Elia Martínez Mateo spent her childhood days “playing with clay”; she molded little balls and miniature boxes trying to imitate the pieces she saw her mother make in the family workshop, originally from San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca, where polished red clay is worked.
Her relationship with clay was born out of maternal affection until it became a way of life. “I started at the age of eight. I inherited it from my mother, and this work has been with us for generations,” she says in an interview.
In that community, located in the Central Valleys, women keep the pottery heritage alive. However, Elia recounts that the opportunities for learning and development around this craft have been limited for the so-called “Red Clay Women,” a group of local potters who preserve the ancestral techniques of manual construction, decoration with engobes, and open-air firings.
The National School of Ceramics, a private institution based in Tapalpa, Jalisco, arrived in San Marcos Tlapazola in 2018 when it built the first smokeless wood-fired kiln to benefit the artisans in the community.
The quality of Elia’s work, her skill, and dedication opened up the opportunity for her to attend a specialized workshop on porcelain decoration, a material that was previously unknown to her, with a scholarship.
Elia had never touched porcelain or worked with brushes before; in her workshop, she says, her only tools had always been her hands. “My hands trembled with fear when I used the brushes, but in the end, I overcame it; it was all very new, the classes, how to prepare the glaze, it was amazing.”
For the artisan, sharing these new knowledge with colleagues from different states was the most important thing. “Whether it’s a lot or a little, it enriches us greatly because it shows the humility and simplicity of each person.”
She mentions that she applied and experimented with some of her pieces. “I saw that it could work, although it’s not exactly the same technique or the same materials. We work with everything natural; we don’t use anything chemical or glazes. I had never been invited to a workshop like this where they explain ceramics in detail.”
The precious value that Mexico’s indigenous cultures have assigned to clay since pre-Hispanic times contrasts with the lack of national training to recognize the importance of this material.
As a result of this situation, David Aceves Barajas, a ceramist from Jalisco and a Mexican pottery enthusiast, developed a project to revolutionize the ceramic industry in the country: an educational institution that would promote the professionalization of pottery and the continuous training of artisans.
However, the doors of the government and public institutions he approached to bring his idea to life were always closed.
It wasn’t until 2016 that a businessman believed in the initiative and decided to support it. That’s when the National School of Ceramics was born, “as a space to preserve the pottery traditions of Mexico, rescue the lost ones, and innovate with creativity,” says Aceves Barajas, the school’s director.
Therefore, aiming to create a global community of great artistic stature that finds a niche for preparation in Mexico, the ENC currently offers intensive workshops with renowned international artisans, artists, and teachers to teach a range of ancestral and avant-garde techniques.
This offer is extended to artisans through scholarships to encourage learning to spread to their communities. “We want to be able to grant a degree to these master potters. It’s about recognizing them as living treasures and promoting their professionalization. What the school wants is to position Mexico as a spearhead of ceramics in the world.”