The Miracle of Mata Ortiz: renaissance of a lost art

Mata ortiz-doorJuan Quezada was a goatherd, so the story goes, (or a collector of firewood or maguey cactus, depending on the story) in Mata Ortiz, a remote puebla in northern Mexico.

His mother was happy that her young, uneducated but artistically inclined son was safely roaming the hills and mountains rather than fighting, for which he also showed some skill.

Sometimes while roaming those hills, he found pots and potsherds in caves and other places that had been made by an ancient people. Probably by the same people who had deserted the nearby ruins of Paquime in ancient times. (See the previous post–I can’t figure out how to create links on this %$#&* tablet.)

Quezada began experimenting. He found the same white clay. He developed firing techniques and found minerals for painting his pots. Over time, he not only recreated the ancient techniques, but he surpassed them. His pots were exceptionally delicate, white, and finely detailed. Despite their fine proportions, he made them freehand, without a wheel, using clay coils. He sometimes painted them with homemade brushes that contained only a few hairs.

But there was no market for his pots. He gave them away or tried selling them in border towns. He also showed his family and neighbors the methods that he had learned through so much trial and error.

Several years later, so the story also goes, a man named Spencer MacCallum found one of his pots at a flea market in Deming, New Mexico. He was impressed enough to seek out the pot’s creator and eventually stumbled across Juan Quezada. McCallum began introducing Quezada’s pots to galleries in the United States. Slowly, Mexico began recognizing its native son as well.

Quezada’s reputation spread. And so did the market for the pottery of Mata Ortiz.

The puebla became a village of potters. Or those who dug clay from the hills or who collected wood for the kilns. Now, a second generation of potters is producing work of various quality with a third generation not far behind. Some families have continued to refine their technique and now produce some of the best pottery in the world. Other families try to eke out a living on the coattails of the famous name. Locally, and to anyone familiar with the story, Juan Quezada is a legend, and some members of his extended family are well-regarded artists in their own right.

Paula Bugalini-a third generation in the making

Paula Bugalini-a third generation in the making

The afternoon I was at Las Guacamayas (See the last post), Mayte Lujan generously loaned me her jeep and her employee, Paty, to drive me to Mata Ortiz. Depite the legend, Mata Ortiz looks like any other small Mexican town–mostly dirt roads and a patchwork of tiny houses. It has neither the charm of some Mexican towns nor the appearance of wealth that one might expect from a place with a highly developed and sought-after art form.

Laura Bugarini and her husband, Hector, represent a second generation that, if anything, has surpassed the skill of their parents. This couple also represents a fusion of styles between the highly geometric and the zoomorphic. Laura tends to decorate her pots with tiny, perfect geometric shapes; Hector creates stylized plants and animals. Sometimes they collaborate, joining their different styles on a piece.

Example of collaborative work

They live in a tidy, fenced home at the end of a rough, dirt road in Mata Ortiz. While the house is unpretentious by American standards, the interior is spacious and white. They are young, handsome, gracious, and prosperous. Laura recently won her country’s highest award for artistic work. Photos of her with the Mexican president are on what would be a fireplace mantel farther north.


Laura and Hector at home. All the pots are already sold.

Laura and Hector at home. All the pots are already sold.

They have reached the enviable place in artistic life where they only work on commission, and buyers may wait up to a year to receive a piece. It may take Laura a month to create one of her incredibly detailed pots. “And if it breaks, I’ve lost a month’s work,” she said


One of Laura's incredibly detailed pots in process

One of Laura’s incredibly detailed pots in process


mata Otiz-Quezada galleryThe day I visited Mata Ortiz, all the galleries except Juan Quezada’s were closed, so I saw some of the best and most expensive work, but missed the broad swath of the more affordable middle. Some folks had pots on a blanket on the highway, but honestly, after seeing the best, it was hard to settle for seconds. One woman assured us that she had work from several Mata Ortiz potters at her home gallery.


Pots in the Quezada family gallery

Pots in the Quezada family gallery










Erm…maybe. But the family was clearly so proud of its work and of being from Mata Ortiz that I bought a pot anyway.


ERThe Dominguez family in their home gallery

The Dominguez family in their home gallery

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4 Responses to The Miracle of Mata Ortiz: renaissance of a lost art

  1. Maria 30 December, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    Wow Kate, from what you show us here, it’s no wonder Quezada’s reputation spread.

    • Kate Convissor 30 December, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      It’s truly fabulous work. But also a lot of knock-offs. I was lucky to see the good stuff.

  2. Joanne Kuszaj 29 December, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it, I would not have known.

    • Kate Convissor 30 December, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Thanks, Joanne. It was exciting to see the pottery. It’s not well-known, and that’s a pity. Such beautiful work.