Folk Futures

Juan Quezada single-handedly created a pottery movement that has taken on a life of its own.

“There must be something in the water in Mata Ortiz. How else do you explain the flowering of a new folk tradition in only 40 years?” exclaims Southwestern pottery expert and dealer Andrea Fisher:  “They call it the miracle!” Which is not mere hyperbole. Beginning with the work of a single self-taught potter in the late 1970s, Mata Ortiz pottery is now collected the world over and employs hundreds of people in the town. This new cultural industry provides desperately needed jobs and is their most vibrant source of pride and identity.
 
When the sawmill had harvested all the trees around Mata Ortiz, it left town – and took most of the village’s cash jobs with it.  Without prospects, Juan Quezada combined his search for income with a childhood fascination with the shards of ancient Native pottery he would find among the ruins of the old Casas Grande pueblos near his town.  With no training at all, he patiently invented the tools he needed from broken hacksaw blades and other cast-offs. He labored to extract fine, well-tempered clay from the gravel-heavy ground around him.  He learned to hand-shape vessels from coils of clay, and, using brushes made of baby hair and other materials, to decorate them with intricate geometric patterns reminiscent of the indigenous culture that lived on the land long before his forebears.
 
Quezada’s explorations were so successful that his early work showed up in Deming, New Mexico – passing as ancient pots.  Anthropologist Spencer MacCallum spotted the fakes at a trading post, but admired them too much not to figure out whose work they were.  His search took him to tiny Mata Ortiz, Mexico, where he and Quezada agreed to collaborate on developing a market. 
 
Did they succeed? Quezada was awarded the Premio Nacional de los Artes, the highest honor the Mexican government can give to an artist. A silver jewelry business has grown up alongside the pottery, and adapts the same cultural motifs as the first Mata Ortiz pots that Quesada made. A museum and cultural center was built in neighboring Nuevo Casas Grande to facilitate further cultural growth…and to focus tourist interest.  Collectors from Mexico and elsewhere show no sign of slowing the pace of acquisition. Mata Ortiz has gone from poverty to affluence.
 
The pottery itself is evolving from Casas Grande style to a wide variety of shapes and textures and motifs and finishes. As Ms. Fisher comments, “Because the Mata Ortiz potters don’t see their work in a religious context like most Native potters, they are freer to reinvent and experiment.  One example: the pattern work on pots has become microscopically small. Which is one way of showing off skill and talent.”  But even as they reinvent, she says, they remain true to their local clays, and largely faithful to the array of tools Juan Quesada introduced. And, except for the jewelry, there has been no meaningful departure from clay.
 
Which means that the artisans and artists of Mata Ortiz are still intent on exploring ceramics as a way to express what they see in the world. And that we can watch the evolution of a new folk culture as it happens.
 
Mata Ortiz pottery is sold in many places, but our favorites are www.andreafisherpottery.com and lavivahome.com.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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