Mata Ortiz may be a tiny village in northwestern Chihuahua, but it’s world-famous for its pottery, featuring intricate designs that are inspired by pre-Hispanic symbols or art from the ruins at the ancient city of Paquimé.
The civilization at Paquimé — which bears both Mesoamerican and Southwestern traits, flourished in the area from around A.D. 700 until the mid-1400s. The Spanish renamed Paquimé Casas Grandes, or “big houses,” because the structures there stood several stories high. You can still visit the ancient city site just outside Mata Ortiz.
Modern residents of Mata Ortiz often found (and still find) ancient pottery shards. But the techniques used to make this beautiful, intricately painted pottery were lost for over 500 years until one resident named Juan Quezada painstakingly worked to rediscover the lost art.
As a boy, Quezada was intrigued by the shards he’d find in the hills near his hometown. One day, more than 60 years ago, he came across an undisturbed, likely pre-Hispanic burial cave and found three intact pots. So taken was he by their beauty that he vowed to learn how to make them.
It took him 16 years of trial and error before he finally succeeded in making a pot he found satisfactory.
At first, Quezada either traded his pots for goods or sold them for a few dollars. Some of his pots made their way to the United States, where they were discovered by Spencer MacCallum, who had purchased a 14th-century pot from Paquimé he’d found at a yard sale in the early 1970s.
Several years later, when he saw Quezada’s pots in a store in New Mexico, he knew they had their roots in the ancient culture from Paquimé. But when he asked where the pots were from, he was told simply, “Mexico.”
He took photographs of the pots with him to Mexico and somehow found Quezada after searching for only two days. He bought some of Quezada’s pots and soon afterward, the quality of the pots improved and began selling for significantly more money. Many of Quezada’s pots are now in collections in Mexican and U.S. museums.
Quezada taught relatives and neighbors how to make the pots and his basic techniques are still used today, although each potter has tweaked the process a bit. As a result, the town has several potters making these beautiful pots.
An unusual feature of Mata Ortiz’s pottery is that its artisans don’t use a potter’s wheel. Instead, pots are made by first flattening a piece of clay into what they call a “tortilla,” and then pressed into a bowl.
From there, there are two options: in the single-coil method, additional clay is rolled out into a coil, which is then connected to the tortilla. The coil is then pinched, drawing the clay upward to make the pot’s walls.
Once the walls are made, the outside of the pot is smoothed with a hacksaw blade.
Once formed, the pots are allowed to dry for about three days. “After that, I sand them,” said artisan Monico Corona. They are then polished with a small stone and after that, it’s time to add the designs.
Artisan Ana Trillo sits at her kitchen table, preparing to paint a pot.
“It took me two to three years to make pots that were good enough to sell,” she said. “A friend taught me how to make [them].”
Trillo uses a small brush made from human hair, sometimes her own, sometimes a relative’s. “My nephew has finer hair,” she said, adding that some people prefer using cat hair.
“Many designs are from Paquimé. Others, we invented. Some are ones we copied.”
Before painting the pots, Trillo marks the quadrants with light lines of a pen or pencil. But she doesn’t draw any figures first; it’s all painted freehand, a task requiring intense concentration. But conversation and jokes help lighten the work.
And when it was time to prepare a meal, Trillo simply cleared the kitchen table and used it. Once the meal was over, she cleared the plates and returned to painting her pot.
When the painting is done, pots are often placed in an ordinary kitchen oven for preheating before they’re fired. At this stage, there are two options for the fuel: cow chips are the traditional fuel, but artisan Luís López Corona uses bark from the Alamo tree. He said the bark burns very hot.
To fire his pots, López places them on a small grill, covers them with a metal tub and then piles on the bark. He liberally applies lighter fluid and lights the bark, releasing a sweet smell, and plenty of smoke and heat. He checks on the progress by using a mirror to shine some light through a small hole. When he determines the pots are ready, he removes them with a long pair of tongs and sets them aside to cool.
Mata Ortiz pottery may be black, white or red, the color determined by the clay used and the firing. Each potter has their favorite clays and will often keep its location a closely guarded secret.
Mata Ortiz pots are now available online but it’s definitely worth a trip to the village to make a purchase. There are several galleries in the pueblo but many homes have signs out front announcing that a potter lives there.
It’s possible to just knock on a door and view the pottery for sale and potters are always happy to share information. Although pots from master potters fetch several thousand dollars, it’s still possible to buy beautiful pieces from lesser-known potters for a reasonable price.
Another reason to visit Mata Ortiz is the Paquimé site, in nearby Casas Grandes. Although none of the extant structures are several stories high — as they were when they were built — it’s still a fascinating site.
Sadly, MacCallum died in December, 2020 and Quezada two years later, but their legacy lives on in tiny Mata Ortiz.
Joseph Sorrentino, a writer, photographer and author of the book San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmvisiones and of Stinky Island Tales: Some Stories from an Italian-American Childhood, is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. More examples of his photographs and links to other articles may be found at www.sorrentinophotography.com He currently lives in Chipilo, Puebla.