Handmade can have many meanings. The most common interpretation would be a product that was made by an individual, not by a mass-producing machine. Though I believe this definition to be accurate, I’ve discovered through my work in Nicaragua that handmade can dig much deeper than this widely shared definition.
Both potters in the US and potters in Nicaragua create handmade works of art, but the way they go about the handmade process differs greatly. Ask a potter in the US about their producing equipment, and you’ll likely hear about a fancy electric turning wheel, rubber ribs, sponges, carving tools, glazes in a variety of hues, and an effortless electric kiln. Ask a potter in Nicaragua the same question and the answer is quite different. In fact, you might even question your Spanish skills when their response seems to answer the question, “What did you find hiding under the workbench when cleaning the garage?”
Bicycle spokes, bent metal forks, dried up ink pens, scraps of wood, old plastic, bricks, and small stones are treasured items for potters in San Juan de Oriente. They are their tools. Tools that have been created out of imagination, necessity and lack of access to formal tools. They can’t go to the art store down the street to buy a brand new package of top-of-the-line carving tools – both because they can’t afford them, and because they simply aren’t available. So they create their own tools. With a toolbox of impressive resourcefulness, our potters in Nicaragua have redefined the concept of ‘handmade’ in which the materials, tools, and products themselves are made by hand using renewable resources and recycled household objects. Here’s a glimpse into a Chaka artisan’s handmade process…
Jose Guerrero walks across his community to a small plot of land he owns. He then digs clay from the ground and carries it on his shoulder back to his home. There, the clay is processed by hand – gravel and impurities are removed and sand is added one handful at a time to make certain that the clay is an appropriate consistency. Jose then turns a portion of clay on his wheel and begins to form the shape envisioned in his head. He uses straight edged scraps of wood, pieces of rags, and a bucket of water to smooth and refine the edges – all while kicking his foot to spin his non-electric wheel into motion. After drying for a short period of time, Jose returns to the piece to begin the decorating process. He paints his glazes of choice onto the pot using a non-traditional paintbrush he has created from an old ink pen (the handle) and a portion of his wife’s hair (the brush). When the glaze is dry, he burnishes the piece with a hard piece of plastic or a smooth, tumbled stone he found along the ocean shoreline to create a finished look. Next, he carves one of the many intricate designs locked away in his memory. To carve, he takes a bicycle spoke or the point of a pen and gently removes unwanted clay. To create texture, he often uses the prongs of a metal fork. The piece is left to dry for a period of time that varies depending on the season and weather. To fire his artwork, Jose fills the wood-fired brick kiln that he built in his backyard. Pieces are left to burn in the kiln for 10 hours, usually over night. But just because it’s nighttime doesn’t mean Jose is sleeping. He must stay up to monitor the firing, add more wood, and ensure that the temperature is just right. After cooling for several hours, the pieces are removed and the multi-step process is almost complete. Finally, Jose will add a shiny finish to each piece using a dab of shoe polish, a rag, and a lot of elbow grease. Three to four weeks after the clay was first excavated, the product is complete. It doesn’t get much more handmade than that!
So the next time you sit down to enjoy your Chaka pottery from San Juan de Oriente, take a minute to appreciate the level of handmade that went into it – the time, the tools, the materials, the patience, and the care.