The story of Mata Ortiz began with the curiosity of a young boy, Juan Quezada, wandering in the mountains to gather wood for his family. The village of Mata Ortiz is in the foothills of the mountains in the area of ancient Paquime, the ruins of which can be seen nearby. Mata Ortiz was a poor town, the inhabitants living off the land by subsistence farming and raising a few cattle. Young Juan, alone in his wanderings, found shards of pottery, not uncommon in the region. The markings intrigued him. Time and again he pulled them out at home to examine in the quiet of an afternoon. The geometric drawings were clear enough that he visualized and drew pictures of entire ollas, or pots, to create the original designs. In his quiet manner, he experimented with clay, such as commonly found in the hills and river beds. Over fifteen years of playing with mixtures of clay with ash and water, burying them in a pit to fire them, trying out different fuels, Juan not only became a man but an artist as well.
In the mid-seventies, anthropologist Spencer MacCallum entered an antique store in Deming, New Mexico. There, up high on a shelf, were three pots of a superb design. Requesting to see them more closely, he marveled at their lightness, their fragile strength. Dusting them off, he casually asked where they came from. The answer, “from some place in Mexico,” intrigued him. MacCallum had lived in Mexico as a child during the war years and spoke Spanish fluently.
Within a few short months, MacCallum reconnoitered the dry, dusty towns of northern Chihuahua and was led to unimpressive Mata Ortiz. Entering the small home of Juan Quezada, now married with children, the two men talked briefly. Offering a commission in cash for more pots, MacCallum left with the promise of returning in three months.
Through this contact a partnership was formed that has continued to grow, putting Mata Ortiz on the map and forever changing the lives of the townspeople. Today over 400 potters are busy at work, some of them creating original work of the most exquisite design and texture.
How it’s made
The unique combination of clay and volcanic ash was developed over years of experimentation by Juan Quezada. He works with the clay by forming a tortilla as the base, then shaping a chorizo (sausage) coil into the desired form. The entire surface is smoothed by hand, then sanded and allowed to air dry. Polishing with stones or deer bones creates the fine texture and compresses the clay for strength and finish. Designs are hand-painted with fine brushes of human hair and the paints are derived from clays and mineral deposits.
An early firing is sometimes made in old iron stoves at extreme temperatures, then the pot is moved to an outdoor oven created by building an enclosure around combustible materials, such as cow dung. Temperatures of around 1600° F are reached to complete the firing process, which may take up to twenty minutes. Often the actual color of the clay changes in the firing process. After the firing, the clay-based paint is melded chemically with the clay of the pot itself.
No two alike, the art in pottery of Mata Ortiz is based on pre-Hispanic designs of the ancient culture of Paquime, delicatley drawn freehand on the varied shapes of the modern pots. It’s truly a unique experiment in combining contemporary methods with prehistoric tradition. This custom, lost in time, has grown out of the curiosity and ingenuity of Juan Quezada and others who have perfected the technique to an exceptional level. Mata Ortiz pottery exists in museums and private collections around the world, including the US, Canada, Japan and Europe.