The Chulucanas Pottery Process – Turning Clay into Art

Songbirds lamp - chulucanas handmade potteryThe people of Chulucanas, Peru are known for their pottery. Using clay from the ground beneath their feet, they massage and shape it to create masterful pieces of art. The clay and techniques used are unique to this art form, and from it they achieve an elegant, soft beauty unlike any other type of sculpting.

The following is a look at the Chulucanas Pottery process following the product of our Songbirds Lamp from the artisan group, Allpa, in Peru.

Preparing the Chulucanas Clay

It is necessary to remove the air inside the clay and make it even. This is done by kneading the clay to work out any bubbles or air pockets.  Giancarlo Gallardo is the “amasador” on this project, or “the kneader.”

Shaping the Clay

Working the Wheel - chulucanas handmade pottery

Once the clay has been processed, it moves to the wheel to be shaped. Working the wheel is Cesar Yovera.

Using his hands and after the lamp comes off of the wheel, it must dry for a few days before it can be finished. The length of drying time depends on the weather. Applying water, he hollows out the clay and then raises the sides. With a stone, he applies pressure to both the inside and the outside to give it shape.

He uses his tools to shave off any excess clay and coaxes it into shape with his hands, gently tapering the top until only a small hole remains. Cesar then cleans the top using a rock.  He measures the piece, cuts the hole to size, and removes the piece from the wheel.

Refining the Shape

Refining the Shape - chulucanas handmade pottery

After a few days, the lamp can be refined, though the clay is still damp. Luis Yovera works on the finishing. He uses wire and a piece of a tape measure to smooth the clay. (Each person uses the tools that work best for them.)

Luis uses the wire first and then applies water, using the tape measure last to smooth the clay. The shavings that are removed from the clay are recycled so nothing goes to waste. He then cuts a hole in the base to create a place for the cord to sit. Finally, he flips the lamp and repeats the smoothing process.

Painting and Burnishing the Clay

Painting and Burnishing the Clay - chulucanas handmade pottery

After the smoothing and finishing, the lamp only sits for 30 minutes before moving onto the next process–the “engobado” process. Alexander Merino Ipanaque applies light blue color, using a brush and spinning wheel. The pigment is mixed with white clay so that a shine will appear when the piece is burnished. Alexander applies the color three times in order to assure that the finish is even.

After the engobado process, the lamp sits for 15 minutes to dry before burnishing. Maria Lopez burnishes the lamp by rubbing a river rock in a circular fashion over the clay. She uses her own tools and is able to complete 10 to 15 pieces per day.

Firing and Decorating Lamp

Firing and Decorating Lamp - chulucanas handmade pottery

After the lamp is burnished, it is allowed to dry and then fired in the kiln.

The lamp then goes to be decorated. The piece is dipped into liquid clay. The artisans then use a pattern to remove the liquid clay where they want the piece to be blackened. In the case of the lamp, the birds and leaves are left black.

Alex Sosa - Songbirds Lamp - chulucanas handmade potteryThe piece is then fired a second time. Victor Ruidiaz operates the kiln. Lamps are placed inside the kiln, which is then covered and topped with stones. Victor stokes the fire with mango leaves in order to smoke the pieces and  create a rich black finish. Each piece is smoked four times to achieve this deep color.

After the firing, artisans chip away the clay to reveal the negative space.

Alex Sosa proudly presents the finished Songbirds Lamp.



Jessica Wieser

A previous copywriter for Ten Thousand Villages, Jess is fond of campfires, rainy days and dark chocolate. She enjoys filling her house with furry and not-so-furry critters (currently counting two rats, one puppy and a tortoise). With a secret love for punk rock and horror film, she spends her free time writing weird poems, drinking tea, and dancing badly to old songs.

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