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
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.
Plan: Making a Coil Pot
of Juan Quezada by Richard D. Fisher.
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