Dona Sofia Reyes

Black Pottery (Barro Negro) Artisan from the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec

This biography is a work in progress as of early May 2010  We are working to add photos of Dona Sofia showing the step-by-step of crafting a Oaxacan black pot as well as her biography...



Dona Sofia was born in 1920, which makes her 90 this year (2010)! For her whole life, she has been a potter in the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, a pueblo about 25 minutes from the city of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Learning the craft from her mother at the age of eight, she has worked every single day, seven days a week, creating beautiful black pottery.  Today, having outlived both her husband and all her children, she lives and works with her granddaughter and grandson-in-law in her home.

Hand forming each piece without the use of a potters wheel, she burnishes the pots using a shard of quartz crystal, then cuts out designs and then fires her work in a sunken wood fired kiln.

This biography is a work in progress as of early May 2010




  Digging Clay The clay that is used to make black pottery looks like most other clays.  It occurs naturally in and around the villages surrounding Oaxaca, especially San Bartolo Coyotepec.



  Spreading Clay out to dry



    Here the clay is after being collected.  It will be sifted and soaked, then worked until it is ready to use.  If low fired once, it will be jet black.  If fired multiple times, for longer periods of time or at higher temperatures the clay will actually turn a grey-white-brown color. 



  Beating the clay with a tree limb



  sifting the clay



  pouring water on clay to soften it



  mixing the clay to smooth it



  filtering clay using a fine mesh strainer



  pulling clay to be worked



  Clay ready for making into a pot



  Dona Sofia Reyes kneading the clay



   use of a rudimentary wheel which is no more than a plate or saucer balanced on a round rock or over-turned saucer, which she revolves with the lump of clay on top.



  The secret to the high gloss finish of the very best Oaxacan black pottery is that it must be burnished using a piece of polished locally found quartz crystal.  This process typically takes longer than both making or throwing the pottery piece and the cutouts. 







  A dried, but unburnished pot to the left and one that has been burnished on the right.  The more time the piece is burnished and the better the skill level of the burnisher determines the ultimate quality and shine of piece.  Once low fired, these pots will be black. 







  The sunken lined wood fired kiln at Dona Sofia's



  An old Mexican proverb goes, “Better grace without perfection, than perfection without grace.”





















   barro negro

The color of barro negro is due to the properties of the clay, and is not colored.[2] The earth used to extract the clay is cleaned to remove impurities, which can take a month of soaking and settling out the clay from the rest.[3] After this process, each piece takes about twenty days to complete.[5


700 and 800 °CR


osa signed the pottery pieces she made by rubbing the pattern of a rose into it using a piece of quartz. One day she mistakenly rubbed a whole pot, and then only left it in the kiln 6 to 8 hours instead of the customary 12 to 14. The pot came out a beautiful shiny black, instead of the dusty grey they normally were, but it was useless because it wasn’t cured enough to hold water.

She stuck it off to the side until a tourist noticed it and insisted on buying it, though Rosa protested because it was worthless. That was the beginning of the Oaxacan Black Pottery as we know it today, and the saving of the potters’ livelihoods.

San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca has produced pottery for centuries. Pottery artifacts unearthed in many of Oaxaca's archaeological sites have been traced to the clay found only in this area. The earthenware vessels were once used to transport mescal from hillside farms into the communities for sale. The containers held about 3 gallons each and were lashed together and slung over the backs of burros for the journey. With the advent of plastic jugs, the use of the heavy pottery was abandoned. The potters of Coyotepec began to search for new applications of their pottery skills.

Doña Rosa, a legend in the pottery world (she died in 1980), came up with a method for making decorative black pottery from the local clay. Her work has received numerous awards and is included in collections worldwide including those of Rockefeller and the Smithsonian.

Oaxaca (wah-HA-ka) pottery (c. 1500 B.C.E. – present) comes from a region in southern Mexico. San Bartolo De Coyotepec is the city in Oaxaca best-known world wide for its pottery. The potters: Zapotecs; Mixes (ME-hays); Mixtecs (MEESH-tec) and Triques (TREE-kays) have been creating clay pieces for thousands of years. A great variety of objects are created some of which are bowls, jars, vases, candleholders, figurines, and open dishes.

The technique used has been passed down, traditionally from mother to daughter, for centuries. Most potters don't use a wheel, but instead use only a piece of gourd, a strip of leather, and fire.

After the clay is molded it is warmed in the sun. After the clay is warmed the piece of gourd is use to burnish, or smooth out, the surface. When smooth, intricate patterns are cut into the clay by hand. The process is painstaking and the result is unique.

Oaxaca pottery is known for its rich black color. It gets this distinctive pigment during the firing process. The kilns are built directly on the ground. The fire is starved of oxygen creating carbon. The carbon filled smoke is trapped inside the kiln by covering it with rocks and broken bits of pottery. The carbon is what gives the surface of the pottery a black finish. After the firing is complete the pottery is buffed with a cloth. The result is simple and functional.

Aside from the color, Oaxaca pottery has some other characteristics such as asymmetry that make it one of a kind. Since each piece is hand crafted they often have imperfections. These imperfections are embraced, following the Mexican proverb "Better grace without perfection, than perfection without grace."

In some villages variations on the traditional black pottery can be found. One such location is the village of Atzompa. Here the pottery is sealed with a green tinted glaze over tan clay. The potters of Atzompa use a wheel that is no more than a plate or saucer balanced on an object such as a rock. Atzompa is known for creating many innovations in Oaxaca pottery such as multi-colored glazes.

At one point the standard when glazing the pottery was to use a lead-based glaze. Most of the potters whom apply a glaze now use lead free glaze, but before using a piece for food or drink one should take caution.