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All from the clay of Mata Ortiz

The Museum of Ceramic Art gazes at the pottery that developed from Juan Quezada's experiments.

June 29, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

It's an irresistible story.

Juan Quezada ekes out a living in the Mexican village of Mata Ortiz, in the northern state of Chihuahua, by selling firewood that he gathers in the countryside and hauls back to town on his burro. In his spare time, he explores nearby caves and discovers shards of 13th- and 14th-century pottery produced by the Casas Grandes culture. He collects the shards and tries to figure out how the pots were constructed, decorated and fired. Over several years, through trial and error, he works out a way to make pottery of local clay.

In the early 1970s, Quezada sells a few of his ceramic wares, three of which end up in a junk shop in Deming, N.M. Spencer MacCallum, an anthropologist from Los Angeles, wanders into the shop in 1976, buys the pots and tracks down the artist. MacCallum encourages him to improve the quality of his work and helps him market his pots in the United States. As Quezada's fortunes change and demands for his work grow, members of his family and other villagers help him and establish themselves as artists. Today, 40 years after Quezada began puzzling over the shards, the 67-year-old artist is world famous for his red, white and black pots adorned with crisp, geometric designs, and Mata Ortiz is a thriving pottery-production community with 400 practitioners.

"I never could have imagined that this would happen," Quezada says, speaking through a translator at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, which recently opened a large exhibition of Mata Ortiz pottery. "Not in my wildest dreams."

His story has been told in "The Miracle of Mata Ortiz," a book by Walter P. Parks, and extensive press coverage, including a "Frontline" television program. And his work has been shown in many places, beginning with exhibitions in 1977 at the Heard Museum is Phoenix and the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe.

But the Pomona museum is taking a fresh and unusually comprehensive look at the subject in "Mata Ortiz Pottery: A Forty-Year Phenomenon." Examples of Casa Grandes pottery borrowed from the Museum of Man in San Diego provide a historical backdrop for a full-career span of Quezada's work, along with a selection of ceramics by about 25 other Mata Ortiz artists. Wall text and a video projected high on one wall of the exhibition space offer additional information about the potters and their village.

David Armstrong, founder of the 6-year-old museum, has known Quezada for several years but still marvels at how a self-taught artist could become so successful and transform an entire community.

"This is something that should be shared with the rest of the world," he says. "It's an inspiration."

He and Christy Johnson, the museum's director, organized the show in collaboration with Parks, who drew up a list of artists to be included. The result illuminates a genre of ceramics born of ingenuity and financial need -- and fueled by the market for fine craftsmanship and innovative variations on tradition.

How Casa Grandes pots were made remains a matter of conjecture. The contemporary artists use the process devised by Quezada. They knead a lump of clay into a ball, roll it into a flat "tortilla" and drape it over a bowl-like plaster of Paris mold, coated with vegetable oil. The clay is pressed into the mold, and excess material is trimmed. Then a fat roll of clay, or "chorizo," is coiled around the rim and painstakingly pinched and pulled upward to form the top of the pot.

After surfaces have been smoothed and the pot has dried to a leather-hard condition, it is removed from the mold and decorated with a mixture of metal oxide and watery clay, applied with brushes made of human hair. When ready for firing, the pot is set on the ground, on a bed of bricks, and covered with a bucket or a terra cotta flower pot. Cow dung is piled over the makeshift kiln, doused in kerosene and set on fire. After the firing, which takes 20 or 30 minutes, the pot is put in a kitchen oven to cool slowly.

Despite the uniform process, contemporary works from Mata Ortiz vary considerably. Quezada's work has evolved from relatively primitive pots, or "ollas," to highly refined, precisely decorated artworks with bold shapes and graceful lines.

His son, Noe, pushes conventional pot shapes into fish-like vessels. Nicholas Ortiz makes animal "effigies" in the shape of turtles, groundhogs, gophers, rabbits and armadillos. Diego Valles, one of the most adventurous and accomplished artists, cuts away sections of tall vases, contrasts highly polished surfaces with textured areas and creates ribbons of pattern by scratching through unfired glaze. Laura Bugarini wraps her pots in extraordinarily fine detail, composing delicate webs of hair-like lines.

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