Archive for the ‘Potters For Peace’ Category

Obama Ware and Random Notes PhP-5

March 6, 2011

Obama ware. The Latest in Pottery

Potters for Peace (aka Potters without Borders) was founded by an extraordinary man named Ron Rivera. I first learned of this organization when my wife Leslie, showed me Ron’s obituary in the NY Times. He died of African Malaria while he was in Central America, where they tried to treat it like it was Central American Malaria. It didn’t work. He was a visionary and an extraordinary leader and inspiration to everyone he met.

This kiln, and many like it, were built by some NGO that did not know anything about designing kilns.  They apparently hired an architect with a subscription to Pizza Ovens of Tuscany magazine.  The chamber is twice as high as can be stacked with pottery.  That means that it will consume twice as much fuel as a properly sized kiln.  There was a chicken in a nest in this kiln.

test tiles

Note the cob webs on the test tiles.   I guess they know their glazes.

Pre-Columbian is BACK

Over the next weeks, our minibus traveled up and down western Nicaragua, visiting subsistence potters in their traditional settings. You wonder why some of the traditional families have remained in such out-of-the-way locations. It’s easy to understand, once you visit. Potters and pottery towns spring up where there is easy access to clay. DUH. (That’s for me).

” Jodido ” means “We are Screwed: But We’ll Survive”   This billboard proclaims that the City of Leon knows its place and what they can expect from the national government

In some villages, yellow, red, and grey clays are layered right below the groundcover. In other towns, the clay is deeper and more difficult to dig up. The women of El Ojoche were the most persistent. Their clay was 2-3 km away on someone else’s property. And that guy didn’t want to give or sell it to them. The women piled five or ten pounds into sacks and carried it home on their heads.

Tools of the Trade

Yucca and Malonga chips are like meaty, chewy flavorful potato chips with all the crunch and flavor and none of the grease. The calorie count is another matter, I am sure.

We had to practice making tortillas in order to make traditional comale cooking platters

I love “tiste” a cool drink made of corn and chocolate.

In Managua many large banners decorated the main streets for an upcoming concert by a Pink Floyd cover band.

nice pots



Nice Water Jugs

Revolutionary Suction Pump

This recently invented suction pump appears all over the Nicaraguan countryside.  It and the Water Filters impact the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  The Pump consists of a line with tiny little suction cups, strung through a closed bicycle wheel.  With very little pressure, the wheel is turned and the line creates a vacuum, bringing water up from the bottom of the well  A child can do it. And usually does.

Not All Clay is Created Equal

We all tried throwing in most of the towns we visited,.  It was amazing to experience the differences in texture and plasticity each day.

New Potter for Peace Logo

The "Conquistador Look" is ALWAYS in.


US Dollars are accepted and in fact dispensed at cash machines, but they can have no tears or writing on them. Every  bill is inspected when spent.


Fans appear in the strangest places.

Every pig wears a yoke to keep them out of the houses.

Erica and Maria settle things

Meg and I Oink it Up

Cool Pottery

Meet The Potters PfP-4

March 5, 2011

Hive Kiln

Back on the Road
The potters we visited used primitive wood burning kilns with various degrees of success (and temperature). Most were inefficient and leaky. In the small villages, kids went out to gather wood from nearby hillsides. When I asked about the supply, no one seemed concerned if the kids had to walk a little farther to collect the  fuel.

In the larger towns of 300 or more, the potters bought wood  and stacked it by the kiln in traditional cord piles. The more commercial the operation, the more important a steady supply of wood.

The kiln at the Ceramistas Por la Paz is the only gas kiln in Nicaragua and it is very expensive to fire.


In general, glazes are not used, but rather slips (tagues) are made from liquid clays and then colored with natural elements and chemicals (when available). Burnishing or intense rubbing with an old plastic shoe insole or a piece of gourd adds the lustrous sheen to lowfire ware, the national standard.

Las Sabanatas
300 families, 250 potters. All in one village.
They set up long tables to show off wares and demo techniques
Martiza, our host, first made water jugs then gradually began decorated pieces. She explained that it took a long time to figure out the proper mixture of clay, earth and other materials to achieve the right blend for firing. She used a Mani kiln, like the one we built, but had some trouble firing it consistently. As a result she relied on a traditional hive shaped kiln. Sadly, during a recent thunderstorm, a horse was tied to a post that supported the roof over the kiln.  The horse pulled down the roof and now the hive kiln hasn’t functioned as well since that horse-kicked, rain-soaked night.

Condega, means “land of potters” in the local Nahua dialect.
Before we get to the art, can we talk about our hotel? It was a jungle-themed compound with large thatched roofs and tropical furniture. The Jungle also featured a traditional outdoor, oversized disco dance floor and suspended speaker stacks
Look, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels over the years, but never a hotel where, after 9 PM they let the dogs out. All guests are advised to stay on the second floor only. A visit to the ground floor is at your own peril. The “dogs” by the way, on safe-distance inspection, appeared to be  two oversized, wooly German shepherds, more bearlike than canine. Somehow, I resisted the temptation to make friends with security.

We slept five to a room in shallow, bang-your-head-bunk beds. A TV played Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai and some Bruce Willis movie where he plays a serial killer. They both speak Spanish so well….

Ten of us shared one toilet and one shower with a single paper sign on the door “Occupado/ Libre” sign on the door. You were supposed to flip the sign over as depending on whether you wanted company or not. There was no lock.

But, the food was Terrific! Great heaping piles of rice and beans, scrambled eggs, a mountain of fresh fruit with every meal and delicious chicken. And Coffee. Great gallons of coffee, which we were able to order sin azucar (no sugar).

Great Breakfast !

Santa Rosa
is one of the last Sandinista holdouts. 600 families, all Sandinistas live on land grants that began with 32 originals plots that were awarded after revolution. It’s a community but not a commune. Pottery and agriculture are the main enterprises. Potters pay 10 % to the group on all sales

When we arrived, we helped unload their kiln, blew off the ash, saw cracks on a few pieces from uneven firings, but the work was more advanced and decorated than anything we had seen thus far. Wonderful spider web designs had been applied as a slip. The idea came from a magazine picture on the studio wall. We also saw some attempts at an Egyptian look.

Slip Decoration with a Sandwich Bag

Our host Isidro, demonstrated the application of slip designs by using the snipped off corner of a plastic lunch bag.

By the way, a joke: (told to me by a Nicaraguan)
What is the national roadside flower of Nicaragua? The plastic bag.

After Isidro’s demo, Moriah flashed her impressive production skills and then Tom created an amazing platter. His technique involved a canvas bat below the platter, so that it was very easy to lift off the wheel. The local potters were impressed. Then I jumped onto the wheel and showed off my one trick: wrapping a piece with a slip-soaked rope or chain for the textured impression that it leaves behind.
Hold your applause. They did.

The Fans Gather

La Maisuta
Later that afternoon we stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the bed of a 4×4 truck, rode up a steep mountain to a new filter factory that was just about to open.

Wait TIl the Other FIve Get in

Their clay was literally at ground level and it was wonderful and plastic to the touch. The site and the factory were named after Ron Rivera. A German contributor donated enough to build the large shed that will be used for filter finishing and storage. A note that Ron Rivera painted on the wall years before still remains.


Ron's Sign Refers to a Peru FIlter Plan on a Map

Loma Panda
Back in the back of the 4×4, we headed way up a mountain. A half an hour standing in like that is not unlike the Cyclone, except that Coney Island rides don’t dodge donkeys dogs and sheer drop-offs. After the ride, we continued on foot up where the 4×4 dare not tread; a steep rocky river bed. After a near fatal/ hilarious turkey attack, we arrived.

Attack Turkey Captured (digitally)

The women of Loma Panda have been potters for generations upon generations. The tiny, women, all under 5 ft tall, said their grandmother’s grandmothers have all been potters as far back as anyone can remember. A few children run around. There are no men. They told us “that’s how we like it. “

Men Need Not Apply

They women led us to a large room filled with wares for sale and wares that were demos. The unique creation of these Loma Panda women are large dolls with extruded clay arms, shaped into soft feminine curves. Their mermaids weren’t bad, either. It is clear that over the years they have had many outside influences. The walls were covered with pictures and calendars from US ceramics magazines. They had some lovely pots that showed the influence of a teapot calendar from some university.


When we asked how the spout was constructed, it turned out there they did not really have a word in Spanish for the “spout”. They made them, they know what they were for, but the word was not in their vocabulary. We authoritatively told them, that from this day forward, the word for spout was “boca” (mouth). They didn’t seem to care. Or they were putting us on and would have a good laugh while we climbed down the mountain.

Brave Moriah tried her hand on the wheel. Their clay is really tough to center and throw. Their potters wheel was broken. Alvaro and Jorge, our driver, spent a couple of hours trying to level their wheel and tighten up the plate. They did not fully succeed, due to a broken drill bit, but the effort was appreciated.

Deep in the darkened adobe home, the ladies served us lunch: Chicken parts and pasta. I tried their red soda instead of the Pepsi. That was about as adventuresome as I got. But there was entertainment during the meal. A continuous flow of farm animals raced past our table. It was the oddest thing. Chickens, roosters, a cat, a couple of puppies, a dog, more chickens. They just kept entering one end of the room, running the length of our table and out the other end of the room. It’s like they were catching commuter trains or something. The parade just never stopped.

On the way to the next town….
We stopped and met Maria and Marta, a pair of ancient shrunken sisters with a barrel kiln built by Ron Rivera. They make piggy banks. Fat, inflated round piggies, each with its own personality. Their “house” did not have adobe brick walls, only dark thatch, wattles and clay. A meticulous, tiny garden rose above the level of the animals, pots with cultured roses, and other small delicate flowers.


Barrel Kiln - What You'd Expect.

Robert (our leader) and Maria of the Piggy Banks

People come to buy their pigs; Maria and Marta are well known. They do not travel or ship or even visit craft fairs. Buyers come to them. One of the sisters (I don’t know which) is a professional worshipper. When she is not making clay piggy banks, she is hired by others to pray for them,

Ducale Grande
10 women and a few men work in a small factory operation. Years ago they received an order for 18,000 pieces from Pier One. A wall chart for production still records what the changes an order than size must have meant. There were day-by-day, minute-by-minute calculations for each type of piece they were to produce. Things seemed a little more relaxed, when we were there.

Their specialty is smoke firings with an ash slip resist. Each piece is triple burnished. with plastic from shoe insoles or jicara gourds. The slip is then applied with broken feathers and twigs. The pieces are then smoked in a brick oven with green wooden branch. Once cool, the ash is scrubbed off, scaffiddio (fancy word for outlining with a 20d nail) is applied.

We made a bunch of pieces and they fired them for us. It was mythic !

Smoke Fired Tea Cup

Iguana Go Home PfP-3

February 16, 2011

When the family dog trotted out of the kitchen dragging the dripping severed head of an Iguana, I knew that dinner was going to interesting that night…

Our minibus arrived in Ojoche after a 20 minute offroad or “nonroad” expereince. The village of 80 families  sat on the Honduran border surrounded by not much else. The purpose of our visit was to construct a kiln for the community of 12 women potters who had been organizing for this moment over the past four years.

A brief history of the group opened a world of variables that were as confusing as inspiring. Originally the group had been about twenty women. They were all Catholic. Then some Evangelical Christians moved in and began converting. Then some women dropped out of the Potters community, Then some Baptists and Lutheran Missionaries came to tiny El Ojoche. More converts, more drop-outs. The Potters group fell apart. A year went by and the true potters, now of many differing religions, all get together for one more try, but finally united in their desire to improve their art and their lives. An international community building group called Kairos called in Potters for Peace and a deal was made. If the women buy the land and buy the materials for a kiln, PFP will build it for them and teach them how to use a fuel- efficient “Mani” low-fire kiln…

At Home in the Kitchen


We are each assigned to live with a family and we were warned that these people were poor. Our meals promised to be rice and cheese and eggs, but no beans because the price was too high. Our group gathered in a circle among the women and after some rhubard-rhubard-rhubard chatter (which concerned me,  as it turned out) we were assigned our “mamas.” I was escorted up a steep rocky slope by a stout woman in her thirties named Mayalin. My Spanish was good enough to get through normal conversation. On top of a small hill, not far from our work project sat the farm of my Mama, her companero and their two wide-eyed daughters ( 9 & 11). Conversation stopped as I took in my new home: The four of us spent the next three days together. Really close together. And not alone. Adobe walls, dirt floor, three hens each with a full set of scrambling chicks, each living in a corner of the house. One of the trio huddled her brood under a television set that sat on a kitty corner shelf. Oh, there was also a -four week-old kitty and two dogs, that technically did not live in the house with us, but they visited all day long and accepted tables scraps. And you KNOW they hung around me. The dogs were emaciated to a point that I have only seen in images  of  the abused animals of hoarders. Every rib and vertebrae poked sharply against their stretched skin. They ate tortillas and little else. When i asked how come the dogs were so thin, they told me this are a thin dog breed.

Living Room, Dining Room, Bedroom, TV Room, and Chicken Coop.

Robert Pillars, our intrepid leader, selected a location for the kiln by the riverside. Our first task was to transport a thousand bricks from the top of the hill, down to the site. After only one roundtrip up the narrow path, lugging two oversized bricks, I made the brilliant suggestions that we form a human chain and pass the bricks down the hill. Well, a wave of respect and awe swept the workers, for this innovation clearly showed that we had brought the right stuff to El Ojoche.

Brick Brigade

After the brick pile grew, Robert and Alvaro (his son-in -law and right hand man) began laying out the foundation. It was immediately discovered that these bricks were not built 2:1 as bricks are supposed to be. the 2:1 ratio means that you can cut a brick in half and reuse it later. It also means that making the kiln exactly square (an absolute necessity) was going to involve a lot of brick cutting. And what tools did we have on hand to cut and custom fit our bricks ? Why, we had two dull machetes and a hand trowel. And that is what we had and that is what we used.

first, you get some bricks....

Moriah Goes on a Chopping Spree

Over the next three days, the nine of us and ten or so local women laid in the bricks one by one, cutting and chopping at least two per row. We applied different thicknesses of mortar, called “mescla” depending on the location we worked on. I gained additional favor in the group because i could not remember the right word, so be began to call the mortar “soupa chocolate.” My reputation grew because I also suggested a way to predict some of the cuts that might be needed (it was just theory) and hence my nickname became “ El Professor.” I might as well add, here, that the initial hubbub about housing assignments arose because the house that I was originally assigned to was a twenty-minute mountain climb from the works site. The little lady that owned the house took one look at time and said that such an old man could never survive such a climb every day. OY.

A Well and an Outhouse in Every Yard - Sandinista's Fulfilled Promise



Because of my Spanish, I was up to my elbows in the project. Two-thirds of the team worked on the kiln and my group built the chimney. We only interacted and blamed each other every four rows. Each row of bricks was laid, then measured with a ruler, right-angle iron and a level. The hard part was the customized brick trimming by machete. It slowed us down, but when an excellent even-cut brick fit perfectly, it was worth it.

all in all, it's just another.....

...brick in the wall

The Women of El Ojoche

We Made the Cover of "Kilns Today"

So, the first morning I had my rice, tortilla and some peas and an egg. I told Mama what a great breakfast it was. The next morning, she served the same meal without the egg. She explained that the dog had eaten the two eggs that day, but maybe we would have more luck tomorrow. She also promised me a special dinner.

Now, I knew what was coming before the dog left the kitchen with its reptilian protein prize. An hour before, one of the little girls interrupted my post-work nap and shoved a two foot iguana in my face to scare me. It did not. It was kinda cute. For dinner, I correctly guessed.

When mealtime came, I did not know whether we were having the filet of mini-dinosaur or the Fricassee of Godzilla’s offspring… what arrived on the table was Garrabo Soup: eight inches of curled iguana tail in a thick yellow stew.  At least  I knew to ask “How does one eat this prehistoric throwback?” the answer was “con los manos” (with your hands). You tear the bits of leathery grey flesh off the multitude of tiny vertebrae with your teeth. And then throw the bones to the dogs.

I can clearly state that iguana tastes nothing like chicken unless your poultry is rank, sinewed and all neck bones. I tore in, chewed and chewed, spit out perhaps a few more bones than is customary, but my lavish praise distracted my hosts from the larger portions the family dogs were receiving. I can get through this. I can get through this. But then I grew concerned that if I praised the meal too much, they might repeat the following night as a farewell dinner.

No eggs again. For breakfast, tortillas and cold Iguana leftovers.

Not Your Mother's Iguana Recipe

My First Filter – Pfp 2

February 7, 2011

Local Hot Spot

Who knew that Juneau Alaska and Managua Nicaragua had so much in common. They both share astounding natural monuments with easy access to the city’s population and tourists industries. The capital city where Sarah Palin used to hang her moose carcasses has the Mendenhall Ice fields, a drive-in glacier that creeps upon the city inches per year. And Managua has the Masaya Volcano, a sulfurous gas belching collapsing crater only 15 minutes from el Centro. Just in case there is any sudden spewing of magma, lava and 1000 degree gasses, there is a warning notice is painted on each parking space:

Volcano Parking

Our second and third days raced by. The Sandinistas are no longer the sole power here, but they run a great deal of the country. We had a complete lecture about the history of the political changes that have occurred over the last forty years. We learned the names of all 22 political candidates in the 198?whatever election, the deciding vote issue in the “something to do with land reform” but “it was really about nationalization of oil” crisis.  And the short lives of political opponents to anyone who is either in power or against  or in favor the US policies toward Nicaragua. The lecture was delivered with with extraordinary detail and enthusiasm by a firebrand/ political junkie. The lecture was nearly five hours long, surely a tribute, but not record-breaker in the world of revolutionary rhetoric.

Revolutionary History Lesson

We learned about the nine monkeys the ran the government, the Daniel Ortega playbook of staying in office past the legal term limits and the many, many ups and down of the revolution. The tales of the contras, are of course, shameful.


The organization Potters for Peace has a duel mission to unite potters and to propagate the water filter program around the world. Robert, our leader gave us all of the academic background and studies to prove that these filters work. They do. They eliminate 99.98 percent of bacterial pathogens in water. There are now instructions on how to clean the filters to preserve their highly effective rating. I won’t bore by reciting all the amazing work that they have done in forty or fifty countries. Go to their website.


manual extruders used to make water filters

Today we visited the filter factory in San Marcos, clearly the gold standard of these facilities. We each made our own ceramic filter through the following process:

There is a hollow aluminum mold shaped like a bucket , and a slightly smaller solid version suspended above it. A giant arm, not unlike a nautilus bench press, reaches to the ground from above the bucket. The lower bucket filled with 15 pounds of clay is smashed into place. Then the giant arm lowers the solid bucket into the hollow bucket, forcing the clay up the sides, with the help of a hand cranked common car jack.


Trimming my first filter

The buckets are then separated, the resulting clay pot is trimmed and then removed and placed on a drying rack before firing. During the rainy season, these pots can take up to two weeks to dry. Once they are ready for the kiln, the pots are stacked fifty at a time into specially designed wood-burning brick kilns.

My First Filter is born of clay

Each Filter is numbered and inspected.  This one was my best

Due my extraordinary success at pressing out a pot, I was selected as recording secretary for the quality control part this operation. The pots are fired, fifty or so and arranged in a circle around what appears to be a cement indoor lappool/ horse trough.

“Inspector for a Day” Gray

Each pot is set in a plastic bucket. Water is poured into the filter and after an hour the resulting filtered water is measured and recorded. Oh, did I forget to mention that each pot is stamped with a serial number indicating which factory, batch and firing it came from?

So I quickly re-learned my counting Spanish and successfully recorded all of the results for this test.

Eight filters failed. They assured me not to take it personally.

The eight would be re-fired, re-tested and probably only two would be recycled as flower pots.

Potters for Peace (PfP) 1

February 7, 2011

Potters For Peace (proposed logo)

Well, in case you were not aware of my latest adventure, I have joined the Nicaraguan Brigade of Potters For Peace. Anything to escape New York’s weather. This first email cannot be sent to my blog, due to the
connections down here and there is no spell check and a wacky keyboard. I’ll do my best, if you’ll bear with me…

Potters For Peace is an organization that unifies potters in developing countries around the production of ceramic water filters that are manufactured locally, following the guidelines of the organization.

Basically, potters with the experience in kiln building and working with clay, are taught how to open sustainable factories to produce inexpensive filters that clean 99.5% of pathogens in ground water. PFP or Potters Without Border (in Canada) do not provide money, only the technical knowhow and ceramic support in identifying with whom and where the filter factories are planned. More on all of that, once I actually experience it.

This Ceramic Filter Saves Thousands of Children's Lives. Each day.

My flight to Managua was uneventful. It could easily have gone the other way. In my luggage was a pound of Calcium Carbonate and a a handful of smaller packages of brightly colored chemicals used in ceramic glazes. The PFP asked me bring them some hard-to-obtain supplies. Their request
also came with a warning that Calcium Carbonate, when X-rayed, appears as a solid metallic lump. Exactly the same sort of image created by a pound of gunpowder….Well, the Kiln Gods must have been smiling from above because I was not strip-searched and my bags passed through.

Since I allowed an extra day for bad weather, I arrived ahead of the rest of my Brigade comrades. I knew I was in a new land when I was met by a Hilton Hotel van that sported a Che Guevara pendant from the radio antenna.

While in NY, obtaining vaccinations, I had the honor to be injected by one of the world leaders in tropical medicine, Dr. Cahill. He supports the concept of PFP and offered to put me in touch with Fr. Michael D’Escoto, a comrade of Daniel Ortega. Fr. Michael hold the current title of Foreign Minister. A few years ago, he was President of the UN General Assembly.

Directions to Fr. Michael’s house were vague… a km past a university, look for a yellow wall, then look for a green iron gate. Sure, enough we found it and I was warmly greeted by the octogenarian in his livingroom. The walls were covered with Rousseau-like paintings intermixed with family
pictures and other personal memorabilia. Every horizontal surface featured the most spectacular examples of Nicaraguan pottery that I had ever seen. More on that later…

Fr Michael

Fr Michael bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor who betrayed Michael Corleone in the Godfather  The one whose brother was brought from Italy to convince him not to sing…

Fr. Michael, served tea and talked about the UN for an hour. He explained that his new book would be
finished in a couple of weeks. In it, he has outlined his entire plan for restructuring and re-inventing the organization from top to bottom.

In our second hour, he explained the demise of the modern Catholic Church (which began in 1069, when the Pope insisted on being infallible). We discussed Israel, the famous “Stolen Jewish Child” case in Rome. and many other lofty subjects. I explained the concept of Tekun Olan (Repair of the World) Father was fascinated and requested that I send him more info.

We also discussed his favorite food in New York. When he was President of the United Nation General Assembly. Each week he would journey down to the lower east side to Russ & Daughters for their world-class Scottish Smoked Salmon about which he waxed poetically (and politically) in English and Spanish

I told him my old joke about the traditional meeting of the newly elected Pope and the Head Rabbi of Italy.  I think wrote it down.

Fr Michael loves dogs. He has a one year yellow lab that he picked out with a breeder that he met at Westminster.

Needless to say, we bonded.

From Fr. Michael's Collection

That night the Spanish Embassy presented a local theatre production of a new play. Of course I attended. Tickets were free but the “safe” cab cost 24 bucks roundtrip.

The Embassies sit in a pitch black part of town where the only lights are the pale blue fixtures that illuminate the guard boxes of each national property. Long shadows run along each high wall as the cars drive by. No signs No numbers. No identification . Or none that I could see, anyway

The play, Las Cruces, was performed by a local theatre company in an outdoor theatre. Wonderful acting. The  plot was intermingled stories of families and individuals who decide to migrate to the US. I spoke to the producers, Met the cast and a family of Save The Children NGO’s. They are huge in Nicaragua.

Okay. This morning I met my fellow Brigade members (brigadeers?). I am now very nervous. I heard the one question asked that strikes fear into the heart of all group travellers:

“do you think, after dinner tonight, I can play a guitar?”

Singing for Supper