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Shaped from clay: The rapidly evolving pottery of Mata Ortiz, Mexico

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MATA ORTIZ, Mexico —The place felt so familiar. The air was dry and warm and slightly smoky. Streets were unpaved, rutted, edged with weeds below ramshackle wooden fences. Swaybacked horses and muscled pickup trucks dueled for right of way on the dusty roads.

I was invited almost immediately into the humble homes of extraordinary artists and encouraged to inspect pieces of delicate pottery displayed on oilcloth-covered kitchen tables or arranged on sagging beds. I looked over the shoulders of men and women who shaped, polished and painted at tiny sunlit work stations. I caressed their art, held their children. I embraced the artists' warmth, spirit, gentle humility and exquisite talent. They touched my soul.

It was as though nothing in Mata Ortiz had changed, but after a few days I learned how much had changed.


FOR THE RECORD:
Mata Ortiz pottery: In the Jan. 13 Travel section, an article about the pottery of Mata Ortiz, Mexico, said that the San Diego Museum of Art owns about 250 pieces of the pottery. The museum that owns the pottery is the San Diego Museum of Man.


Pottery put Mata Ortiz on the map. This village, in the northern state of Chihuahua, sits on the edge of a high-desert plain that once was home to the thriving pre-Columbian Paquimé culture. (For travel warnings on this area, go to travel.state.gov.)

In the late 1950s and early '60s, as Paquimé ruins were being excavated, impoverished residents learned there was a market for ancient pottery. Even simple pots were sold to local merchants for $5 or $6 apiece — the equivalent of wages for several days' labor. When supplies eventually dwindled and a law prohibited the sale of antiquities, a few locals began making pots that merchants and Mexican traders passed off as the real thing.

In the mid-'70s, Princeton-trained anthropologist Spencer MacCallum bought three pieces of that unsigned pottery at Bob's Swap Shop, a secondhand store in Deming, N.M. Back in California, at his home in San Pedro, he became obsessed by the pots and set out to find their maker. His quest led him to Mata Ortiz and Juan Quezada.

"I couldn't abandon what I believed was artistic genius," MacCallum says. In 1976, he struck a deal to pay Quezada a $500 monthly stipend, giving him the freedom to pursue art in any direction he chose. When the agreement was sealed with a handshake, the anthropologist had no idea that Quezada would be shaping more than pots; he'd be shaping the destiny of the village and generations of its residents.

MacCallum's exclusive deal with Quezada lasted three years. During that time, the anthropologist introduced the artist and his work to museums, collectors and traders throughout the Southwestern U.S. Struggling villagers got the message; more and more of them began to perfect pottery skills under Quezada's tutelage.

By 1993, when "The Miracle of Mata Ortiz" was published, author Walter Parks listed 138 potters in the appendix. The 2012 edition of the book lists 500 potters who sign their work. Many more in this village of 2,100 could be added to the list.

Jorge Quintana, a stocky middle-aged villager with laborer-sized hands, marvels that he and many of his neighbors are now known as world-class artists. "We owe it to Juan," Quintana says. "If Juan Quezada had not made pots, no one would be making them."

Quezada credits MacCallum: "If he had not come, there would be no one here today. Mata Ortiz would have dried up and blown away."

Says MacCallum, now 81: "My intent was to find and support this one amazing artist. All the rest just happened. It makes my skin crawl to think I had something to do with all this — the renaissance of Mata Ortiz … an industrial revolution that is art."

Today Mata Ortiz pottery is exhibited in museums around the world, including in the Smithsonian and the Vatican. The San Diego Museum of Art owns about 250 pieces, including the early pots Quezada built for MacCallum.

Transformations

When I first visited Mata Ortiz in 1998, the last 20 miles into the village were a bone-rattling adventure. The road was hardly graded; it washed out when it rained. Today a sleek two-lane highway takes visitors right to the front door of Juan Quezada's art gallery.

Roads in the village itself remain unpaved. Here and there newer or enlarged homes stand beside century-old mud-brick adobes. Today most homes have indoor plumbing and electricity. Satellite dishes cling to rooftops.

When I first visited, the village had two telephones. Today a few of the more prosperous potters have high-speed Internet, websites and Facebook pages. Most have phones; many have cellphones.

Now the village has four schools — kindergarten through high school. Youngsters wear uniforms and huddle in computer labs.

The high school opened a year ago. "Before the road was paved [in 2008], students traveled by van to school in Colonia Juárez — four hours a day to get to and from school," says potter Diego Valles. "Now our kids can walk to school. My wife is off taking our oldest daughter to piano lessons."

The new pottery

In the early days, village potters did their work as los antiguos (the old ones) had. They gathered clay and minerals for paints from nearby arroyos. They shaped ollas (pots) by hand, using bowl-shaped molds, adding coils of clay. They painted with brushes made with the fine strands of children's hair and used cow dung or cottonwood bark to fire their pottery.

Today, many potters specialize: Some collect clay. Others build pots. Some specialize in painting.

And some "cheat." Sometimes additives such as plaster of Paris are mixed with clays. Some use commercial paints, glazes and even shoe polish or Mop & Glo to make pots shine.

About 2000, the first kilns started to pop up in the village. Today there are about a dozen kilns, says potter Lila Silveira, and many of their owners rent time to potters.

"It's more consistent," Silveira says. "You're not at the mercy of the weather. Also, there's a shortage of cow pies, and the bark of cottonwoods is in limited supply."

About the only pots buyers can be sure are still fired the old-fashioned way are black-on-black pots, because it's not possible to get them to fire black in a kiln.

"Almost all other pots are now fired in kilns," says San Diego collector Phil Stover. "The village has gone from denial to 'OK, it's the norm.' Most collectors don't care; I know I don't."

Although most early Mata Ortiz pottery was made in the image of ancient Paquimé pots, today's potters create art for art's sake.

"It's no longer Paquimé pottery. Now it's Mata Ortiz pottery," says Carla Martinez, who was teaching engineering in Nuevo Casas Grandes before moving to the village and learning to make pots about a year ago. "What we do is no longer craft; it's fine art."

Today's artists experiment with bold contemporary designs, sgraffito, cut-outs, delicate miniatures and an ever-changing array of colored clays and paints.

"It's amazing to be a part of the evolution of an art form," says Victoria Martino, a Los Angeles pottery dealer who has visited Mata Ortiz 17 times in the last five years. "Every time I return, even if it has only been a couple of months since my last visit, I see tremendous new creativity, new techniques. The second-generation potters are really pushing the boundaries and thinking outside the box."

Stover, deputy superintendent of business for the San Diego Unified School District, agrees: "The second- and third-generation potters are creating work that clearly surpasses everything that has been done by anyone in the past, including Juan."

Personal evolutions

MacCallum now lives in Casas Grandes, about 30 minutes from Mata Ortiz. This year he'll become eligible to apply for Mexican citizenship. "I see myself as from Mexico," he says. "It blows my mind."

Stover, who visited Mata Ortiz for the first time in 1983, recently completed construction of a large two-bedroom, five-fireplace adobe home on 9 acres along the banks of the town's Palanganas River. He and his wife plan to live here full time when Stover retires late next year.

"We fell in love with the pottery, then the people, then the area," he says. "We were hooked." They'll be among about two dozen Americans who have fallen under the spell of the village and decided to stay.

And what about Juan Quezada?

Four months ago, the entire village turned out for a weeklong fiesta celebrating the artist and the 50th anniversary of his first attempts at making pottery.

But these days, Quezada keeps mostly to himself. He spends more time on his ranch in the foothills above Mata Ortiz than he does in the village. He calls the place Ranchito Escondido, his hide-out.

Despite years of worldwide acclaim, the artist remains uncomfortable in the limelight. A vaquero at heart, he's at ease rounding up cattle and wild horses that wander the vast open spaces he now owns. Signing autographs and posing for photographers or film crews? Not so much.

There's no denying the man's artistic spirit. At 72, his rugged, suntanned face still radiates childlike joy as he unearths a new vein of coveted pure white clay. His energy is boundless as he's rock-hounding for minerals to be ground into new paints for his ollas — and his enthusiasm is contagious when he discovers a slab of colorful stone that perhaps could become the beginning of a new art form.

At the end of such a day, as the setting sun is replaced by la via de leche (the Milky Way), Quezada sips tequila with close friends on the patio of his ranchito. When asked how his life has changed because of pottery, he speaks of contentment. "He says it's much better now," a bilingual friend interprets for me. "He has realized his dream."

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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