In San Bartolo Coyótepec, we enter the studio of Simon Reyes, whose pottery formed of the local black clay is fashioned and fired in the courtyard beyond. The ceramics are displayed atop newspaper-covered tables - pots, candlesticks, vases, each different, the more intricate pieces bearing Señor Reyes' signature.
In the courtyard an old woman stirs a trough full of silty, charcoal-gray soup and smiles in welcome. "Call me Sofia," she says as she puts the shards of failed creations back in the trough to be reconstituted. She takes clay from the trough and shows us her crude potter's wheel, essentially two shallow bowls, one placed on the ground with curved bottom up, the other on top of it, curve down. The two saucers meet only at their sloping centers. She spins the top saucer with her feet and forms a pot with her hands. Then she smooths the clay with a stone to create the polished finish Coyótepec is known for.
How many hours does it take to make one pot? I ask Doña Sofia. "One like this, four hours," she says, pointing to a small, simply polished urn. When it's ready, it will be fired in an underground, wood-burning kiln, which she beckons us to see. Fire burns in a pit above a brick-lined kiln and keeps burning until the pottery is ready, usually about five hours, but as long as two days when the weather is cold. Sofia has been making pottery for 72 years.
In nearby Teotitlán del Valle, known for its rugs and tapestries, bright-colored weavings hang from almost every entrance off the main street - geometric patterns, repeating figures of birds, woven pictures of the Aztec god Quetzlcoatl. In back of many of these shops, women and girls work wooden looms, hand-threading shuttles, building their tapetes one length of yarn at a time. Others card the wool, spin the yarn, dye it with vegetables and herbs. The bright red is cochineal, an insect that lives on prickly pear cactus. The bugs are gathered by hand and soaked for their natural crimson color. Purple is milked from a snail, yellow crushed from flowers. Freshly dyed yarn hangs in colorful swoops, drying in the clear air.