The following is a personal account from my involvement with Land Arts of the American West, a program that combined seven art students with seven design students on a journey through the American West. Led by professors Bill Gilbert and Christ Taylor, we spent twelve weeks observing and creating work in nature’s most arid studio.
My first night in Mata Ortiz, Mexico was spent hanging around the abandoned railroad tracks. Around 5 p.m., the local men gathered to talk about the day and share a few beers. As a group of young, urban American students, my posse couldn’t have stood out more. But with cold cervezas in hand at the end of a long work day, we were treated like locals, receiving crash courses in Spanish and the latest news from the surrounding villages. Dressed in rugged jeans, cowboy boots and hats, I assumed our newfound friends were ranchers or builders. But these men were actually the heroes of the village: they were potters.
Mata Ortiz has the rare distinction of surviving primarily on the art created by its inhabitants. Through reviving the pottery tradition of the indigenous settlers of the area, Mata Ortiz transformed its ailing farming industry into a booming pottery business, attracting artists, collectors and tourists to the remote, dirt roads of the Chihuahuan desert. Our trip was solely made possible by Hector Gallegos and Graciela Gonzalez Gallegos, two local artists whose hospitality was only outshined by their pottery talent. They provided a two-room house, complete with a large kitchen, where we covered the floors in sleeping bags and pillows. Led by our professors Bill Gilbert and Chris Taylor, whose fluent Spanish helped us all acclimate, our group of fourteen students reveled in a week-long stay, filled with art, clay, tacos, stray dogs, soccer and donkey rides.
Located in the plains of Chihuahua, Mexico, the small town of Mata Ortiz is, like so many other railroad towns, a victim of multiple boom-and-bust cycles. In 1907, when the Mexico Northwestern Railway Company sought to build a line across the Sierras to the Pacific Ocean, Mata Ortiz flourished as one of the many small towns established to support the rail. As the fruit business exploded, bolstered by the introduction of apple farming in the neighboring town of Casas Grandes, the railroad provided speedy transportation for harvested produce. But by the 1950s, trains no longer passed through Mata Ortiz. Now, the railroad tracks still stand, a weed-covered reminder of a failed economy. Fortunately, the residents of Mata Ortiz are resilient people; the community continued to support itself through farming the lands of the ejido — land granted to the people by the government that cannot be sold or mortgaged, but may pass from generation to generation for agricultural practices.
By the 1970s, the ailing community found its savior in Juan Quezada, a man whose name is now synonymous with the village. As a young boy, Quezada helped his family by gathering firewood in the area. The spot where Quezada collected tinder was special — it was once the site of Paquimé, an ancient civilization settled in 700 A.D. that vanished sometime after the 13th century. On his outings, Quezada collected decorated pottery shards, the few tangible scraps that prove Paquimé once existed. The pottery shards were no secret — many locals knew of the artistic inclination of the Paquimé people. But by the 1970s, Quezada saw an opportunity. Assuming the ancients created pots with local materials, he set to discovering his own clay and pigments, reenacting the art form. While Quezada drew upon the style of Paquimé pottery, it was clear early on that he sought to reinvent the art form for a modern Mexico.
After developing his own firing system and decorative style, Quezada’s pots caught the attention of Spencer McCallum, an art historian who happened to see the unique vessels in a small shop in New Mexico. Spurred on by encouragement and a monthly stipend from McCallum, Quezada began teaching his family how to make pots. Before long, several families in Mata Ortiz were elbow-deep in clay. Once American art galleries and collectors took notice, it was clear that Mata Ortiz had created its newest coveted export.
It only took a day to realize that the village lives and breathes pottery — some afternoons we’d wander house to house, invited into living rooms where pottery covered every square inch of flat surface. Since a potter’s home often doubles as a showroom, the most common phrase uttered is, “Cuanto cuesta?” (“How much is it?”) The most inexpensive pots are almost always made by the grandchildren. As the youngest generation, they have the least practice under their belts. The oldest member of the family usually commands hundreds of dollars for each vessel, proving that years of practice produces immaculate results. Families work together to cultivate a recognizable style, while individual artists develop a paint style or vessel shape that becomes their speciality.
One afternoon, we followed Hector to his son’s house, which was only thirty feet from his own. We were trailed by a stray dog who adopted us, whom we subsequently named Dolores. We walked through the front door and entered the living room, where Hector Gallegos Jr. and his wife, Laura Bugarini Cota, were working on their pots, set to the soundtrack of high-pitched telenovella wails coming from a massive television. I could tell by the size of their TV that Hector Jr. and Laura produced highly coveted pots.
Laura sat at her work table, examining the half-finished decoration on her pot. She alternated between a small set of brushes, most of which are comprised of a single strand of hair. Laura’s trademark, horizontal painted patterns are more complex and unique than any other pot I had seen. Laura and one of our professors, Bill, began conversing in Spanish, while the rest of us examined the pottery around the house. When Bill asked Laura how long her waiting list was, Laura turned back to her work and happily relied, “Dos años.” Two years. Laura’s pots had become highly sought after over the years; though each vessel might be worth $300 in Mexico, the galleries of the American Southwest pay triple the amount. Not every family makes such a successful living through their art, but commitment and cultivation of the craft has proven to improve the quality of life for a vast majority of the local families. So how can you tell if a family has found success in the pottery business? “You look at their driveway,” explained one local potter. “First thing you buy is a car. Next comes indoor plumbing. Then maybe a giant TV.”
On the second day we piled into the back of Hector’s pickup truck and headed for the foot of the mountains, where locals acquire the clay for every vessel they make. Each family has a strong opinion about where to dig up the best clay. Though many potters specialize in red or black, Hector’s family prefers white clay. We disembarked from the truck, then circled around Hector as he jabbed a shovel into an embankment. He shook loose the earth and soon we had a giant sack full of clay. Once back at our house, Hector and Graciela set to mixing the clay with water. Once the mixture rests, it is strained through fine cloth, leaving soft, workable clay.
Over the following week, Hector and Graciela gave us a crash course in pottery. After observing the masterful work of the local potters, we felt like a group of kindergartners as we struggled to form even the most basic of pot shapes with our own hands. Once the pots dried for a few days, we used various grades of sandpaper to smooth out the imperfections. Hector then treated us to his paintbrush collection — a set of ballpoint pens, each with twelve strands of human hair shoved into the head.
The day finally came for us to fire out pots. Akin to the shape of a campfire straight out of a Boy Scouts handbook, Hector built a low-profile pyramid out of old wood scraps and chunks of cow dung. Hidden in the heart of the pyre, each of our pots sat covered with a ceramic vessel that ensures equal heat distribution and protects against licking flames. As Hector leaned down to inspect the fire, I watched over his shoulder as Dolores playfully nipped at the heels of a roaming donkey. Both dog and donkey eventually made a truce, lying down on their backs and rolling the dirt with their bellies up, facing the sun. After firing and cooling, it was clear that many of us did not have a future in pottery. Some vessels, whose walls were uneven and flimsy, broke in the process, while others came out with a Frankenstein-like paint finish. But we were all happy to have a souvenir of our experience in Mata Ortiz, a reminder of the ingenuity and determinism hidden in an unsuspecting village.
What makes the people of Mata Ortiz so extraordinary is that they are completely against imitation — instead of copying the art of their ancestors by reproducing the patterns on Quezada’s found pottery shards, they chose to use the art form as a basis for further exploration. Mata Ortiz could’ve been an economy of novelty, geared towards bus loads of tourists. But after an all-too-short stay in the village, it becomes clear that the people have created a dynamic, wholly new art form that will hopefully continue to sustain many future generations.
Knowing I wanted to buy an original Mata Ortiz pot, I agonized throughout the entire trip, looking for the perfect vessel to fit my budget. I almost pulled my wallet out nearly a dozen times, but always found myself stopping short. On the final day, high on a shelf, I saw the perfect pot for me. It was small, maybe only six inches tall, with a simple yet perfect geometric pattern applied to its surface in white paint. The pot now sits on my desk as a reminder of the importance of generational craft, a topic that is often overlooked in the States. Mata Ortiz isn’t perfect, as I know it’s never wise to idealize the lives of others. But when times got tough, the people turned to family and the talent found in their own hands. As the debate surrounding jobs and the economy rages on in this country, Mata Ortiz reminds us that craft and trade should be part of the conversation.
To learn more about Mata Ortiz, visit the city’s calendar and check out the beautiful photography of RAEchal Running, who has devoted her support of the area through documenting the people and their work. For more information about Land Arts of the American West, visit the website or take a look at the recently published book that documents the history of the program.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.