total immersion at last

five days of speaking Spanish in an all male working environment with Antonio, Raphael, and Carlos, the three brothers at Moreno Leon in Torrejoncillo – one of the few remaining makers of traditional Spanish terracotta storage jars – tinajas. a privilege, an utter indulgence of me on their part, and a fantastic inside view of something that almost died out in the UK with Isaac Button, the last traditional English potter.

the telephone, plastered with clay, next to Rafa’s wheel, jammed between ear and shoulder while he throws or coils – an indispensable part of running a modern business which is not usually given access to a British studio potter’s workshop.

the workshop is half of a huge L-shaped barn-like structure; the other half houses the kiln,  this container-sized green metal box, gas fired, computer-controlled, which replaces the open top updraught wood fired kiln the family were using even in 1989, when photos were taken for the book, la tinajeria tradicional en la cerámica española. Antonio told me they would use encina, evergreen oak, and  finish the firing  with gum cistus, jara, the incense scented shrub of the extremaduran maquis. the smell was wonderful, he said, with no real nostalgia for a laborious process. the back of this space is given over to clay preparation and storage, something I did not investigate, due to lack of time, and not wanting to disrupt their workday. the clay is local, from land they own about 3 km from the pueblo.

moreno leon goes back seven generations in the family to the first whose name is known, in the late eighteenth century, but probably well before that. Spain used to be dotted with tanajerias, every pueblo with a usable clay source would be making storage jars for keeping wine and oil, probably since the Romans; now this is the only one in our province, Caceres.

the jars are made with a combination of throwing and coiling methods; the bases all thrown on these low electric wheels, then coils added, and tidied up on the wheel. the pots are trundled about on jack trolleys, and take about 4 days to make, depending on size, being allowed to stiffen up naturally in between steps.

I was given a thrown base to start coiling on

but my pot, a cono, the straight sided typical extremaduran household jar, stayed off the wheel after that.

Antonio sneaked some photos without my being aware; this taken across the lip, the boca, of the piece he was working on. compare the beautiful regular coil he has attached, to the raggedy edges of mine …..

Carlos is the real coiling specialist.

here he is adding a coil. looks easy, doesn’t it!

two kinds of really big pot – this big-bellied shape

which they make with the deep ridges too (surcos)

and the big conos.

third day; before continuing to coil the outside is scraped and smoothed with a piece of bamboo, then paddled with the ping-pong bat-shaped wooden paddle – there are at least three different shapes, concave, convex, and flat, beautiful objects in their own right. I worked from four in the afternoon until eight in the evening every day (their working day is eight to eight, with two hours for lunch) and the pot was left uncovered in between, which allowed just the right amount of drying.

portrait of Carlos, by Antonio.

smaller tinajas with surcos, native to Galicia.

fourth day; scraped, smoothed and paddled.

now I have a platform to stand on. it is meant for the huge ali-baba jars, so I have to watch my feet.

fifth day; ready for the lip and the bung.

I got the lip on, with no wheel, after considerable trouble, fussing, and fiddling. Antonio showed me how, but I don’t have his experience and skill, of course.

the bung hole goes on in a similar way. I am so envious sometimes of the dexterity of potters who have been handling clay for a lifetime.

Antonio working on a set of short conos; he explained that if it is done right there will be no drip of wine or oil to waste or make a mess.

a combined signature to finish. my spiraling decoration allows a camino for the ants, I was told reproachfully.

and here we are, Antonio, Carlos, the cono, and the apprentice tinajera.

I’ll let Antonio have the last word.


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