An Exciting Trip
Driving a rented Volkswagen Bug in the summer of 2000, we bounced our way around the circumference of lake Patzcuaro and headed west toward Ocumichu. Along the way, we found the artist, Bulmaro, and the whole Alejos family in San José de Gracia, near Patamban. They were working on making huge ceramic water vessels, called “Cocuchas”, when we arrived. As we were shown the extent of their work, we found ourselves more and more enamored. Taking the forms of punch bowls, towers of piñas, and candle holders, their ceramics work has been entered in many diverse competitions. Over the years, it has become ever more detailed. The elaborate work requires exceptional skill, imagination, and mastery. This art form is the main form of income for the family and they work full time to perfect their skill. Bulmaro’s brother, Hilario, who worked alongside him, is one of the featured master artists honored in the amazing book “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art”.
The Rare Cocucha
Only becoming known to the outside world as of late, the Cocuchas, these majestic water vessels from the central region of Michoacan, Mexico, are made from clay extracted from the ground near the volcano Parucutín. The “Cocuchas” are crafted entirely by hand.
In pre-Hispanic times, this type of vessel was said to be used as burial urns and as a means to hide valuables. They are still made in the remote village of Cocucho by diminutive Purépecha Indian women, and have been for more than 300 years.
Crafting the Cocuchas
Without the aid of a potters wheel or molds, these pots are crafted using the coil method. Each pot is started by forming a bucket shaped base, then the walls are built by winding coils of soft clay upward. The tall vessel emerges as the coils are added. Because it is so large, the vessel must be made in stages over several days, waiting each day for the clay to reach appropriate dryness so it can support the newly added weight of each new layer. Once the main body of the Cocucha is ‘leather hard’, it is time to finish the pot by adding the final coils to form the neck and lip.
The final finish of the Cocucha is also achieved through a multi-step process. First, the vessel is smoothed by rubbing with a corn cob all over the outer surface. The pot must then be dried sufficiently so that it will survive the firing process. Each vessel is laid onto an open fire, covered with burning branches, and turned as it makes the transformation from clay to pottery, vitrifying slowly in the heat. This rolling fire is quite unique to the region. Hot spots in the rolling fire pit are the cause of the beautiful black fire markings on the Cocucha’s surface.
The women of the village are experts at their art, but still only four of ten Cocucha pots actually make it through the creation process. The largest vessels often reach more than five feet tall, commonly larger than the artisan that created them.
Traditional Uses of Cocuchas
Many of these amazing urns are put to use collecting valuable rain water outside of the traditional log cabins, called “Trojes”. The Cocuchas are also used for storing corn of the ancient strains: multi-color speckled, red, and blue. Because of the extreme size and fragile nature, these beautiful vessels are not commonly seen outside of the remote villages where they are created.
When the Cocuchas do make it to the outside world, the transportation process is very difficult. The women of the village start off the journey by packing the pots directly into open trucks. This is the first step on the way to market. Each humongous pot is wrapped with the artisan’s ‘reboso’ (cloth scarf) and hoisted onto the back of woman who created it. With her friends at her sides to stabilize the pottery, she carries the vessel to the truck, where it is nested into a bed of saw dust and surrounded carefully so that it will not come into contact with the Cocucha packed next to it. The unpaved roads of the region can be very bumpy and the ride is a long slow journey.
Cocuchas at No Mas!
If you aren’t planning to make a trip to southern Mexico soon you may enjoy seeing the collection of Cocuchas on exhibit at No Mas! As an addition to the more tradional Cocucha water vessel, we are now selling the Cocucha “Asador”, created in recent years as a small fire place meant for grilling food.