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On the high plains of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, about 150 miles from the Arizona, New Mexico or Texas borders, lies the small remote village of Mata Ortiz, which has recently become known for its production of exquisite, handmade, decorative pottery, reviving a lost ceramic tradition dating back to prehistoric times. It's not a tradition that has been passed down through generations. Until 25 years ago, no one in Mata Ortiz made pottery or knew much about it.

Just north of Mata Ortiz, near the village of Casas Grandes, there are pueblo style adobe ruins of the prehistoric Casas Grandes Culture called Paquime, once a magnificent city with multiple storied dwellings. Casas Grandes was part of a vast trading network which had affiliations with Mesoamerica and the early Pueblo cultures of what is now the American Southwest. One of the most important items of trade from the Casas Grandes region was pottery, much of which was produced at Paquime. A wealth of this pottery was unearthed when the ruins were excavated by the Amerind Foundation of Arizona in the late 1950's, under the direction of Dr. Charles DiPeso. It is this Casas Grandes pottery, this ancient tradition, which has given the potters of Mata Ortiz their inspiration.

Juan Quezada is the person responsible for reviving this ceramic tradition, which has transformed the village of Mata Ortiz. As a young boy, he explored the mountains and valleys of the region, finding prehistoric artifacts, including pottery, potsherds, effigy figures and stone tools, all remnants of the Casas Grandes Culture which had flourished in the region in the 13th and 14th centuries, and then declined and disappeared before the Spaniards arrived. Knowing that the ancient potters had had the resources and technology to create pottery, Juan began to work with clay, at first imitating the ancient pieces, and then creating his own. He taught himself to make pottery through trial and error, experimentation and observation, developing his own unique style using what is known as the tortilla and coil method and eventually mastering the craft. He then shared this knowledge with his brothers and sisters, who by now are all skilled potters. They, in turn, taught other people in the village. Now, Mata Ortiz, a village of 2000 inhabitants, is experiencing an artistic explosion. There are currently more than 300 potters and the number keeps growing. Each has developed his or her own unique style, creating exquisite, thin-walled pots of amazing symmetry and intricate design, without the use of potters' wheels or kilns.

In 1976, Juan Quezada was discovered by Spencer MacCallum, an American anthropologist, who had found some of Juan's pots in a curio store in New Mexico. Spencer took photos of the pots to the city of Nuevo Casas Grandes and inquired as to whether anyone had information regarding the maker of these pots. He was told that the potter might be found in Mata Ortiz. Expecting to meet a woman (the tradition in many cultures is for women to make pottery), Spencer was surprised to find Juan Quezada, then an unknown, self-taught ceramic artist of incredible talent. Spencer helped to establish Juan as a major ceramic artist in the United States through exhibitions and workshops, and now, after years of laboring in fields and orchards, cutting wood and working for the railroad, Juan has achieved world-wide recognition. Many of his pieces are in major museums and private collections around the world.

Mata Ortiz is situated between the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad and the Palanganas River, 20 miles south of the Paquime ruins. The village was first established as a work camp when the railroad was being expanded deeper into Mexico. Later, for some years there was an operating lumber mill in Mata Ortiz which exploited timber from the nearby Sierra Madre mountains, and in the 1930's a railroad repair yard was established there. The lumber industry and the railroad provided the villagers with jobs through the years, as well as the nearby fruit orchards of Colonia Juarez, a Mormon settlement that developed at the turn of the century as a major agricultural and ranching industry in one of the most fertile areas of northern Chihuahua. The orchards are still a source of income for many who are not potters.

With the start of the Mexican Revolution, early in the 20th century, the lumber industry and the railroad came to a halt. Life in the village, as in the rest of Mexico, was transformed. Much of the land in Mexico at that time was held by large private haciendas, and as a result of the agrarian reforms of the Revolution, these lands were redistributed among the peasants. Mata Ortiz became an ejido, an agricultural community in which the land is held and managed communally. Today, members of the ejido, many of whom are potters, still graze their livestock in the mountains and on the plains surrounding Mata Ortiz and work their individual plots or land called labores. In the 1960's the railroad repair yard was moved to Nuevo Casas Grandes and Mata Ortiz lost its economic base.

But Juan Quezada, through his curious nature and artistic genius, has unintentionally created an opportunity for a better way of life in Mata Ortiz. In the past 10 years pottery making has become a full time occupation for many and is their primary source of income. Ownership of cars and trucks and home improvements such as indoor plumbing and added rooms have resulted from this change in status. Since Juan's discovery, a strong market for this pottery has developed, particularly in the Southwestern United States. Mata Ortiz attracts traders, collectors, gallery owners, potters and tourists. The potters depend mainly on the traders for most of their sales, and the tourists are warmly welcomed. The moment a newcomer arrives in the village, members of the potters' families appear on the streets inviting you into their homes to see the pottery. When you enter, you become immersed in their lives.

Pottery is everywhere, in all stages of production. The work is done wherever space can be made - often a room serves as a work space during the day and as a living and sleeping space at night. In some homes the pottery might be precariously placed on beds, with young children very close by. There is competition among the potters, which is very healthy, for it encourages them to produce work of the highest quality, reaching new artistic and technical heights. Although the potters were influenced by Juan Quezada at first, they have developed their individual styles and techniques. Many of the intricate, fine lined designs are reminiscent of the ancient Casas Grandes pottery and the Pueblo pottery of the American Southwest; others are more original and some incorporate ancient and contemporary stylistic elements.

The raw clays and pigments are from the natural environment and are obtained from the rich deposits found in the hills and valleys surrounding Mata Ortiz. Extracting and processing the clays and pigments is a difficult task and one of the more time consuming and labor intensive aspects of the process. Quite often the tasks necessary to complete a pot are shared by family members, but the extracting and processing of the clays is done by the men. If the deposits become depleted, the potters must search for new ones and then test them before they can be used successfully. Within the family, pottery making is a team effort and helps to better support the family. Unlike most pottery producing centers where a traditional clay body is employed that identifies the pottery, Mata Ortiz potters use a variety of clays to produce finished pots in white, red, black, tan, pink, even mixing several clays together, to produce a marbleized clay body.

Most of the clays are pure in their natural state and do not contain temper, which strengthens and binds the clay. Without temper the clay is subject to cracks and explosions during the drying and firing processes, so many potters mix two clays together, one which contains a natural temper such as sand or volcanic ash. The clay is washed, soaked, strained and dried in a plaster trough. The clay is then kneaded or wedged into a workable consistency before it is used.

Although a potters' hands are his tools, a few basic implements are used: a plaster mold for the forming of the bottoms of the pots (like the ancient pots, the bottoms are rounded), a rolling pin for spreading out the clay tortilla which is put into the mold, to which a thick coil of clay is attached and then pinched into the desired shape, a hacksaw blade to scrape away excess clay, a sponge to smooth the clay at various stages, a sharp object to cut off excess clay and produce clean edges, sandpaper to smooth the dried pot and a stone for polishing the pot. The brushes used to paint the designs are made of human hair. A few long strands of hair are tied to a stick or pencil to produce the thin lines, and many hairs cut short and blunt (much like a traditional paintbrush) are used to fill in the designs with the pigments. The pots are preheated in the cook oven or wood stove, then the firings are done under large ceramic flower pots or metal tubs (quemadors) and cow dung, tree bark or wood is used for fuel, which covers the quemador. The firings take about half an hour. After the firings the pots are checked for cracks to make sure they have survived. The firings can literally make or break a piece. The rate of loss is relatively high, due to the nature of the clay and the type of firings. Losing a piece is very discouraging, given the time that goes into making the piece, as some require a week or more to paint the more intricate designs. Potters are always at the mercy of the elements, especially the wind and the rain so some potters fire their pots in protected areas.

Over the years, through experimentation, changes have taken place at all stages of production. By now the potters have a greater understanding of the process, allowing them to test the limits of the clay. In many cultures the traditional custom is for women to make the pots and the men paint the designs. But in Mata Ortiz there is no specific division of labor in terms of gender or age. Anyone can make and paint pots, and each potter's body of work takes on a personal identity and each piece is signed by the artist. What is not understood is how so many potters have become so proficient in such a short time.

So what began as a revival of the prehistoric Casas Grandes ceramic tradition has evolved into an artistic tradition of its own. Mata Ortiz has earned its reputation as a major pottery producing center in northern Mexico and the American Southwest and recently there have been several major exhibits of Mata Ortiz pottery at museums, universities and galleries. A related body of work has also been produced which includes a documentary video and several books.

Consistent with the ancient tradition, the materials used to produce these exquisite pots are found in the natural environment. The artistic impulse is timeless. Juan Quezada and the first generation of potters are passing their knowledge on to their children, and for many of these second generation potters this is the only work they have ever known. It is interesting that after a 500 year hiatus, pottery is as important to the economy of Mata Ortiz as it was to Casas Grandes in ancient times. Perhaps this legacy will extend into future generations, and Mata Ortiz will flourish, much as Casas Grandes did long ago.

About The Author: Barbara Goffin

Barbara Goffin has been a professional potter for more then 20 years and holds a degree in Latin American Studies. She has been associated with Mata Ortiz for 4 1/ 2 years and has developed personal relationships with many of the potters and their families. Barbara now divides her time between Woodstock, New York and the Casas Grandes region. She has curated exhibits of Mata Ortiz pottery for galleries and universities, lectures at schools and archaeological societies and is currently in the process of organizing ceramic workshops in the U.S. with several of the potters from Mata Ortiz. She is happy to provide information to anyone interested in learning more about Mata Ortiz and the Casas Grandes region and is available as a guide for small groups whenever she is in the region.

About The Pottery

Casas pictures are from the PAQUIME RUINS. Town pictures are of Mata Ortiz. The pottery which illustrates these pages include some PREHISTORIC CASAS GRANDES POTS, as well as modern pots and platers by JUAN QUEZADA, OLGA QUEZADA, HECTOR CALLEGOS, ARMANDO RODRIGUEZ, GERARDO COTA, LYDIA QUEZADA, SILVIA SILVEIRA and EDUARDO ORTIZ.

Contact Information

    14 Juniper Lane
    Woodstock NY 12498
    (914) 679-7826

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This text is edited from the ethnographic video THE POTTERS OF MATA ORTIZ, produced by Barbara Goffin. Copyright 1994 Barbara Goffin. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction or redistribution of this article is strictly prohibited without permission.

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