines or enhances the painted design.
Finally, the piece is fired in an extended, low-heat process, with gradual increases in temperature, until the final firing time is reached. The kiln is left to cool, and only then is the finished piece removed and shined by hand. It's a small industry, but it sustains whole families from these regions.
Online you can find companies that are proud to represent and promote the unique, collectible, and truly beautiful work of these artisans. In fact, each piece is signed by its creator. Your purchase supports a certified fair trade effort, and ensures continued prosperity for the families of artisans honoring the traditions of centuries of craftsmanship.