A remote desert village developed an unexpected route to prosperity
MATA ORTIZ, Mexico ? As a boy scouring the hills for firewood, Juan Quezada would find shards of pottery. He studied them, noting how different pieces were made from different clays, and that they were covered with intricate patterns. One day, he came across an undisturbed burial cave of the Paquimé, a civilization that had flourished in northern Mexico and the southern United States before the Spanish conquest. Inside the cave he found three intact pots. So taken was he with their beauty that he vowed to recreate them — no easy task, since no one knew how that pottery was made. He needed to find the clays, locate the native pigments and figure out how to fire the pots without kilns.
That was more than 50 years ago. Quezada spent 16 more years learning, by trial and error, to produce his first good pot.
He might have remained an unknown and impoverished potter, and Mata Ortiz just another dusty northern Mexico village, had it not been for Spencer MacCallum.
MacCallum, who has a degree in art history from Princeton, was living in San Pedro, California in the early 1970s when he bought, at a yard sale, a 14th century Paquimé pot.
?I put it on my piano at home,? he recalled, ?and I would pass it every day.?
A few years later, in Bob?s Swap Shop in Deming, NM, he found three lovely, small pots that looked familiar.
?I immediately recognized them as being made by someone who knew about Paquimé pots,? he said. He wanted to know who had made them, but the owner had no idea. Armed with photos, MacCallum set out for Mexico to find the person who had made the Paquimé pots, 500 years after that civilization had been destroyed.
Amazingly, it only took MacCallum two days to find Quezada.
It was a double surprise.
?I was surprised it was Juan, a man,? said MacCallum, ?since most potters in traditional Native American cultures are women, and Juan couldn?t believe anyone would ever come looking for him.?
Reviving a Lost Art
By the time MacCallum arrived in this remote village about 100 miles south of the U.S. border, Quezada had already been selling his pots for a few dollars in U.S. stores, and was teaching family members how to make them. MacCallum bought what he considered Quezada?s best pots. Soon he was promoting them in the United States. Quezada?s pots began to improve dramatically, and as they began to command higher prices in the United States, more villagers grew interested in making them. Knowledge about how to make them spread through the village, but not in a way most North Americans would expect.
?One day, I was trying to explain to people how the pots are made,? said MacCallum, ?and Juan took me aside and said, ?Those that are going to get it, will get it by observing, and then they will have made a discovery and it?ll be their own. Don?t tell them so much.? I?d have to say that there?s really no teaching, but there is a lot of learning.?
Today, pots made by Mata Ortiz?s master potters fetch as much as $15,000, and are featured in galleries and museums around the world, including the Smithsonian. But local pots run from a few dollars to about $50.
See a clip from a documentary about the development of Mata Ortiz pottery, by the Holden Brothers:
From Unemployment to Tourism
Before Quezada revived the ancient pottery techniques, and MacCallum marketed them, Mata Ortiz?s economic prospects were bleak. A lumber mill that had once provided employment for the village was abandoned in the early 1900s, after being partially destroyed in the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Until the early 1960s, there was a railroad yard, but that was relocated to Nuevo Casas Grandes, a modern city about 25 miles away. The last of the formal jobs in Mata Ortiz disappeared along with it. Many people worked in orchards owned by Mormons who had arrived in the area beginning in 1854, but there were few other jobs.
Now, in a village of about 3,000, there are between 500 and 600 potters, and at least a half dozen galleries, including one in the former railroad station. Quezada?s way of transmitting information about pottery making has clearly worked. Even today, though, the village has no paved roads, and houses are mostly simple, unpainted adobe brick.
Although all the pottery made here is referred to as Mata Ortiz pottery, and certain characteristics identify it as such, there is no single way to make it. A number of variations have evolved. All, like Pilo Mora, considered one of the best potters in the village, begin by flattening out a piece of clay into a ?tortilla,? which is then pressed into a bowl. Mora uses the single-coil method, rolling out a piece of clay he then connects to the top of the tortilla. Concentrating intently, he carefully pinches the coil while turning the bowl, drawing up the clay to make the walls of the pot. Many potters still use this single-coil method, which is was one of Quezada?s innovations, while others?especially in the Mata Ortiz neighborhood known as Porvenir (?Future?) ?have begun using multiple coils. After the walls of the pot are made, the outside is smoothed with a hacksaw blade. Like all Mata Ortiz potters, Mora uses no potter?s wheel — yet he is able to make very large, surprisingly light pots.
This pottery may be black, white or red, the color determined by the clay and the firing method. Designs range from intricate, Escher-like patterns to butterflies and other animals. The elegance of Mata Ortiz pots and the detail found in the paintings that adorn them might suggest the artist had been sequestered for hours in a quiet, private studio. Mora does have a studio attached to his house, but his work is frequently interrupted by people stopping by for a visit ? and most potters lack even separate workspaces.
Ana Trillo and her husband Monico Corona make red-clay and black pots in a variety of styles. A visitor to their house, an unassuming adobe that stretches on erratically, will often find Ana at her kitchen table, painting a pot, while Monico sands another pot by the window. There?s no special lighting or separate space, and when Ana announces it?s time to eat, she clears a spot on the table, tosses another piece of wood in the stove and begins warming the tortillas. She is often joined by her friend Elva Mendoza who, besides working as a potter, owns one of the only restaurants in the village — known for its extremely good food and exasperatingly erratic hours.
Ana, atypically for a Mata Ortiz potter, Trillo isn?t a local. She grew up in Juarez, on the U.S. border, and met Monico during a visit to Mata Ortiz, when she was 15.
?Monico wasn?t interested in making pots,? she recalled. ?He was a rancher. I learned first and then I taught him. A friend taught me how to make the pots. It took me two or three years to make pots that were good enough to sell.?
After the pots are formed, they?re set aside for about three days to dry. ?After that, I sand them,? said Monico, ?and then we polish them with a small stone.?
Painting is done freehand, with brushes often made from human hair — sometimes Ana?s own, sometimes a nephew?s. ?He has finer hair,? said Ana, adding, ?Some people prefer cat hair.? There?s a wide range of designs. ?Many designs are from Paquimé,? she said. ?Others, we invented; some are ones we copied and sometimes they just come as inspiration.?
Work is broken up by conversation, jokes and meals. If a woman has young children, they gather around her as she paints, watching intently. Quezada?s way of teaching still obtains.
After the paint dries, the pots are usually placed in an ordinary kitchen oven? one still used for cooking ? and pre-heated, then fired over an open fire. Luis Lopez Corona, Monico?s nephew, prefers using bark from the Alamo tree as a covering, rather than the traditional cow chips. ?The bark burns very hot,? he said. He places the pots on a small grill, covers them with a metal tub and piles on the bark. Then he liberally applies lighter fluid while his young son, David, encourages him to put on even more. Luis is right: the heat is intense, and the bark gives off a sweet smell and plenty of smoke. He uses a mirror to shine some light through a small hole in it to check on the firing.
The pots are removed, allowed to cool and, if there?s a tourist group at Hotel Posada, Luis will sell his pots soon after they?re fired. One evening, he sold all the pots he and his wife, Lupita, had made that day. ?It is a good night,? he said, smiling.
Not all is perfect. Drug violence has reached this region, MacCallum, who now lives nearby in Casas Grandes, acknowledged. ?But it’s between Mexicans, and you wouldn’t know about it unless you saw it in the paper or someone told you,” he wrote in a recent note. “The media reports, while containing some truth, have been overplayed to the point of irresponsibility. Few or none here believe there is any danger to visitors.? In the fall of 2009, a store was held up. There was also the murder of a gallery owner, a very rare occurrence in Mata Ortiz. Neither crime has been solved.
Newcomers are likelier to be besieged by pottery sellers, as cars pull up alongside them as they?re walking. Once people know who you are, though, they?ll leave you alone. You?ll notice that every street has several houses with hand-painted signs announcing that a potter lives there. Visitors are always welcome. After you admire the pottery for a few minutes, some coffee or dessert will probably be offered. For all their fame, people in Mata Ortiz have kept the simple pleasures of Mexican hospitality alive.
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