Mata Ortiz is in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, near the San Luis Mountains. A small village of three-wide dusty streets and five barrios, it was once a lumber town along the Chihuahua Pacifico railroad. When the local mill closed around 1910, the town suffered from economic depression and residents struggled to get by with cattle ranching and agricultural activities. While most modern residents had come to the region from elsewhere, the area was once the epicenter of a sophisticated indigenous society known as Paquimé, or Casas Grandes (c. 1150-1450).
The story of Mata Ortiz pottery begins with Juan Quezada Celado (b. 1940), whose family arrived in town when he was an infant. Juan had little formal education and by the age of twelve, he was venturing into the local mountains to collect firewood for his family. During these excursions, Juan began to discover pottery shards from the ruins of the city of Paquimé in local caves. Over time, he began to understand the full complexity of the civilization’s pottery designs, materials, and construction. Directly inspired by his discoveries, Juan began experimenting with making pottery, deriving many of his motifs from these ancient Paquimé creations. Quezada began as a hobbyist, but later, his craft became a serious artistic and professional endeavor. By the mid-1970s, he was selling his wares to traders and collectors and his pottery had become popular enough to warrant employing various family members and relatives as his workshop assistants. Inspired by Quezada’s success, another important group of ceramicists saw their reputations grow. Operating in the south of the village, Barrio Porvenir, the Ortiz family, comprised of four brothers, also became renowned for Mata Ortiz pottery.
In 1976, American anthropologist Spencer MacCallum came across Quezada’s pots in a local secondhand store in New Mexico and was taken with their unique design and reference to the Paquimé tradition. He was compelled to search for the source of these vessels, ultimately encountering Quezada in Mata Ortiz. MacCallum readily recognized the potter’s talent and offered him a monthly stipend so he could pursue his craft with fewer financial constraints. Spencer promoted Juan and the other village potters to an eager market in the United States, introducing their work to the public through galleries and exhibitions in the late 1970s. Today, largely because of his efforts, the Museum of Man in San Diego’s Balboa Park, among other museum collections, have Mata Ortiz ceramics in their holdings.
Mata Ortiz ceramics are unique for being thin-walled, low fired, and hand-built. Many contain historic design motifs such as birds and heart lines, while others rely on geometric patterns. Others embrace a pure black and hand-buffed aesthetic. In nearly all instances, these highly intricate designs are produced freehand, with no patterns or stencils. While most Indigenous pottery is built from multiple coils, Mata Ortiz ceramics are typically created from a single coil of clay, a unique innovation. Hand-forming is often done on hubcaps, shaping happens with hacksaw blades, and painting is freehand. Burnishing the fired pots can be done with a favorite stone, or by way of a myriad of processes.
“Quezada undoubtedly ranks among the greatest living ceramicists worldwide.”
Natural resources local to the region are utilized by the potters for slips and pigments. It took nearly 25 years, up until the early 1990s, before Quezada determined the best materials for these purposes, largely through a process of trial and error. The painting is done by Mata Ortiz artists with ultra-fine paintbrushes made of human hair, each containing approximately 20 strands. The firing process is likewise unique to the region; Quezada’s preferred fuel for the pyre is the cow puck.
Travel from the United States into the region, even today, can be arduous, requiring intrepid visitors to fly first to El Paso. With the help of a local guide, the journey leads into northern Chihuahua and Cuidad Juarez, then past the Copper Canyon area, home of the Tarahumara Indians. The closest lodging is generally in Nuevo Casas Grandes, as Mata Ortiz has limited services for travelers. The village is comprised of five barrios separated by a river and an arroyo, both of which could be difficult to access. Quezada lives in the largest neighborhood, Barrio de la Plaza, and often receives guests to his studio. Word of mouth is often the most common way to find one’s way around town to explore the workshops of the various potters who are residents there. Those who make their way to Quezada’s establishment often remark on his graciousness and his generous explanations of the ceramic process. He has also become an important teacher to younger generations of potters in the region. Today, more than 600 people in the small village earn their income from pottery production. A visitor to the village will encounter potters in their homes, beans on the stove, and babies in swinging cribs, while artisans work on their pots at kitchen tables.
While access has steadily improved as Mata Ortiz’s renowned has increased, such acclaim has had some drawbacks for aspects of traditional ways of life. At the same time, Quezada’s influence on the small town is undeniable and has reaffirmed the stature of the once-celebrated ancient city.
Quezada undoubtedly ranks among the greatest living ceramicists worldwide.