Why is it said that in
a small, lost town of Chihuahua, Mexico
exists the largest concentration of artists on the
face of this earth?
Why are some of the
contemporary works of art that are created in this
little town sold for incredibly high prices on the
Why are thousands of
tourists from the United States, Europe and Japan,
as well as other parts of the world, coming to this
Why have I heard many
people say that since they became familiar with
these works of art, their lives have never been the
STORY OF MATA ORTIZ
Juan Quezada had abandoned school to work in
the fields and make his contribution to the low
family economy. His surroundings
were the same as they had been 600 years ago for the
members of a sophisticated culture called "Casas
Grandes", who erected the city of
Paquimé, evolved and then inexplicably
Over the ruins of that
lost civilization was built a poor, dusty town,
lacking in everything, named Juan
Mata Ortiz. There,
little Juan Quezada, always reserved
and alone, began to gather firewood.
On his adventures he used to find the remains
of ceramic which served as testimony to the artistic
level reached by the inhabitants of ancient
Paquimé. Their designs
and forms caught Juan’s attention, and
through extraordinary intuition, Juan
began to reproduce the techniques used hundreds of
He kept the ceramic
shards, examining them over and over again.
It soon occurred to him that the materials
used to make these pieces of art had to be close to
where he was, and sure enough, he was able to
combine the right amounts of different clays found
in the mountains near Mata Ortiz.
He also experimented with different materials
to make the pigments he was going to need.
With the help of his
fingers, serrated knives, and his ability,
Juan learned to give a uniform thickness to
the walls of the earthenware vessels.
He worked on those ornamental designs by
using drawings that he would trace in a symmetrical
180-degree form. These drawings
were very similar to the drawings that he had seen
in the pre-Columbian ceramics.
He invented his own technique of firing the pieces,
using cow manure as combustible.
To protect his pieces from direct fire, he
would cover them with cans or ceramic flower pots,
which he would place over rocks so that the hot air
never realized the magnitude of his accomplishments,
and everything indicated that he would go unnoticed
by the world. However, the
greatest stories are often woven with chance
finally gave several of his pots to some salesmen
who in turn took them to the United States.
There, they exchanged them for clothing in a
junk store in Deming, New Mexico – Bob’s Swap Shop.
And that’s how the other protagonist of this
story appeared: Spencer MacCallum, an
American anthropologist, with a specialty in Art
History, who liked to go to browse through those
entered Bob’s Swap Shop and saw the pots, he
couldn’t help but to buy them.
Once he got home, he observed them time and again,
admiring their beauty, the perfection of their
design and almost unearthly symmetry.
Spencer couldn’t stop thinking
that somewhere in the world existed an extraordinary
artist, whose works of art were being sold in modest
After a month, he
decided to find this unknown artist.
His search was successful.
In just a few days, Spencer
found himself in front of a very surprised
Juan who couldn’t believe how this American
man had come all the way to this lost, dusty town
called Mata Ortiz.
What he found to be even more incredible, though,
was the generous offer of Spencer, which said, “In
exchange for a monthly stipend please dedicate
yourself solely to produce art". And note that Mr.
MacCallum did not say "produce ollas,
pots", he had such confidence in Juan's
talent that whatever he decided to create would be
Within many magical
moments in this story, this one seems to me to be
the most fascinating: the
encounter of two extraordinary men, destined to
change the fortune of that little town, and to leave
us a artistic legacy whose reach is still unknown.
What happened after
that day is no less interesting.
Due to Spencer’s promotion mainly in
the southern part of the United States, Juan
accomplished more and more everyday as a potter.
He first taught his family, and then he
taught other members of the Mata Ortiz
community to work with ceramics.
Today, there are 400 artists who make up this
artistic movement, dedicated to pottery.
Their economic level as a community has
has been recognized worldwide.
His art has been exhibited in very important
museums, and in 1999, the Mexican government awarded
him with the National Art Award, the greatest
recognition given to an artist in this country.
THE ART OF MATA ORTIZ
“Their imagery evokes Op Art, M.C. Escher and
computer chips in combination with plumed serpents
With an olla
canvas, the potters of
Mata Ortiz have imprinted in them not
only re-creations of ancestral symbols, but they
have searched within their own spirit and creativity
and have been able to conceive a unique artistic
language, creative and original.
They have passed through the imitation of
pre-Hispanic ceramics, and have moved on to a
refined creation of contemporary art.
It is considered to be
art and not crafts because their work is not
routinely elaborated with a repetitive, popular
style. The potters of Mata
Ortiz combine both intellectual and
aesthetic elements. Each artist
has freely looked for his or her own form of
expression, his or her own language through which to
What is it that makes
these ceramics a unique movement in the world of
is not an activity which has been inherited by
Centuries had passed without there being
ceramic art in this area.
large quantity of artists concentrated in one place.
It is incredibly intriguing that so many
skilled artists could come out of such a small
diversity among the styles.
If we observe Juan Quezada’s
work, along with works done by Laura Bugarini,
Leonel Lopez, Macario Ortiz,
Eli Navarrete and Manolo
Rodriquez, what would be the common
denominator of the style? How
could we define the style of Mata Ortiz?
Is there a particular style?
I believe that what unites this artistic
movement is primarily the geographic region; in
second place, the clay and the pigments; thirdly,
the methods or techniques which are used to create
these works of art.
speed at which this art has evolved.
In less than 30 years the movement has gone
from imitating pre-Hispanic designs to developing a
creativity whose expressions surprise us everyday.
It is now considered that Mata Ortiz has
reached its classic period.
need to innovate and grow artistically.
This is why the artistic evolution in
Mata Ortiz has been so rapid.
The artists are not satisfied with what they
have accomplished. They are
constantly searching for new languages, new natural
pigments, new clay, and techniques which will make
them grow as artists.
Undoubtedly the art of
Mata Ortiz will continue to surprise
and bewitch us for many, many years to come.