This article is from the December 2004 - January 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Exploring the Myth of Mata Ortiz

By Lynne Doyle 

I have never been a big fan of Mata Ortiz pottery. Its primarily neutral colors and meticulously even geometric designs don’t say “Mexico” to me and I have been skeptical of paying such extremely high prices for pottery that I don’t much like, even if it is great art. However, as a lifelong student as well as a teacher of university-level courses on the indigenous arts of Mexico, I know that you can’t just dismiss a genre that represents perhaps one of the best-known art forms to come out of Mexico. So, I acquired a couple of minor pieces of Mata Ortiz and some books and videos for my students and let it go at that. Until now.   

This past fall, my husband and I drove from Tucson on a kind of wandering tour of the northwestern states of Mexico (Sonora, Chihuahua and Sinaloa) just for the experience of it. The only set goal we had was to see the Copper Canyon, but when we discovered that in order to get back to Arizona from Chihuahua, we would have to pass Casas Grandes, we decided to add a peek at Mata Ortiz to our itinerary.   

We drove from the capital city of Chihuahua northwest to Casas Grandes and found the very nice Hotel Hacienda in Nuevo Casas Grandes. Supposedly, there is a hotel right in the village of Mata Ortiz called The Adobe Inn that has about ten rooms. However, I did not see this place, and I was told that when the villagers wanted to take showers, they visited relatives in Casas Grandes, so I wasn’t much prompted to look for it. Because of the extreme heat and humidity in this area of the country, even in September, we were looking for a hotel with a pool along with our usual requirements of hot water with decent pressure and AC that worked. I can’t say enough good things about this hotel way out in the middle of nowhere. The grounds are lovely and well tended, the large pool is clean and cool, and the restaurant is surprisingly good (although not inexpensive).  The hotel staff was beyond accommodating and helpful. We were in a part of Mexico we knew little about and without the help and guidance of the desk staff and the various people they summoned to show us around, we would have been lost. Once they learned of our interest in Mata Ortiz, they took our education in hand and made sure that by the time we left, we knew all there was to know about the village, the pottery, and the surrounding towns of Casas Grandes and Nuevo Casas Grandes, as well as the ancient site of Paquime, where the whole legend of Mata Ortiz began. 

The towns of Casas Grandes and Nuevo Casas Grandes are 5,000 feet above sea level and are separated by Rio Casas Grandes. Casas Grandes was established by Franciscan missionaries in the late 1500’s and today is an industrial little town with a population of 20,000, many of whom are employed in American maquilladoras. Nuevo Casas Grandes was originally one of twelve Mormon settlements founded in the 1890’s during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz. Under an agreement with Diaz, the Mormons purchased land at a premium with the understanding that there would be no practice of polygamy and that they would share their superior farming technologies with the Mexican farmers in the area.The Mormon groups introduced the commercialized apple industry to Mexico and also raised turkeys, apricots, peaches and pecans. They left during the Revolution and went to El Paso, but most came back when the war ended and intermarried with the Mexicans. Today both towns are clean and prosperous, with many of the residents speaking English and traveling regularly across the border to shop for clothes and groceries. Some of them even keep post office boxes in the US because mail delivery is easier and more reliable.  

The very affluent Mormon barrio of Colonia Juarez (pop. 5,000) with its ornate temple

exists happily side by side with its neighbors, populated by many blonde, non-Mexican appearing people.It has a Catholic church but no bars or liquor stores and many very American-looking two-story and Victorian houses with front porches. Unlike the Mennonite communicates of Northwestern Mexico, the Mormons of the area are very involved in Mexican society and politics and work hard to improve the lot of Mexicans around them. Their excellent bilingual elementary and secondary schools are open to Mexican children, as are their many and varied after-school programs in the arts and athletics. A Mormon politician from this district by the name of Federico Jones is said to be a powerhouse in the Mexican Federal Congress and was singularly responsible for the new highway connecting Casas Grandes and Mata Ortiz, thereby making the village more accessible to prospective buyers passing through the area.  

Lying about fifteen minutes northeast of Casas Grandes, the ruins at Paquime (meaning “big house”) were discovered and named by Francisco Ibarra in the late 1500’s and today is a restored site unlike any other we have seen in Mexico. It is a series of roofless reconstructed clay structures snuggled into the mountainside that frankly is not terribly interesting. Obviously a much less sophisticated society than the southern Mayan, Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec groups, the people of this pueblo created no elaborate architecture, intricate carvings or remarkable structures to tell us about their way of life. The city supposedly had a population of 2,000 people, 200 of whom were royalty, although it is totally beyond me how archeologists have been able to determine this. According to research, the city was built near a hot springs water source in the mountains and there are vestiges of an aqueduct system and storage pools that apparently supplied its needs, although the spring are dried up now due to volcanic activity. Our guide identified tiny structures within larger structures that he said had housed parrots, determined because archeologists found feathers. Otherwise, I can’t say much about the site other than it was extremely hot and humid and infested with very aggressive insects. One should not visit here without equally aggressive repellent. 

One marvelous positive to this site is a small air conditioned museum depicting the excavation and restoration of Paquime, as well as exhibiting original ceramic artifacts found there. One particularly large impressive piece has been crudely reassembled and from it, one can totally see where the inspiration for the pottery of Mata Ortiz came from.  Additionally, there is a very nice gift shop that ships pottery to the states, and a great life-saving ice cream stand. However, I have to add that most of the exhibits were incomprehensible to me  -- how anyone could tell what the people of Paquime wore from the mounds of dirt found at the site remains a mystery to me, particularly as neither the pottery or mounds found include any depiction of people or structures.  However, the pottery shards are said to be authentic and are the root of the story of Mata Ortiz. 

The founding father of Mata Ortiz pottery is the now 62-year old Juan Quezada. As a young man in the 1960’s, Juan worked gathering wood in the mountains surrounding Casas Grandes and happened to find himself in the ruins of the village of Paquime. He found many shards of pottery believed to have been created and used by the people who lived there, and began to try to figure out how the original vessels had been created.  Collecting many varieties and colors of clay from the surrounding hills, he experimented with techniques, tools and firing methods and eventually came up with a system by which he could recreate the same pottery textures. Fitting together the shards he found, he began to duplicate the intricate designs and patterns of the original pottery. 

Unable to market his work in his own village, Quezada asked an American salesman passing through Casas Grandes to take some of his unsigned pots to the United States and try to sell them there. The man placed them in a small gift shop in New Mexico where they were seen by archeologist Spencer McCallum, who had worked on the restoration of Paquime and recognized the patterns and designs as reproductions of shards found there.  He went looking for the artist responsible, assuming for some reason that it was a woman. Eventually he found Quezada and offered him $100 a month to devote all his time to making the pots. At the same time, Quezada began to teach his techniques to his children, family members and other village artisans. At some point, he noticed the discrepancy between what he was receiving from McCallum and what the pots were selling for in the US and demanded more. Today his pieces sell for as much as $3,500. 

The town of Mata Ortiz was built in 1907 by a railroad magnate named Pearson (who named it after himself), at a time when the burgeoning fruit industry in the area needed speedy, reliable shipping. In the 1950’s the railroad moved and the town lost its economy and eventually renamed itself to honor renowned soldier Captain Juan Mata Ortiz. Today the tracks remain, although they are unused, and Quezeda is single-handedly responsible both for saving the village and equipping its inhabitants with a way to provide for themselves. 

As we crested the hill above the village on the new highway from Casas Grandes, I was stunned at the run-down main street, abandoned railroad station, and shabby little structure identified by our driver Raul as the home of Juan Quezada. Because Juan himself was in Chicago on the day that we arrived, Raul took us to the home of an American woman named Debbie Bugarini. Debbie is married to Enrique, a native of Mata Ortiz, and together they have built an addition onto their home where village potters can display and sell their work to passing visitors. Debbie also arranges demonstrations of pottery-making and serves lunches to tour groups in an effort to encourage guides to bring them to the village, which otherwise has no restaurants or public restrooms. In order to make these arrangements, Debbie and Enrique sacrificed their yard but theirs is also the only home in the village to have two modern bathrooms.  

Debbie introduced us to Juan’s daughter Mureya, an enormously talented artist in her own right whose pots command prices in excess of several hundred dollars each. She is the third of Juan’s eight children, five of whom are involved in the pottery business, and she and her husband Andreas agreed to show us the process. When I commented on the relative humble appearance of Juan’s home, she explained that he spends most of his money buying land in the mountains surrounding the area in an effort to protect both the town’s clay deposits as well as to preserve the many archeological sites still unexcavated there. He also prefers to spend his time searching the hills for new clays and traveling to demonstrate and publicize the pottery, so is working only minimally as a potter now.  

Mureya escorted us through her yard into a small area covered by a tarp to provide some shade.There she proceeded to explain and demonstrate the process of creating a piece of Mata Ortiz pottery. She began with a short rope of clay about one inch thick, which she

twisted into a circle inside a shallow plaster saucer, explaining as she worked that the potters of Mata Ortiz use no wheels in creating their pieces. The plaster saucer is a duplicate of pieces found in Paquime and helps to shape the round bottom of the piece.  All work is done by hand with minimal hand tools and no speeding up of the process. 

The base of the piece is formed in the saucer (Mata Ortiz pottery also does not stand straight by itself – each piece needs a circular ring upon which to balance) and the rest is created by placing one ring of clay on top of another and working them to build the sides and top of the piece. Using her fingers and hands, Mureya works the piece and once it is shaped, the sides are smoothed out and dried in the sun for two or three days. At this point, the saucer is removed from the bottom and sand paper is used to polish and smooth the vessel, which is then wet down with cooking oils to further refine its surface. To get a pearly finish, the piece is then rubbed with deer bone or a smooth stone; if a shiny surface is not desired, the vessel is either patterned with small indentations or left as is.   

After another short period of sun drying, the desired design is drawn by the artist in pencil on the piece, although oftentimes a totally geometric pattern is done freehand. A pattern depicting four cycles of the sun is  a common theme, as is a design of crosses that refer to solstices. Also a favorite is the marbling effect created by blending together different colored clays. Popular depictions on Mata Ortiz pottery are snakes, lizards, birds, bats, butterflies and deer. 

After the design is painted on, the vessel is again burnished to set the design and then is preheated in a regular kitchen oven to prevent breakage during firing. The colors of rust, beige, white and black are natural colors, in most cases resulting from the kind of clay used, but also sometimes created from walnuts and soils mixed with water. Pieces of these colors can be fired at relatively low temperatures for short times. The colors of blue, gray, red and green are not natural and the minerals used to achieve them are hard to obtain and need much higher temperatures to fire. Higher temperatures require a kiln, which most of the potters of Mata Ortiz do not have; therefore few artists use these colors. Also, colors other than earth tones and the use of kilns were allegedly not part of the original Paquime tradition and some purist dealers and collectors are very against their use in Mata Ortiz pottery, feeling that they put the authenticity of the pottery in question. American art dealers in particular want the work to be entirely handmade of all natural materials in order to justify the prices and feel very strongly about “commercializing” the pottery with colors. However, the second generation of potters now working are experimenting with what I feel are remarkable results and I personally am thankful that they are, as I much prefer the more colorful pieces. 

Once the vessels are completed, they are placed on metal holders with larger clay vessels placed over them with space at the bottom for air to circulate. Pine, mesquite or cottonwood bark is then stacked in double layers around and over the larger vessel, tied with wire and doused with kerosene, and then lit on fire. When the wood is burnt to ash, usually in half to three-quarters of an hour, the ashes are raked away and the large covering vessel, once cooled, is lifted off and the finished pieces emerge. Gray/black clay once fired becomes white, dark brown clay cools to shades of rust. Marbled clays retain their distinct differentiations of color while often reversing from dark to light.  

So, here is the story of the creation of Mata Ortiz pottery, as told to me by people who should know, positioned side by side with the inconsistencies of the Mata Ortiz legend.   There is one big mystery that – for me – remains unsolved. In other ancient civilizations in Mexico, the vessels discovered were determined to have been used for cooking, food storage, carrying water and religious observances, rather than simply for display. It is apparent in the many shards found at Paquime that the original pottery found there had survived centuries of weather, which indicates to me that this original pottery was primarily for use also. However, the pottery now made in Mata Ortiz, although authentic in its design, is a burnished product that because of its low firing temperatures, not only cannot hold any liquid without dissolving, but also cannot even be wiped with a damp cloth without disturbing the pattern. It also does not break when dropped but rather shatters into dust. Therefore, I remain confused as to where the techniques and/or materials have differed -- no one I spoke to could tell me. 

Some people have theorized that Juan was only ever looking to duplicate the designs of the Paquime pottery, while at the same time creating a product that was possible for the people of his village to produce without a massive outlay of cash for kilns. Others have suggested that in making his pottery essentially useless, Juan has insured that it would be unique for its delicacy as well as for its singular design patterns – if you don’t count the Oaxacan black pottery of San Bartolo de Coyotepec. Mureya Quezada, speaking for her father, insists the pottery is an exact replica of the ancient material of Paquime and does not refer to the water issue.   

I personally have always felt that Juan Quezada must be a marketing genius. He has somehow managed to attach an unmistakable cachet to his pottery that no other product coming out of Mexico shares, and he has accomplished this in a relatively short time.  Since its discovery by McCallum, the potters of Mata Ortiz have always signed their work, a small detail adding to its value that many artists in Mexico have yet to catch onto.  Is the extravagant price tag of Mata Ortiz pottery a result of the unrivaled cachet, or does the cachet stem from the extravagant price tag?   

Another mystery: I have traveled to a great many artisans’ villages in my never-ending quest for the indigenous arts of Mexico and as a general rule, the relative prosperity of the village is in direct correlation to the popularity of the art produced there. Anyone who has observed the large modern schools and neatly painted homes in the weaving village of Teotilan de Valle in Oaxaca can make the connection between the welfare of the town and the impressive success of the artisans who live and work there. However, one would never guess upon visiting the village of Mata Ortiz that the famous very costly pottery of the same name originates here. 

A hypothesis put forth to me by a business person in Casas Grandes  (and readily agreed to by my ever skeptical husband) is that Quezada – once again using his marketing genius – encourages the shabby aspect of the town in order to impress prospective buyers with the urgent need for the exorbitant prices, but I’m not so sure. In discussion with Debbie, I learned that while potters do a brisk business most of the year, in summer – because of the excessive heat and humidity – the buyers do not come. The few that have ventured through have been able to purchase pieces for very little because the potters do not save and need the money, particularly at the end of summer after not earning much for two or three months. Some distributors from the US have figured this out, so now make it a point to come in the summer, and Debbie is frustrated by this, since as a woman and an American, her insight is not readily accepted by the village artisans. If Quezada has factored in the appearance of his town, how is it that he has not considered the seasonality of his product – or is he simply unable to control all of the artisans in the village? 

One last interesting item: as we were leaving Mureya’s home, several women approached us on the street offering pots for sale.  One thrust a very beautiful 6” marbled vase into my hands and when I asked her the price, told me $200. I respectfully declined. On the way out of the village, Raul went past the zocalo, a small mud-caked square with a dilapidated gazebo in its center. Several women with plastic laundry baskets lounged on the steps and as we drew near, began to remove pots from the baskets and stack them.  Most were unremarkable to me, except for one olla of black, rust and green done in a simple but beautifully-executed geometric design. She indicated to me that the price of the piece, 8’’ tall and 11” around, was $10 with an extra $2 for the base ring. Needless to say, I grabbed it.   

At the end of this very illuminating journey, I have come away with a new appreciation for Mata Ortiz pottery. While in the village, I saw many extraordinarily beautiful pieces that I would love to own. I was happily amazed at the many striking variations that can be achieved with those dull earth tones and the many shapes created by these remarkable artisans.  But I also left with almost as many unanswered questions as answered ones. I don’t know what to think of Juan Quezada and the mystique he has built around his pottery. There is no question but that he has been a godsend to the people of the village of Mata Ortiz, or that he has created a magnificent expression of Mexican ingenuity and skill, or that he has somehow achieved a level of retailing brilliance unrivaled in the world of Mexican folk art.  The enigma lies in how he has constructed this legendary tradition, and how he keeps it alive.