Perched on a wooden stool in his open-air studio, Jesús Villareal slips moistened fingers around the rim of a bowl revolving on a potter’s wheel. To his right is what looks like an enormous wooden mortar and pestle, in which Jesús’s wife, Susan Chavaria, pounds earth to the fine powder required for the best clay. The earth comes from the low hills above town, from spots locals have been digging for thousands of years. And just as their Chorotega ancestors did, Jesús and Susan will polish the pottery with jadelike stones said to come from nearby archaeological sites.
Although it might seem that Jesús and Susan are part of a long and unbroken tradition of indigenous pottery-making, in fact the tradition had all but died out when recently it began to be revived.
Jesús puts aside the still-wet bowl and turns to a row of kiln-fired vases. He dips brushes into little jars of glaze arrayed on the table before him. Earlier Jesús and Susan carefully ground powders made of earth or dried plants, adding water to create the earth-toned colorings that make their pieces come alive. Behind Jesús is the beehive-shaped kiln in which the family fires the pieces that line the shelves of the gift store at the other end of the studio.
Working in the tradition of their Chorotega ancestors, Jess and Susan also consult a heavily illustrated academic reference work, Costa Rica Precolumbina (Pre-Columbian Costa Rica), by Luis Ferrero. The book is as treasured and battered as an old family bible. It’s been in the family for about 20 years, Jess says, and he often models his own work after the ancient examples of Chorotega pottery pictured in the book. Such are the ironies of ancient traditions lost and found.
Jesús, Susan, and their family are among a handful of clans that make up the village of Guatíl, the epicenter of a renaissance in Chorotega ceramics that draws tourists and locals interested in the area’s pre-Columbian past and its indigenous present. Often presided over by matriarchs who have been working with clay since they were girls and who learned their craft from mothers and grandmothers, the families of Guatíl are hoping that reviving the work of their matrilineal tribal ancestors will prove not only spiritually satisfying but also economically viable. Pottery is the only “industry” in this tiny town on the Nicoya Peninsula (12 kilometers/7.5 miles east of Santa Cruz). The town is arrayed around a soccer field and consists of a church, a small general store, and a dozen or so spreads that do triple duty as studios, shops, and family homes.
Roll into town and you won’t have to ask where the pottery is–pottery is all there is here. Unless your visit coincides with the arrival of a small tourist van, you may be the only visitor around. Take time to talk with some of the artists and to look at their different takes on Chorotega themes: figures that are half-animal, half-human or ones that have exaggerated genitalia in celebration of fertility; plates, bowls, and vases enlivened with the traditional geometric or botanical patterns in black, ocher, and red. Also take time to head down the road to San Vicente, another small town known for its pottery.
Costa Rica has not traditionally been seen as a place to encounter Central America’s indigenous heritage. It doesn’t have the majestic ruins of high-profile pre-Columbian empires like the Aztec, the Maya, or the Inca. And its modern-day indigenous population is small in comparison to those in countries like Mexico and Guatemala. But pre-Columbian Costa Rica was in an interesting position, in that it was a crossroad of sorts. Objects and traditions from as far north as Mexico and as far south as Ecuador and Peru found their way to Costa Rica. The Gran Nicoya, located in what today is Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula, was most influenced by Mesoamerican cultures from the north like the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec. From these and other cultures came traditions and pottery styles now being revived in towns like Guatíl.