The highlands of Guatemala have a rich geological history; through years of volcanic eruptions, various types of rock, sand, and ash have combined to create channels of clay in the exposed river systems of the highland valleys. This clay is perfect for making high quality ceramics. In the 1990s, his search for just such a source of great clay brought potter Ken Edwards to Guatemala. Like many who discover the wonders of Guatemala, Edwards stayed for a long time. Today, the ceramics studio he established in San Antonio Palopo provides the unique pottery pieces featured at Unique Batik, and income to generations of potters in the mountain village.
Today, San Antonio Palopo is well-known for its high quality ceramics. Its art form is an evolution of ancient Maya pottery, influenced by modern techniques and the lessons imported by potters from other areas of the world, such as Ken Edwards. Hundreds of years ago, ancient Mayans made use of the same abundant highland clay to create ceramics for a variety of daily activities, such as the storage of food and beverages. Beginning with the Red Pottery period in AD 1200, Maya ceramics were designed for both function and aesthetics, used not just for practical purposes such as food service, but also for venerating the gods, telling stories, and commemorating the deceased. Their pottery was made using coil and slab techniques, unlike that now created in San Antonio Palopo, which is primarily created using molds.
Ken Edwards brought to San Antonio Palopo the technique of using molds to create pottery more consistently and efficiently. He also introduced modern high firing techniques that allow lead to burn out of the glazes, leaving behind a finish that is sturdy and food safe. Although born in Missouri and educated in the United States, Edwards came to Guatemala by way of Tonalá, Mexico, where he introduced his techniques to local potters in the 1950s and 1960s, receiving an award from Mexico’s President for his work educating local potters about lead free pottery. It was after becoming a well established potter in Mexico that Edwards made his way to Guatemala in search of clay. During his years in the area, he established a workshop which is still there today.
In modern-day San Antonio Palopo, 28 indigenous Maya potters ply their craft in the workshop established by Ken Edwards. The workshop is led by the Perez family, and the potters make a variety of ceramics, ranging from utilitarian pieces such as mugs, teapots, and plates, to decorative items like animal figurines. Their pottery work has meant an escape from the life of subsistence farming practiced by their family for generations and, more importantly, an escape of the poverty that came with it. Ken Edwards met the Perez brothers when he first came to the area, and after becoming friends with the family, he mentored the young men in his art. They were eager to learn because they knew the craft could be a way to improve the lives of their family and create the possibility of something better for their children. Although famous for his pottery, perhaps it is this work that can be considered Ken Edwards’ greatest legacy.