Miraculous Mata Ortiz Pots and Her Potters

A view of the village.

The village of Mata Ortiz.

It would be difficult to highlight the numerous artisans from Mata Ortiz whose work in represented here at our gallery. When we first visited the tiny dustbowl town, we really didn’t know anything about it aside from the fact that there was an amazing art-movement underway, fueled by a 50-year history and two men who were responsible for the resurgence of an ancient form of pottery.

The town itself is a collection of humble ancient adobe-brick structures, cracked stucco facades and corrugated tin roofs. An occasional commercial building here and there –a gallery or bodega– speckle the main road across from the railroad station, which hasn’t seen a locomotive for many years. There is the occasional “pottery” sign outside of a few homes, but nothing really in the way of maps or guide-books to help you make your way through the town. Eventually, we would seek out help which came in the form Diana Acosta, owner and operator of Agave Lindo Tours in nearby Casas Grande.

We had out list of artisans which we had compiled before we got to Chihuahua, people whose work we had either seen or heard about beforehand. Diana was great at giving us our initial introduction to the village and we learned a bit about the townspeople’s ways and mannerisms. You basically drive up to someone’s home, knock on the door, are invited in and are shown the artisans work. For the most part, the artisans work as a team (husband and wife), doing their work on a table in the kitchen. The children are exposed to making “ollas” (pots) at a very young age, and many of them, from age five or younger being exposed to and getting their hands into the art form that transformed this little village.

Below is Scott Peterson’s “The Renaissance of Mata Ortiz” which will give you an idea of the history of Mata Ortiz, highlighting Juan Quezada and Spencer MaCallum, whose paths would cross and eventually change the trajectory of both men and impact the town in ways that were never imagined.

Eventually, Juan would teach his brothers and sisters and that knowledge would be passed on to his sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, their family and friends. Over the years, second and third generation potters would come up, all learning from the initial trial-and-error efforts from Señior Quezada and passed along.  Juan would take certain students from the village under his wing and share technique and methodology. His magnanimous nature would infectiously spread throughout the village, further transforming his personal experience and discoveries to a completely shared knowledge. Today, there are over 450 potters working in the village.

My second visit would have me leaving Brooklyn on October 1st and driving to Chihuahua (via Arizona.) Crossing the border at Douglas/Aguas Prieta (Sanora), there would be two additional hours until reaching Casas Grande. This trip, without the advantage of having Victoria with me as translator, seemed a bit daunting. But unlike the first trip, I was quite fortunate to have a fellow importer Victoria Martino allow me to tag along with her, and both of us were assisted by an exceptionally accomplished potter named Jerardo Tena. This would bring me into homes of people in a manner that the usual gringo on a buying spree would never experience, eventually leaving a few days later with invitations to stay with a few families next time I was to visit.

Now I’m still a greenhorn at this, but I’ve gathered that there are a few tiers of pots and pottery available in Mata Ortiz. On top there are the fine-art pieces which are highly sought after internationally by serious collectors of Mata Ortiz ollas, Concurso (the annual competition) winning artisans who have been recognized for their artistry and innovation. There’s the middle-ground, those competitors who are striving to receive the recognition, who are tomorrow’s Concourso winners, and then there remains the large group of very talented potters who are happy making pots at home and happy with the sales that may come their way. Their work is still exceptional, but some of these potters are simply too old to be bothered with competition or simply resigned and content in their place. There isn’t anything particularly sub-standard to their work, some are producing amazing pieces.

We’re very pleased to have represented here at Manos de Mexicanos, a cross section of pots from a variety of artisans. There are simply too many to name or highlight within these pages. Unlike our collection of tapetes (Zapotec rugs), which we decided to carry the works from only Casa Cruz on account of the fact that (we believe) their work stands out far and above the rest of the weavers in Teotitlán de Valle, the variety and breadth of talent and creativity comings from from Mata Ortiz makes paring the selection process down to just a few artisans a near impossibility. The problem is, you want to buy from everyone.

I want to share a few details about the pottery that are on interest, and keep in mind when looking at the images below. None of the pottery made in Mata Ortiz is made on a wheel, none! Each piece is hand-formed from local clay, carefully sifted and refined in order to remove any particles that can compromise the pieces. The painting on the ollas, from intricate and exacting geometric designs to organic shapes is all done by hand with fine brushes made from children’s hair bound together in as little as three-strands. Many of the “pinturas” or paints are simply that, they are not a glaze but a combination of local materials and other ingredients. The pots are not fired in a kiln either, but burned over an open fire of cottonwood. This burning is what makes the colors “stick”, but also puts the ollas to their final test. Any imperfections in the clay during the burning process will cause the pots to literally explode into pieces. This is the reason for the meticulous process of making sure the clay is free of imperfections, as something as small as a grain of sand will compromise the pot. Considering the burning is the last step in the process, there is a lot to lose by allowing even the smallest imperfection to pass inspection.

Please enjoy the images below. We invite you to visit the gallery and see “up close and personal” for yourself. Remember we do not offer internet sales, for the same reason we drive to Chihuahua ourselves to purchase the ollas, they need to be seen in person.