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All fired up

Father of famous Mata Ortiz pottery visits Northwest

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Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 12:00 am | Updated: 8:03 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Juan Quezada doesn’t leave home much these days.

The Mexican potter who turned a whole village of people into fine artists and, in the process, turned widespread poverty into wealth, mostly stays south of the border.

On the weekend of Nov. 15 and 16, though, he’ll visit Marana.

During an art show of Mata Ortiz pottery at the Heritage Highlands Clubhouse, the artist will sell his work and offer live demonstrations of his technique. His son and wife — also potters — will join him.

Quezada is an unlikely success story in the world of art. Born into a poor family in the village of Mata Ortiz, he spent chunks of his boyhood collecting firewood to sell, along with cactus, acorns and honey.

He had little exposure to high art except in the tattered shards of pottery that cropped up during his firewood-gathering jaunts.

Quezada loved art, though, so much so that he experimented with turning rocks, plants and insects into pigment, according to the book “The Miracle of Mata Ortiz” by Walter P. Parks. He studied the shards and memorized their delicate and intricate designs.

The shards were remnants of an ancient village dating back to A.D. 1200 known as Casas Grandes. Pottery excavated from the area is considered some of the finest in the Southwest.

“The potters at ancient Casas Grandes appear to have had very high standards for themselves,” said Mike Jacobs, archaeological collections curator at the Arizona State Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of this pottery in the United States. “You will see the line work is very fine and extremely meticulous. They just don’t make mistakes. Where the lines intersect and where they meet is very clean.”

The shards that Quezada studied made him think. If the area around Mata Ortiz contained so many pieces of pottery, it must also contain clay.

As Quezada went about his outdoor work, he searched for this basic ingredient of pots. He found it in the mountains, on the plains and in the arroyos. And it was high-quality stuff.

“It’s kind of a self-tempering clay,” said Diane Dittemore, curator of ethnological collections at the Arizona State Museum. “It allows for the creation of very thin vessels so pottery has a lightness and airiness of structure that I think people find very attractive.”

Quezada tried to fashion a thin pot from his found art supply. With no mentor to guide him through the time-tested steps, he failed often. But one day, he didn’t.

“He wanted to replicate the kind of pottery he was seeing in the area where he lives, and basically through trial and error, he rediscovered how to make that pottery,” Jacobs said.

Quezada worked on his technique and gave his results to friends. When traders discovered his pots, they began traveling to Mata Ortiz. They saw dollar signs in the prospects of aging the pieces to look like artifacts.

Given the attention Quezada’s work was commanding, family members began asking the artist to teach them his trade. Other members of the community followed right behind.

In 1976, about 12 people made pottery in the Mata Ortiz style, according to Parks’ book. By 1990, that number was as high as 300. Perhaps because each pot had to be fired individually, the artists continued Quezada’s style of focusing on quality over quantity.

“Many of them are extraordinary artists by any gauge,” Dittemore said. “The technical abilities and the imagination of the decorations sort of speak for themselves.”

One might wonder where the market for all this pottery came from. The answer to that question lies in a New Mexico junk store known as Bob’s Swap Shop.

In 1976, anthropologist Spencer Heath MacCallum found himself in that junk shop while visiting the town of Deming. There, he saw three handmade pots with intricate geometric designs and striking symmetry.

Dazzled, he asked the shop owner where the pots came from and learned that poor people had traded them for clothing — poor people perhaps from Mexico.

MacCallum crossed the border, inquired about the pots to strangers and eventually ended up in Mata Ortiz. He offered Quezada a stipend to work at his art and got busy calling museums, curators, galleries and universities.

In 1978, Quezada held the first exhibit of his work in the United States — at the Arizona State Museum.

Today, the name “Mata Ortiz” is well known among collectors of Native American art.

“Scores and scores of tour groups now go down to Mata Ortiz,” Dittemore said. “It has helped to feed the economy of the region. When we see roads that have been built and schools that have their origin based on Juan’s decision, that’s pretty remarkable.”

Pottery demo

What: Mata Ortiz demonstration and sale

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16; Demonstrations at 11 a.m. both days

Where: Heritage Highlands Clubhouse, 4949 W. Heritage Club Blvd.

Cost: Free

Phone: 744-0639

Online: www.mataortiztoyou.com

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