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Town shaped from clay

The pottery that remade Mata Ortiz, Mexico, is changing, but its spirit is rooted in ancient ways

January 13, 2013|Alison DaRosa

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.

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 Paquime culture. (For travel warnings on this area, go to travel In the late 1950s and early '60s, as Paquime 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 18, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 20, 2013 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Travel Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Mata Ortiz pottery: A Jan. 13 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.

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 most of the early pots that Quezada built for MacCallum.



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 Juarez -- 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

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