The Potters of Mata Ortiz

Guillermina and Juan Quezada at the celebration of Juan s birthday in 1997. photo, southwest art.
Guillermina and Juan Quezada at the celebration of Juan’s birthday in 1997.

By Walter Parks

The rough cattle country of northern Chihuahua in Mexico seems hardly the place to find an artistic movement. Yet a few dozen miles south of the rugged San Luis Mountains, the residents of a small village produce a thin-walled, finely painted ceramic ware rivaling any handmade pottery in the world. Its originator, Juan Quezada, was discovered in 1976. With a few notable exceptions, most of the potters are young. In fact, this pottery is so new that there is no agreement as to what it should be called. Some use the name “Casas Grandes” after those who occupied the area hundreds of years ago. Others call it “New Casas Grandes” to distinguish the new pottery from prehistoric pieces found in the Casas Grandes ruins. Still others prefer to call it “Mata Ortiz” pottery after the village where it originated.

Juan Quezada, Olla [1976-1979], 14 x 16. Courtesy San Diego Museum of Man.,pottery, southwest art.
Juan Quezada, Olla [1976-1979], 14 x 16. Courtesy San Diego Museum of Man.

Whatever the name, the pottery originates in a dusty little village, only three streets wide, which straggles for over a mile between a branch of the Casas Grandes River and the Chihuahua Al Pacifico railroad tracks. Mata Ortiz boomed briefly as a lumber town after the turn of the century, processing logs hauled down from the Sierra Madre range. The Mexican Revolution disrupted operations, however, and the mill closed sometime after 1910. Those families that remained subsisted on small farms or ran a few cattle on the plains. They found intermittent work repairing the railroad tracks or in the apple orchards near the only large town in the area, Nuevo Casas Grandes.

Dami an Quezada,pottery, southwest art.
Dami´an Quezada

Most families in the village trace their roots to other places. Juan Quezada arrived as a baby. He grew up as a country boy with little formal schooling. At age 12, he began taking long trips into the mountains alone with the family burro to collect firewood.

As he crossed the plains to the mountains, he entertained himself by collecting the beautifully painted pottery sherds from the prehistoric mounds.

No one knew anything about the people who had made the pottery, but everyone knew about the ruins of the great city called Paquimé, which lay to the north about 15 miles, the center of the Casas Grandes culture that had flourished between about 1000 and 1400. The mounds on the plains were the remains of outlying communities that spread for miles around Paquimé.

Roberto and Angela Banuelos,pottery, southwest art.
Roberto and Angela Bañuelos

In the mountains, huddled before a fire under a yucca blanket, the boy would pull the sherds from his pockets and examine the precise geometric decorations. Sometimes he could recognize a figure in the design, usually a bird. He wondered about the ancient people and how they made such objects. When he had time at home, he dug clay in the arroyos, soaked it, and tried to make pots. They all cracked. He kept trying.

Eventually, after studying the broken edges of the sherds, he realized that the clay needed a little sand or other material in the mix to prevent cracking. He figured out how to make the round bottoms similar to the prehistoric pots by using a little mold. When he found such molds in the mounds

Manuel Rodri guez,pottery, southwest art.
Manuel Rodri´guez

later, he knew he was on the right track. Gradually, step by step, he mastered the process. By the time he was a young man, he was making and decorating credible pots for his own amusement. Without any instruction, he had re-created the entire ceramic technology from clay preparation to firing using only the sherds to guide him.

Yet he could only work at this diversion in his spare time. By now he was married and had to support his own family doing whatever jobs he could find as a cowboy, in the fields, on the railroad, and a few times across the border, legally as a bracero [day laborer] and illegally as a mojado.

Pottery kept enticing him, however, and sometime around 1974 he decided to

Consolaci on Quezada (courtesy San Diego Museum of Man).,pottery, southwest art.
Consolaci´on Quezada (courtesy San Diego Museum of Man).

concentrate on making pots. He had begun to sell enough to local traders to risk leaving his work on the railroad. Repairing track earned the equivalent of a few dollars a day, whereas the sale of just one pot equaled one day’s wages and sometimes more. Juan’s modest success attracted the interest of his brothers and sisters, so he began to show them the rudiments of what he had learned.

Eventually Nicolás, Reynaldo, and Lydia became superb potters, followed by Consolación, Reynalda, Rosa, Jesús, and Genoveva. The Quezada siblings in turn had children who grew up with their hands in the clay. Thus this extended family, plus a few neighbors, became the core of the pottery movement in Mata Ortiz.

Nicol as Ortiz, Turtle [1997], 71⁄2 x 131⁄2.,pottery, southwest art.
Nicol´as Ortiz, Turtle [1997], 71⁄2 x 131⁄2.

An important digression from the main Quezada-inspired movement occurred not long after Juan began to devote his full attention to pottery. A man named Félix Ortiz, who lived in a neighborhood called Barrio Porvenir at the extreme south end of the village, became interested. How much he actually learned from Juan will never be known, but by the late 1970s he was producing pottery using Juan’s techniques but in his own style, with sweeping, unstructured designs considerably different from Juan’s carefully crafted symmetry. Influenced by Félix Ortiz and less directly by Juan Quezada, individuals and family groups began making pottery, mostly of a lower quality than that produced in the center of the village by those closer to Juan.

Some good work came from

Jos e Quezada, Olla, 151⁄2 x 13.,pottery, southwest art.
Jos´e Quezada, Olla, 151⁄2 x 13

Porvenir, particularly from another Ortiz family: brothers Nicolás, Macario, and Eduardo, not directly related to Félix. For the first decade or so after it reached the U.S. markets, Mata Ortiz pottery fell into two broad categories the finely made pieces from the main part of the village and the cruder version from Porvenir. The distinction has diminished considerably since then.

In 1976 an American trained in anthropology and art history, Spencer MacCallum, discovered three of Juan’s pots in a junk store just north of the border in Deming, NM. He had no idea what they were, but their artistic integrity came across so powerfully that he knew he had made an important discovery.

He began a search for the potter who had made them, a search which led him to Mata Ortiz and Juan Quezada’s little adobe house along the river. As he examined more

Arturo Ledezma, Olla, 71⁄2 x 8.,pottery, southwest art.
Arturo Ledezma, Olla, 71⁄2 x 8.

of Juan’s pots, MacCallum was struck by the fact that he was seeing an original art form. He was so taken with the discovery that he returned again and again, ultimately spending most of his time and money over the next eight years working with Juan and a growing number of other potters in the village.

This meeting between Juan Quezada and MacCallum was a defining moment. Before they met, only a few potters worked intermittently; sales were sporadic even for Juan. MacCallum’s contacts, salesmanship, and perseverance found the all-important markets essential to the potters’ survival.

He showed pieces to museum curators, academicians, gallery owners, and whoever else would look until he convinced an important segment of the ceramic establishment that this Mata Ortiz pottery movement was an original and

Nicol as Quezada, Casuela with stand [1998], 5 x 11.,pottery, southwest art.
Nicol´as Quezada, Casuela with stand [1998], 5 x 11.

significant phenomenon worthy of attention. His efforts culminated in an exhibition on Juan Quezada and the pottery that traveled to five prestigious galleries in Arizona, New Mexico, and California in 1979 and 1980. Juan Quezada and the New Tradition featured Juan’s work plus pieces by Nicolás Quezada, Reynaldo Quezada, Lydia Quezada, Félix Ortiz, and Taurina Baca. MacCallum kept the collection intact during the succeeding years and turned it over in its entirety to the Museum of Man in San Diego, CA, in 1997.

This exhibit helped to establish Mata Ortiz pottery as a legitimate art movement, which continued to gain momentum during the 1980s. More and more U.S. traders discovered the village and brought the pottery north across the border to an expanding market. The path of least resistance led to American Indian galleries, virtually the only outlets for high-quality ethnic pottery. Even in these locations, dealers had to overcome prejudice against “Mexican” versus “authentic Indian” pottery. This unusual ware showed so well, however, that it was accepted and sold.

Gradual market acceptance in the 1980s was followed by an unprecedented flowering of Mata Ortiz styles and skills in the 1990s, a development that even the most ardent admirers had failed to predict. The first sign of the new burst of activity lay in the large number of young people who began potting in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was almost as though an entire generation, upon reaching adulthood, chose Juan Quezada as an occupational inspiration. Some of these newcomers had grown up in established potting families, but many had not. The list of new potting families grew dramatically, adding the names of López, Rodríguez, Ledezma, Gallegos, Martínez, Domínguez, and Cota. And the list continues to expand. Traders now regularly report some unknown youngster doing fantastic work, newly discovered on their last buying trip.

Experimentation and innovation have always characterized the approach in Mata Ortiz, beginning with Juan Quezada’s first fumbling attempts to form a vessel from wet sticky clay. No artificial barriers restrict fledgling potters neither tradition, caste, or even gender in their development. Dozens of young potters look first to Juan and the other Quezadas and then proceed to do their own distinct thing. There is no cultural pattern that must be followed. In fact, there is no pattern at all in the way potters have learned the craft and developed their styles. The variety is endless: father teaching son, son teaching father; wife teaching husband, husband teaching wife; traditional use of old designs, abstract use of old designs, complete departure from old designs; symmetry, asymmetry; new clays, new paints; and more.

A few years ago some admirers worried that Mata Ortiz pottery might degenerate into repetitious ware of low quality, as so many traditional folk-art movements have in the past. From the first, however, Juan Quezada and Spencer MacCallum emphasized quality, and newer traders for the most part have picked up the theme and purchased only the best examples. Even in Porvenir, the products have improved significantly. Now traders keep “discovering” good potters there who, in fact, have been working for years.

Rarely do we see an artistic movement expanding and flowering before our eyes. The ceramic art spilling out of the plains of northern Chihuahua, however, moves today through its prime period, and we can watch it happen. Juan Quezada, the originator and prime mover, continues to experiment and innovate. Dozens of potters pride themselves on following his general style, and dozens more measure their success against how far they can depart from his style and still produce credible work. No one knows where their art movement is going, but it is clear that the culmination is still ahead.

Photos courtesy Treasure Chest Books.

Featured in December 1999