Discovering the Discoverer
BY Laura Aviva | December 4, 2009
Anthropologist Spencer MacCallum searched for Mata Ortiz potter Juan Quezada -- and a pottery movement was born.
HAND/EYE's Folk Futures article describes potter Juan Quezada's invention of the Mata Ortiz ceramic movement. But Juan Quezada had a partner in developing a market for that tradition: US anthropologist Spencer MacCallum. HAND/EYE correspondent Laura Aviva recently interviewed MacCallum for HAND/EYE online.
Laura Aviva: Hearing the story of Juan Quezada and the birth of the modern ceramic tradition in Mata Ortiz, you can’t help but be captivated by it: from nothing to something amazing in less than 40 years. Equally fascinating to me, though, is how this tradition continues to grow – you have to wonder how it can be that there is such a remarkable concentration of talent in this one tiny town.
Spencer MacCallum: That question always comes up. This could in fact be the greatest concentration of art in history anywhere, because if there’s a population of say 2,400, and if there are some 600 potters, look at the ratio there, it’s incredible. And people say, ‘Well, how do you account for this?’ Their first thought is that there must be something unusual about the gene pool. But you can immediately discount that because Mata Ortiz has no historic depth. It was developed about 1910 as a company town, it was the second largest lumber mill in North America at that time. People came from all over Mexico because there was employment. So it’s a totally random population.
And so, between the time Paquimé was abandoned in the 1400’s and the middle of this past century, when Juan began to create pottery, there was essentially zero art tradition here in the region, correct?
Yes, that’s absolutely true. In fact, some years ago, I saw a map of the arts and crafts of Mexico, and this whole Northern area was simply white paper... This was not an art area - this was, and largely still is, the country of miners, cattleman, cowboys, revolutionaries, Pancho Villa and his horse... This is rough country.
The starting from nothing in terms of tradition is really what’s exciting about this particular story. Here you had this confluence of different conditions that came together at the right time. And then you have this extraordinary legacy of one incredible individual, Juan Quezada. He had worked 16 years experimenting before he was able to develop his first pot. What he was able to do was to create an entire ceramic technology. It was quite a feat.
From what I have seen and heard, Juan’s legacy is remarkably multi-faceted. It’s not just the technology that he created, but what seems to be an entire ethos that plays in to the creation of Mata Ortiz ceramics.
Yes, Juan’s role as a teacher goes well beyond the mechanics of the process. And there are many aspects to this, many things that he has taught and which have been inherited, which continue to be passed down to new potters. The first is experimentation – no one is afraid to experiment – they go right ahead and jump in and find out what they need to know. Then there is innovation – they never copy their own work or any one else’s. They are always looking for new expressions. And that’s art, as opposed to just craft. There’s also generosity – Juan has always been generous to share his technology with people who are interested, he has great fun seeing the lights turn on in young people’s heads. And that spirit is shared among potters in Mata Ortiz, they support each other. And there is quality – Juan has always seen this as being the key to the longevity of the movement.
Can you talk a bit more about how this idea of innovation that is inherent in the Mata Ortiz tradition feeds constant re-invention?
One instance of that, people say, ‘Are they running out of clay?’ Well, that’s really just a problem of the mind. In the United States, studio potters don’t want to experiment with different kinds of clays, they don’t want surprises, they like to work with clays they know. In the Southwest, the Indian potters, when they make a pot, they want to make it as close to what grandmother made as possible. And this includes digging clay where grandmother dug clay. And so the answer there is yes, they’ll be running out of clay.
But here [in Mata Ortiz], they experiment. For them, it’s like meeting new people, getting to know new personalities. They enjoy experimenting with the different qualities of the different clays. And when you have this mindset, you are never going to run out of clay.
As a country, Mexico is really suffering in the tourism realm – and there are of course a variety of factors are playing in to this. I’m interested in how this is impacting Mata Ortiz in particular, and in what unique challenges it poses for the community.
Of course the drop in the U.S economy has had a strong impact on us here – it has been very hard. And now on top of this, you are having the insecurity problem (which has been blown very far out of proportion by the US media). But the bottom line is that tourists just aren’t traveling to the area as much. And, as a result, the artists have taken a whale of a hit.
It is difficult to separate the tourists from the traders, the gallery people, and the collectors – we are seeing a good number of these people, who have ties to the community here, still coming down. And this is important. Although there are several galleries now, it is not the primary way that things are sold – the fact that there are few galleries is actually one of the enlivening parts of this whole tradition. People invite you in to their homes; you visit them where they are creating. The artists thrive on direct contact, and the give and take. And that obviously gets lost when people aren’t coming to the town.
Let’s look forward for a moment, taking us back in a sense to where we started this conversation. The art tradition in the area was really instigated by Juan and the ceramic movement in Mata Ortiz. But we’re seeing now that this influence has spread in to other areas of the region, and that it is not confined to either ceramics, or to Mata Ortiz.
Yes, the surrounding towns are now making pottery - it’s spread well beyond the confines of Mata Ortiz in past years.
But the ceramic tradition has also given root to creativity in other areas. We are witnessing a growing jewelry movement in Mata Ortiz and the surrounding towns. And one of the most exciting things happening can be seen in the work of woodworker Roberto Hernandez, who I call the ‘Juan Quezada of woodworking’ – he’s making wood art in natural forms in the tradition of such greats as Sam Maloof and George Nakashima. Really amazing pieces.
Northern Mexico is so far from central and southern Mexico, there really is no rapport there, and here in the north they never felt themselves part of the Mexico that lies to the south, where there are strong Aztec and Mayan traditions which the people here could never relate to. But what’s exciting is that now they have their own style, their own design tradition, coming out of the earth, the archeological earth of Chihuahua. What you have here is really an effervescence of art, and it’s blossoming, in a beautiful way.
Visit author Laura Aviva's website www.lavivahome.com.