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The Pottery of Mata Ortiz

A long time ago, the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in northern Mexico was home to a thriving pre-Columbian civilization known as Casas Grandes. The people of Casas Grandes built a massive pueblo called Paquimé. The earliest settlement on the site was founded about 700 CE (Common Era). It grew into a thriving capital and was a center of religious, political, commercial, and cultural power between 1000 and 1400. Paquimé was mysteriously abandoned by 1500. In the end, the city was sacked and burned, perhaps by nomadic warriors from the north.

A team of Mexican and American archeologists excavated the ruin between 1958 and 1961, and found exquisite artifacts, including jewelry made of seashells. A pottery shop was also discovered in the ruins complete with raw clay, tools and significant quantities of pottery. The shapes included bowls, jars, and effigy pots representing many different types of animals. These early Casas Grandes people had created a highly developed style of pottery, but with the final destruction of Paquimé, many of the details of the life and culture of these people—including the techniques used to create their wonderful hand-built ceramics—were lost.

Today, the small rural town of Mata Ortiz is located in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, just twenty miles southwest of the site of Paquimé. The town consists of adobe houses scattered over several barrios, or neighborhoods, located between the Palaganas River and the narrow track of the Chihuahua al Pacífico Railroad.

Some thirty years ago, a young boy named Juan Quezada became intrigued by the ancient pottery sherds he found while collecting firewood around his home in Mata Ortiz. These sherds were from pots made by the ancient people of Paquimé.

Armed with his growing collection of pot sherds as a reference, Juan Quezada began experimenting to see if he could create similar pots. He realized that the ancient people must have used local materials, so he searched until he found clay deposits and the minerals needed to create different colors for decoration. Through trial and error over many years, he discovered how to process and shape the clay so that it wouldn’t crack when it was drying or being fired. Juan formed his pots using the coil method, and decorated them with a small paintbrush made of human hair (sometimes as little as one strand). He learned to use pieces of bone and stones to smooth and polish the surfaces to a high shine. Finally, he developed a technique for firing his pots. The pots were placed under an inverted clay tub, or quemador, with a fire built around the outside.

All the time that Juan was learning to make pots, he was working as a farmer and railroad worker. When he could, he would sell or trade his pots. In 1974, an anthropologist named Spencer MacCallum found three pots for sale in a shop in Deming, New Mexico. At first, he thought they were some of the ancient pots by the Casas Grandes people. After looking at them more closely, he realized they were contemporary, and set out to find the person who had made them. Eventually his search led him down a dusty road to the little town of Mata Ortiz and the home of Juan Quezada. When Juan showed him other similar pots, he knew his search was over. This discovery led to major recognition of Mata Ortiz pottery, with shows in museums and galleries around the United States. Juan taught other members of his family, and neighbors who wanted to learn, how to make the pots. In 1999, the Mexican government honored Juan Quezada with the National Art Award.

Today, Mata Ortiz is a community of world-class artisans. More than 400 artists live and work in Mata Ortiz, and nearly every house is home to at least one potter.

Lesson Plan: Making a Coil Pot


Photo of Juan Quezada by Richard D. Fisher.

Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

Weaving and basketry preceded pottery by hundreds of years. Pottery only became practical when the Native Americans learned to irrigate and shifted their emphasis to agriculture. Why do you think this was? Consider what the people’s lifestyle was like as hunter/gatherers vs. farmers.

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.