Panchita shaping a large cazuela with a gourd "spoon"

Panchita shaping a large cazuela with a gourd “spoon”

I am both a potter and cultural anthropologist, having graduated with a Master´s degree in Anthropology from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

As a potter, I trained as an apprentice in 1975 with a native coastal Ecuadorian peasant woman from Pascuales, a town just north of Guayaquil, the largest coastal city and capital of Guayas Province.  This women, Panchita, made her vessels using the most sophisticated hand forming method I had ever witnessed.   I was able to document Panchita’s work thoroughly in still photography.  But since pottery making is a “moving art” I felt dissatisfied with having depicted a process that involves motion based just on stills. When reasonably priced camcorders came along around the turn of the millennium, I was back down in Ecuador in 2001 documenting the work of these potters in video.

Background of the video documentary “Maruja, the Master Potter of Las Piñas:

Panchita had long since passed away, however I was able to return to the pottery making village of Las Piñas, on the outskirts ofthe town of Daule.  In 2001, when I returned to the village unannounced, Angela, then 42 years old recognized me from 26 years ago when she, as a young lady of 16, remembered me. She reminded me that I had unexpectedly spent the night in her mother’s home when I had missed the last bus of the evening that was returning to Guayaquil. Her mother, Maruja, was one of many potters in this village making pots on the day in 1975 that I arrived.

Angela immediately reminded me that she had lent me a clean pair of underpants to wear the following morning, since it was unheard of not to change one’s panties everyday. Then she recalled that I had returned the following week with three new pairs of panties for her–a small detail that I had long forgotten.  She also inquired about that pair of blue beaded dangle earrings that I had worn.  Did I still have them, she asked?

I explained to Angela that I had returned to make a video about pottery-making.  Her mother was still making utilitarian wares, and so it naturally came about that I would be filming  doña Maruja.

But this was to be no academic film, detachedly documenting a process independent of the family dynamics and the ebb and flow of daily activities in the village.  When I announced my intent, everyone wanted to get into the action.  Thus, I had no choice but to go with the rhythm of village life.

Thus, the video footage that I captured evolved organically.  The final edited version of the video turned out not to be just about Maruja and how she fashions different vessel shapes, but about her three daughters, as well as spontaneous footage of three of Maruja’s great grand children making pots.  The transmission of pottery skills from one generation to the next can thus be appreciated.  It also was about using  earthenware, the names of the vessels and the uses to which they are put including how to bake bread in a huge earthenware pot used as an “oven”.

I decided to simply put bi-lingual subtitles where needed to explain the action, rather than a voiceover.  In retrospect, I believe my choice was the right one. A voiceover would have distanced the viewer from the action.  I didn’t want that, but wanted the viewer to feel like he or she was present right there alongside of me.

I did nonetheless add a musical background.  The musical selection however, was selected by the villagers themselves–music that meant something to them–such as the emotional songs of Julio Jaramillo, Ecuador’s most famous balladeer from the coastal region.

After completing it, I gave the family members a videocassette version along with a TV to enable them to view it.  For a while, it was the most popular video of the village!  More recently, I have given them DVD copies of the video.   I hope that you enjoy this video:


Today, I continue as a potter making my vessels using the hand building technique taught to me by my original teacher and mentor, Panchita.

However, I decorate my vessels using two pre-Colombian techniques which I have been able to rediscover–an Andean smoke resist technique and ´iridescent painting´, a post-fire finger painted technique using an earthy hematite  (red iron oxide)  that also contains the crystalline form of hematite known as “specular” hematite.  The specular hematite is hard, consisting of very thin plates.  It must be ground up into particles so fine that each individual plate is invisible to the naked eye.  I show how the ancient potters were able to accomplish this.  It is the very fine particles of specular hematite, lined up in a parallel laminar sheets, that account for the unique reddish to silvery metallic-like luster on the ancient pots.

You may see my video about my methods and how I was able to rediscover “iridescent painting” here.  Since I felt it more important to disseminate this video to a Spanish-speaking audience than to an English speaking one,  the voice-over explaining my methods is in that language. I have not yet had the time nor opportunity to translate it into English.