Juan Quezada was only a boy of 12 when he met his destiny to to bring the art world a style of pottery that had been lost for thousands of years.
On journeys to the mountains to collect firewood, he became curious about the beautiful pottery shards he would find strewn on the ground at what is now known as the ancient Casa Grande ruins.
Inspired by the beautiful shards and without any knowledge of pottery, Juan began the process of mastering the lost style of Casa Grande pottery.
Using the shards to guide him, he discovered the preparation of clay and firing needed to duplicate the look and feel of the shards.
Juan did not use a traditional potter’s wheel, instead he created the extremely thin walls by pinching and shaping the pot entirely by hand.
By the time he was a young man he had grasped the technology of the ancient potters, and began teaching it to others in his village. Today, there are approximately 300 potters working in the village and Casa Grande pottery from the village of Mata Ortiz in Mexico is known as the best in the world.
Mata Ortiz potters generally work in their homes, with bedrooms often doubling as studios. The work space generally consists of just a table, with simple tools such as a hacksaw blade, a butter knife, broken spoons, sandpaper, a small stone and paintbrushes generally made from clippings of children’s hair, sometimes just four or five strands tied on a stick.
The shaping of the clay is relatively faithful to the original Paquimé techniques, but each potter has their own variation in how they make their pots. However, they are generally based on Quesada’s single-coil method, using the gray, yellow, orange, red and white clays from the area just as those in Paquimé did. The paints are made from clay or from crushed minerals such as manganese, also mined locally.
The formation of the vessel is done without a potter’s wheel; instead it is a kind of wheel throwing making them essentially pinch pots. To begin, a ball of clay is pressed into a round flat shape, which is called a “tortilla.”
This tortilla is pressed into a bowl to help it keep it shape as the bottom of the vessel. More clay is added as a coil which is pressed into the top edge of the tortilla, then upon itself to form the walls of the vessel, as the bowl is turn which helps keep the shape and thickness even.
The walls are then scraped smooth and thin (for finer vessels) with a hacksaw blade, a process called segueteando. If there is to be a lip, and extra coil is added and integrated. Then the pot is set aside and once completely dry, it is sanded smooth using a stone or deer bone with a little vegetable oil as lubricant.
After painting, the pots are fired on open ground or in pit ovens. Two or three small pots may be fired together, but larger ones are fired individually. They are set on a pile of dried cow dung and wood and if fired on open ground, covered with a large overturned pot called a “saggar.”
For polychrome pots, air is allowed to circulate inside the firing chamber. If the pots are to be turned black, the chamber is sealed to keep smoke in and air out. Lydia Quezada is credited for the black variation. She says she learned how to do it when she accidentally sealed the chamber for a polychrome pot, creating black clouds. The effect prompted her to experiment.
Mata Ortiz pottery pieces are made for their aesthetic value and use pre Hispanic pottery only as inspiration, not as a means of continuing a folk-art tradition. The painted designed is where the artistic variation is most evident and skill levels vary greatly. Some potters stick to geometric patterns and colors very similar to those on original Pakimé pottery with the oval shaped vessel considered “classic.”
Others have develop shapes and styles using new colors such as green, yellow, even purpose, sweeping lines and extremely thin lines. Newer painted designs include zoomorphic shapes such as lizards, snakes, fish, birds and others, almost always related to the desert environment. The most common decoration is burnishing to give a soft shine and fine lines in black and ochre.
Another form of decoration adds decorative elements in clay over the walls of the vessel and sgraffito is usually done with only one color such as black on black. A relatively rare form of decoration for the pottery is the incision of the clay vessel while the clay is still moist.
Emphasis is generally on quality rather than quantity, differing from pottery production in central Mexico. Most pottery that is produced is of lesser quality with thicker walls and less-artistic painting. There is a middle group that makes good quality and an elite number who can make truly artistic wares.
These top artists include members of Quezada’s family (Lydia, Nicolas, Noe, and Damian Quezada), the Ortiz family (Felix, Nicolas, and Macario), Taurina Baca, and Hector and Graciella Gallegos, among others. Nicolas Ortiz, best known for creating sculptural pieces. From the last category come some of the best handmade pottery in the world
The firing process is primitive compared to modern day kilns. Using a burning circular pile of dung, the pot is placed by the fire to warm so it will not crack when put directly into the heat. Once placed in the fire the pot is covered completely with dung, which is set aflame. This ancient firing process required the utmost skill and timing if the pot was to survive the ordeal. Juan Quezada eventually mastered this skill.
By the mid 1970s, Quezada was selling his pottery and teaching family and friends to make it when it was able to penetrate the U.S. markets thanks to efforts by Spencer MacCallum and later Walt Parks along with Mexican traders.
By the 1990s, the pottery was being shown in museums and other cultural institutions and sold in fine galleries. The success of the pottery, which is sold for its aesthetic rather than its utilitarian value, has brought the town of Mata Ortiz out of poverty, with most of its population earning income from the industry, directly or indirectly.
Mata Ortiz remains highly popular especially in the southwest United States and some other parts of the country. The best pieces now sell for thousands of dollars although good work can still be had for as little as five. Medium-sized vessels can bring up to $2,500 USD. Most pieces are priced in dollars because most of the production goes to the United States. The finest pieces are those made with white clay and those made by Quezada run considerably more.
One critical element to the development of ceramics in Mata Ortiz is its proximity to the Paquimé or Casa Grandes archeological site. Paquimé is one of the most important archeological sites in northwest Mexico/southwest U.S. region and center of the Mogollon culture .
This culture reached its peak around 1400, with evidence of its influence hundreds of kilometers from its center in present-day Chihuahua state. Excavations of Paquimé were undertaken between 1958 and 1961 by archeologist Charles C. Di Peso, which sparked local interest in the site.
However, by the time the pottery revival began in Mata Ortiz, Paquimé had not been studied as well as other desert cultures in the region and there was little expert knowledge about its pottery. Since then, the Museo de las Culturas del Norte was opened at Paquimé in 1997 and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
Paquimé pottery is closely related to the larger family of Pueblo pottery, showing influence from Arizona, New Mexico and central Mexico along with elements which are distinctive to the area. Various colors appear in the works including a nearly white ivory, a reddish color and black.
Paquimé pottery is traded throughout North America.