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Artisans in Nicaragua

Artisan Spotlight: Women of the Cloud Forest and San Juan de Oriente’s ceramics — a strong partnership

A guest post by Amy Sobkowiak, Women of the Cloud Forest

About an hour south of the capital of Nicaragua lies the small town of San Juan de Oriente. 

We’ll discover more about its history, the production method of its beautiful ceramic vessels, and the partnership with Women of the Cloud Forest in this article.

San Juan de Oriente’s ceramic history

Known for its history of pre-Columbian ceramic arts, San Juan de Oriente has continued this tradition with techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. 

Pre-Columbian designs can be seen in a few workshops, but most of the artisans now produce more modern designs for the local and export market. 

Currently, 80% of the 8,000 inhabitants work in ceramic arts in some form. As you wander along the brick-lined streets of town, outside many homes you’ll see ceramic vessels in different sizes, all in the process of drying. Wood fire smoke from recently fired kilns wafts through the air as oxen carts deliver kindling for the next round of firing.

Most family homes double as workshop space, so it’s not uncommon to see children hanging out on a kick wheel or doing their homework next to where their parents are working with clay.

Family. A picture of a little boy looking out from under the clay wheel

We at Women of the Cloud Forest have been partnering with workshops in this community for over 12 years. We’ve built direct personal relationships with the artisans and visit twice a year to work on new designs and bring ideas regarding the latest market trends. 

How are the ceramic vessels made?

Clay for the vessels is dug from a local area. There are several workshops in town processing it to sell in 100-pound sacks to the artisans. 

Mixing the clay

The process consists of combining the clay with sand and kneading it by hand. Many artisans will remix the clay to ensure that they have a good result to work with. Poor mixing can result in breakage in the kiln firing, which means losing all of their hard work.

Mixing the clay

“Throwing” the clay

After the workshops have their clay, they call one of the “master throwers” in town. Throwing clay” generally means the process of shaping the clay on a potter’s wheel, “from the time the clay touches the wheel to the time the wheel is stopped”. Although all artisans know how to “throw” their own vessels, there are some experts in town that can do this for large-scale production purposes. 

Miseal Torres is known as the best thrower in San Juan de Oriente. With the help of an assistant, Miseal can throw 200 of our mini-luminaires in only four hours! The pieces are thrown on a kick-wheel that uses no electricity. Simply by rhythmically “kicking” the wheel, the artisan is able to make the top wheel turn, which helps the clay take shape.

Throwing the clay

Natural drying process

Once the pieces are thrown, the artisans cover them with plastic to allow them to dry slowly.

When the piece is dry enough to handle but still fresh, the artisans start the process of

refining the piece to make sure it has the correct measurements and form. 

Coating, decorating and polishing methods

Coating the vessels

Next, they will use a “slip” (a mix of clay and water) to coat the piece in thin layers. This seals the clay’s pores and allows the artisans to start drawing and painting on it.

The “sgraffito” design technique

Much of the artwork currently being produced in town features intricate geometric designs that are created using a technique called “sgraffito”. The artisans use a sharpened bicycle spoke to draw into the clay and then carefully start to scratch the surface of the piece to create their design. 

Tools of the trade. Picture of tools used to mark the patterns

Their attention to detail is amazing and the designs, in my view, have a quality slightly reminiscent of graphic artist M. C. Escher. 

The “pasteado” polishing technique

The final step called “pasteado” happens when the artisans use a smooth stone to

gently rub the surface of the piece to give a natural shine.

Adding the finishing touches to the clay

Firing process

From here, the piece is ready to be fired. The artisans will call a master kiln firer to load the

kiln, which is shaped like a beehive. To start with, they smoke the kiln for 4 hours, bringing it up to temperature and carefully watching it to ensure the heat stays consistent. 

After 14 hours, the kiln is left to cool for a day and then the pieces are carefully removed. 

This entire process from start to finish takes 21 days to complete. Truly amazing!

Picture of kiln where ceramics are fired
Artisans in Nicaragua

Women of the Cloud Forest’s partnership with the artisans of San Juan de Oriente

Through our collaboration with the artisans of San Juan de Oriente, we have seen many changes in their physical workshop and home spaces, as well as a sense of mental peace that comes with the stabilisation of their work. 

Our ceramic partners can count on monthly orders from us, which allows them to pass on that sense of stability to their workers. 

Some of our artisans currently rent and have dreams of having their own houses. Through our no-interest microloan program, we are helping to make that a reality. 

We also use part of our profits every year to support English classes for various artisan partners, as well as workshop grants to support capacity building.

Find out more about Women of the Cloud Forest and their products here: