Folk Art-The FolkArt Gallery: Creating a Pot at Mata Ortiz

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Creating a Pot in Mata Ortiz

Lydia Quezada

Spencer MacCallum

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Using only local clays and mineral colors, Mata Ortiz pottery is formed and painted entirely by hand without benefit of the potters wheel or kiln. Designs are not sketched ahead either on paper or on the pots, but come directly from the mind as the artist paints.

The Clay:
The clay is collected in the surrounding mountains—red, grey, orange and the highly prized pure white—and is dried in the sun. Next it is ground on a stone metate and mixed with gut (temper), then it is sifted and winnowed, mixed with water and strained. This process is repeated until the clay is as fine as silt. After settling for a few days, it is cured in gypsum troughs for 2-3 weeks. The next step is to knead the clay until it has reached the proper consistency.

The Potting:
The pot begins as a clay tortilla which is pushed into a plaster of Paris mold, similar to the clay molds of the prehistoric Indians. A clay doughnut is then attached to the molded tortilla. Using a pinching process, the clay is pulled up to form the pot. Finally, the pot is smoothed with a piece of hacksaw blade and a lip may be formed with a smaller doughnut of clay. The pot is then left to dry to a leather-hard condition and is rubbed with vegetable oil and polished with a cloth or stone (prehistoric technique).

Painting& Design:
The paintbrushes are made from a few very straight strands of human hair (1½ to 2" long), usually from a child, which are tied to the end of a stick (the brush handle) with thread. The technique is to lay the long strands covered with paint on the pot surface and pull it through to create a line. Most of the paints used are reds from iron oxides and blacks from manganese. Both minerals occur naturally in various forms around Mata Ortiz. After the paint has dried, the pot is polished a final time to set the paint.

The Firing:
Mata Ortiz pots are fired one at a time, although the blackware pots are sometimes fired two or three together. The pot is set on some stones and an inverted metal bucket is placed over it. Next, dry cow chips are piled over the bucket and set on fire. Since the bucket is raised off the ground by the stones, air is allowed to circulate, creating an oxidizing atmosphere. After about thirty minutes, the fire is scattered and the glowing hot pot is removed and cooled slowly.

Spencer MacCallum
Twenty years ago, anthropologist Spencer MacCallum discovered Juan Quezada working in the remote village of Mata Ortiz, Mexico. He spent the years from 1976 to 1983 studying and documenting the pottery renaissance in the village. He is the author of The Art of the Community and numerous journals. MacCallum studied art history at Princeton University and social anthropology at the University of Washington and the University of Chicago. He presently directs the Heather Foundation.

Mata Ortiz Pot

Lydia Quezada de Talavera

Lydia Quezada de Talavera is the youngest sister of Juan Quezada, originator of the Mata Ortiz pottery renaissance. Long considered one of the best potters in the Mata Ortiz tradition, she did some of the original innovative work in the black-on-black style of pots and uses a very difficult continuous line design pattern in her polychrome pots. According to Lydia, few of the other artisans use this technique because it requires such complete concentration.

Rito Talavera, her husband, has developed his own blackware style which usually features lizards or snakes in relief around the rim of his pots.

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