Mata Ortiz: Untold Stories Part One

(Based on our documentary film, “Mata Ortiz: The Untold Stories,” this blog post is the first of three articles that presents a clearly articulated and documented revised history of the Mata Ortiz pottery tradition. In essence, these three posts are a written synthesis of our documentary. According to well-documented recent research, most of the widely-accepted version of Mata Ortiz pottery history that has been written and promoted by Mr. Parks and Mr. MacCallum is unsatisfactory.)




By Ron Goebel and Nancy Andrews

 “There are all kinds of myths that a people has about itself. I think that one job of the historian is to try to cut through some of those myths so that people can face their current situation realistically rather than mythically. I guess that’s my sense of what a historian ought to do.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson


Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico lies in a region blessed with high quality claytalented artists and a tradition of ancient ceramics.  Here, nearly a thousand years ago, the Casas Grandes people lived in and around Paquimé, a trading center linking Mesoamerica with cultures to the north, the Hohokam, Mogollon and Anazasi. The Casas Grandes people vanished from the area in the fifteenth century, leaving behind a legacy of pottery.

Looting of archaeological sites around Paquimé may well have been ongoing for decades, if not centuries. However, former pothunters from nearby Mata Ortiz say that their looting of Paquimé began in the 1960s. In order to make a living and support their families, these mid-twentieth century pothunters excavated much of the area around Casas Grandes and Mata Ortiz, removed pots sometimes by the truck bed load, and sold the pieces to traders and collectors, including Americans. By the mid-1960s this pothunting created a demand that exceded the supply of ancient pots. Archaeologists Nancy Kelker and Karen O. Bruhns state that “local artisans quickly stepped in to fill the void.” Artisans from Mata Ortiz and Casas Grandes, no longer able to meet the demand for ancient pots, began fashioning replicas they called hechizas. Many former looters, including present-day potter Rojelio Silveira, experimented with clay with the intention of making their contemporary pots appear prehistoric. The artisans themselves, along with Mexican traders, successfully sold the replicas to collectors and shopkeepers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border throughout much of the 1960s and 1970s. While current popular myth mistakenly has it that no pothunting occurred, that indeed Mata Ortiz pottery evolved from one self-taught artist discovered by an American man, Nuevo Casas Grandes author Professor Julián Hernández Chávez asserts that this earlier pothunting “is not a secret.”

Professor Hernández, whose family has lived in the area for more than two centuries, states that Casas Grandes potter Manuel Olivas was the first potter in the area to use Paquimé designs on contemporary pottery.

Manuel Olivas told Professor Hernández that he learned to work with clay in 1952 from his grandmother, Leonor Parra. While Parra, like other women in the area, was skilled in utilitarian potmaking, Manuel Olivas began to make pieces for decorative purposes. His designs were based on ancient Paquimé motifs. Beginning modestly in the 1950s, Olivas and his brothers became prolific potmakers throughout the 1960s and beyond. In fact, in 1976 when an American man named Spencer MacCallum arrived in Nuevo Casas Grandes looking for the artist who had made his three pots, local people directed him to the home of Manuel Olivas. (MacCallum had apparently bought these pots in southern New Mexico.)

“Revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, and new perspectives gained by the passage of time.”  James McPherson

In 1979, in An Odyssey Complete and Continuing, Spencer MacCallum wrote about potter Juan Quezada that, “There was none in Chihuahua for him to copy,” and that Quezada’s rediscovery of ceramic technology occurred “without ever having…seen a potter at work.” This is blatantly incorrect. However, Professor Julián Hernández affirms that just before encountering Quezada in 1976, MacCallum met, and saw pottery by, Manuel Olivas. According to Hernández, it was Olivas, believing Spencer MacCallum’s pots had been made by any one of several working potters in Mata Ortiz, who directed MacCallum to Mata Ortiz where he then met Juan Quezada. Professor Hernández goes on to say that “in Mata Ortiz, the first one [potter] probably was Félix Ortiz.”

Mata Ortiz potter Marisela Ortiz of Barrio Porvenir remembers her father Félix. “Around here,” she says, “people know Félix Ortiz was the one who started it all. Some people are upset around here. People here regard my father, Félix Ortiz, as the first potter in Mata Ortiz. We would be so proud if one day people would acknowlege him for who he was….” Marisela’s great uncle, Jesús Ortiz, adds, “Juan wasn’t the first. My nephew Félix was first. And then his brother Emeterio. Juan used to come and look at Félix’s pots. But then something happened. They fought. If you want to know what Félix’s pots looked like, go ask Juan Quezada. He looked at them!”

According to research by Mata Ortiz scholar, Jim Hills of Tucson, Arizona, indeed several people in the Porvenir neighborhood were making pottery in the 1970s. Porvenir potters Rojelio Silveira, Emeterio Ortiz, Félix Ortiz and Salbador Ortiz all made Mata Ortiz pottery in the early 1970s. In his paper, “Reconstructing a Miracle” in the University of Arizona’s Journal of the Southwest, Hills states, “MacCallum continually customized his story over the years in an attempt to promote a single narrative, which required omitting, modifying or diluting facts.” The Ortiz and Silveira potters were among those omissions.

Thus, according to Hills, “a blend of well-meaning entrepreneurial strategies, reticence, forgetfulness, imagination, exaggeration and romantic notions of reality have shaped the Mata Ortiz narrative.”

Essentially, two American voices shaped this incomplete history of the Mata Ortiz pottery tradition. In 1993 Walter Parks wrote a book based partially on MacCallum’s notes. In the book’s acknowledgements, Parks states, “Spencer MacCallum was especially generous, opening all of his files to me and reviewing the text.” Based on new evidence, that history is deficient and its perspective limited. It tells only part of the story. Many significant Mexican families were excluded.

The documentary  “Mata Ortiz: The Untold Stories,” is $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping. Total is $30.00. Send payment to Ron Goebel, 772 South Ocean Avenue, Cayucos, California 93430. You can pay with Paypal also.

Mata Ortiz: Documentary


2015 Groundbreaking Film, Mata Ortiz: The Untold Stories

Reveals true and inclusive stories previously overlooked and discounted


      Filmmaker Ron Goebel presents a new documentary shot on location in Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico. Interviews with artists and researchers native to the region disclose the town’s accurate and complete history which has up to now been clouded by outside myths.

       Through moving interviews and thoughtful research, Mata Ortiz: The Untold Stories presents a rare look at the true history of a remarkable village. Revelations by researchers Julián Hernández and Jim Hills, by archaeologist Fabiola Silva, and by artists including Marisela Ortiz and Diego Valles expose an older, more inclusive, more extensive Mata Ortiz pottery movement than has previously been put forward. 

       Award-winning artists including Laura Bugarini, Héctor Gallegos Jr. and Carla Martínez shine as they discuss their art and village life. In addition to his insightful interview, potter/guitarist Elí Navarrete provides traditional Mexican music throughout the film.

      The film is $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping. Total is $30.00. Send payment to Ron Goebel, 772 South Ocean Avenue, Cayucos, California 93430. You can pay with Paypal also.

      The DVD is also available by clicking on “Blog” at; at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson; and from artists and businesses in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.


      These are quotes from the documentary:

       “Manuel Olivas was the first modern potter to use Paquimé motifs in the region. He started in 1952.” —Professor Julián Hernández     

       “Juan Quezada was not the first potter in Mata Ortiz. My nephew Félix Ortiz was first. And then his brother Emeterio.” —Jesús Ortiz Aguilera      

       “We would be so proud if people would recognize our father Félix Ortiz for whom he was, a master potter…a pioneer of Mata Ortiz pottery.”—Marisela Ortiz      

       In thanking the filmmakers, Professor Hernández says, “We thank you. You are our voice, for the potters, and not just the potters, but for all the people.”


Now, what was left out of the story is part of the story.


Eli Navarrete Ortiz

Photos All 025

What a pretty pot!

What a pretty pot!


Elí Navarrete describes his painting technique: ”A design is like a dream that passes through and at that moment you paint it on the piece.”

After marrying Virginia “Vicki” Hernandez, Elí shared his knowledge of clay with her. Vickie now produces very fine museum-quality colored pots.

Continuing the Ortiz family tradition of experimentation and innovation, Navarrete says, “I had little practice with painting the interiors. Then for the national pottery contest at Tlaquepaque, Jalisco it was the first time I painted the interior of the pot. It’s a really difficult technique due to painting with only the wrist and because of the technical precision. It’s very new to me and in reality I’m still experimenting.”

Elisito Ortiz dressed in a local Paquime costume for a fiesta.  He is the son of Eli Navarrete and Virginia (Vicki) Hernandez.

Elisito Ortiz dressed in a local Paquime costume for a fiesta.
He is the son of Eli Navarrete and Virginia (Vicki) Hernandez.

Brothers Felix and Emeterio Ortiz, two of the pioneers of the Mata Ortiz pottery tradition. Many people say Felix was among the first to make pots in Mata Ortiz. Some say that Felix was the first one in the village making pots.

Brothers Felix and Emeterio Ortiz, two of the pioneers of the Mata Ortiz pottery tradition. Many people say Felix was among the first to make pots in Mata Ortiz. Some say that Felix was the first one in the village making pots.



Blog photo green hills Sept 2012


Open Letter

 Ay Ay Ay

The Mexican Consulate in El Paso is preparing to commemorate an American presence in Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico. It is important to note that along with economic development, the U.S. presence brought with it paternalistic myths and misbehavior. The male Anglo-centric legend of Mata Ortiz pottery neglects the critical initial role of women utilitarian potters in the region. Additionally, the myth excludes early Mexican traders and entire groups of early commercial potters, such as those in Nuevo Casas Grandes and the Porvenir neighborhood of Mata Ortiz, in the recklessly incomplete American version of the development of Mexican Mata Ortiz pottery tradition. Why the Mexican Consulate chooses to commemorate exclusionary and irresponsible non-native behavior in their beautiful country is a mystery. The contemporary pottery of Mata Ortiz is indeed some of the best in the world. The Mata Ortiz artists, from the earliest Olivas, Ortiz, Quezada and Silveira potters to those of today, are recognized internationally. But generally speaking the American “‘I’ ‘I’ ‘I’” version of the U.S. presence in the region is not exemplary. Mexican potters, and Mexican potters alone, are responsible for the extraordinary ceramics renaissance in and around Mata Ortiz.


Carlotta Boetcher poses this topic for discussion:

       “What is your position on lumping together as potters, those who never touch the clay, never make the clay piece, only paint something they bought from someone who supplies ready-to-paint pots vs. the potters who dig, wash, knead, and prepare their own clay and make all of their own vessels in preparation for the paint or any further decoration they may deem appropriate? …Top awards are given without distinction…much complaining about this issue…Could be an interesting topic.”




by Nancy Andrews

Art and craft specialization is certainly nothing new to traditional art communities. Some Navajo weavers employ specialization (spinners, dyers, sheep handlers, etc) as a means to more efficiently create rugs and blankets.  These days, they are very open about it.  In addition to efficiency, specialization maintains a role in the art process for elder weavers who may no longer be able to weave, and yet continue to be expert dyers or spinners. Specialization may in fact have begun decades ago, and is a practice we’re just now more aware of.  In Navajo culture, no judgment is attached to those who specialize and those who don’t. As Navajo weaving expert Ann Hedlund says, “The choice to specialize, or not, is left up to the individual weaver. It is her business.”

A number of Pueblo potters practice specialization, (pot makers, painters, firing experts…), and in many cases are quite open about it.  Like Navajo weavers, some Pueblo potters find the practice not only efficient, but a way for individuals to excel in the areas they find most interesting, satisfying, profitable or enjoyable. And like weaving, pottery with its lengthy and multiple steps from start to finish lends itself, almost inevitably leads, to specialization.  An artist may in fact be skilled at each step (in pottery: digging clay, preparing clay, pot building, burnishing, paint making, brush construction, painting, fuel gathering, firing; in rug making: sheep raising, sheering, carding, spinning, dying, loom construction, weaving), but in an effort toward more sales and family sustenance, she may choose the efficiency of specialization and the gainful employment of community specialists.

Yet, in the 1997 documentary “Mata Ortiz Pottery: An Inside Look,” Mata Ortiz potter Macario Ortiz asserts that “a real potter does it all.” And yet, Macario Ortiz openly utilizes specialization in the creation of his pots.  Perhaps this illustrates that the specialization issue is not an “either/or” dilemma.  It is simply the choice of the artist.

My subjective opinion, not being expert in the matter, is that it is the honesty of the artist that matters most.  When an artist specializes, she must  embrace it, acknowledge it, honor the others involved in the process. We must remember, as Navajo sentiment apparently tends to go, that specialization is a matter for the individual with no judgment attached. That said, a great potter does indeed know how to do it all. And if sometimes he may prefer to include and acknowledge others in the process, that is his option.

A potter who in fact does do it all must be honored for his breadth of knowledge, diligence and talent. The singular integrity of his finished product is a unique achievement. His intimate knowledge of every step of the process that led to the completed pot is an accomplishment to be revered.

Myself, I stand in awe of all talented potters.  Truly remarkable work is the fruit of specialization.  And yet I feel an almost spiritual connection to a pot that was created, earth to fire, by one individual.  I’m happy to have both in my collection.

I wonder…in competitions should there be separate categories? I don’t know.

I wonder, did the Paquime potters specialize? I don’t know.

I wonder too, what are your thoughts on the matter? Let us know.



Mata Ortiz Sgrafitto: Hector Gallegos Jr.


Hector Junior 10  2011

In 2003, in a match no doubt blessed by the ancient potters themselves, Hector Gallegos Junior and Laura Bugarini were married, That union united two of the best known pottery families in Mata Ortiz. Both Hector and Laura are frequent award winners at the numerous concursos and other pottery events throughout Mexico and the United States.  These days, Hector and Laura’s work is in huge demand, usually requiring waiting lists, often lengthy ones.

In addition to his art, Hector Gallegos Jr. is dedicated to fitness and body building. He competes, and frequently wins or places, in body building competitions in Mexico and the United States.  Along with his pottery studio, Hector has his own gym at the back of his home in Barrio Americano.  Laura supports him in his fitness passion by making sure his diet is nutritious. Laura and Hector also collaborate on pottery projects, as well as continuing to make their own individual pieces.  Their daughter Pablita attends private school with high academic standards and English curriculum.  Hector too is acquiring good English language skills, sometimes practicing with ten-year-old Pabla.

Hector is a founding member of El Grupo Siete, The Group of Seven, an alliance of Mata Ortiz artists working for positive, locally envisioned change in the village.  The Gallegos family often travels to the United States and throughout Mexico for art, body building and Group of Seven functions, as well as fun.  They are indeed a 21st Century pottery family, wise, worldly and working for the transformation they want to see. Hector is  part of a remarkable new wave of Mata Ortiz potters that has been called “the Young Turks.” In so many good ways, they all live up to that global comparison.

Blog Hector Laura Juan 2012

Juan Quezada, Laura Bugarini, Pabla Gallegos and Hector Gallegos Junior at the Concurso in Mata Ortiz, 2012.


MATA ORTIZ: MORE ANGELS AMONG US (This is what we’re talking about!)

Bravo to Silver City’s Clay Festival, already a stellar annual event! Check out the program the Festival offers on Sunday, August 3, 2014,10 A.M, at Seedboat Center for the Arts. For the first time, a Mata Ortiz artist, Diego Valles, will participate in a panel discussion about Mata Ortiz  Pottery. Diego’s pottery was the talk of last year’s Festival. This year Diego has the opportunity to speak on stage about the success he and other Mexican artists are having with contemporary pottery techniques as a 21st Century Mata Ortiz strives for continued excellence. And Clay Festival listeners will have the first of what will no doubt be many opportunities to hear a Mata Ortiz potter broaden our perspectives on their living Latino Art.  Congrats to the Clay Festival on this important first!

Another first time panel participant, Western New Mexico Professor Emeritus Claude Smith, also a professional potter, will join Diego in the discussion. Even as we post this, Claude is hard at work creating his own ceramic magic for the Festival! His vases, mugs and decorative plates will delight viewers and tempt buyers alike. Claude’s knowledge of pottery is sure to enlighten listeners and help us all to better appreciate clay creations showcased in the 2014 Clay Festival. Claude is truly a Silver City treasure.

In the meantime, check out the amazing contemporary work of Diego Valles downtown at Seedboat Center for the Arts, 214 W. Yankie St., Silver City, New Mexico. Enjoy Claude’s outstanding pieces when they are featured at Western New Mexico University Museum, Saturday, August 2nd, 3-6 PM. Let’s go!




By Nancy Andrews, Silver City, New Mexico

Copyright Nancy Andrews 2014

(In early 2014 Donald Sterling was the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association or NBA. He was banned for life after he made racist remarks. His paternalistic remarks were equally disturbing and are the topic of this discussion.)


When Donald Sterling asked, “Who makes the game?” he gave voice to his flawed perception that a pale, maturing owner was the essence of a professional basketball team, a team rich with young Black talent. “Do they make the game?” Sterling queried. And a league of strong voices countered together, Yes! We make the game! We make basketball! In one telling day, Sterling was on his way out and the Los Angeles Clippers prevailed without him. Regardless of Sterling’s view, basketball players do make the game. It’s unfortunate that many of us, although well meaning, view the artists of Mata Ortiz through our own similarly flawed lenses.

        Mexican artists make Mexican art; Mexican potters deserve full credit for their ceramics. Seven hundred years ago, Casas Grandes civilization flourished for several centuries in what would become Mexico.  The center of Casas Grandes, a city we call Paquime, stood near the site of present-day Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua. A number of Casas Grandes people were exceptional artists and left a legacy of fine ceramics. In the twentieth century, a loosely aligned league of Mexican potters, Manuel Olivas, Emeterio Ortiz, Felix Ortiz, Salvador Ortiz, Juan Quezada, Nicolas Quezada, Nicolas Silveira, Rojelio Silveira and others, pioneered the renaissance of Casas Grandes ceramics, now known as Mata Ortiz Pottery. Visitors from the United States played important roles in making the pottery known to people north of the border. Still, as artist Juan Quezada suggests in the Journal of the Southwest, the potters of Mata Ortiz were destined for success with or without connections to any particular agents. Mata Ortiz Pottery was already on the road to greatness when strangers arrived. Mexicans, working together and learning from one another, brought forth the rebirth of Casas Grandes pottery. It took a village, a Mexican village.

Today that village is a vibrant community of artists. Phones, paved roads, email and social media are fast-flowing arteries of communication for this society of worldly potters. They are wise and eloquent professionals, some are English-speaking, and many travel frequently to the United States. They live but a few hours from Silver City, Las Cruces and Tucson. Yet, go to almost any Southwest U.S. forum on Mata Ortiz and observe the speakers. Pay close attention. Are they the best spokespersons for this Mexican art form? Is the history inclusive and complete? Are artists’ dreams and the community’s plans discussed first hand? When needed, do objective translators facilitate direct exchange between presenter and audience? Or is communication impeded by a kind of wall of white, a construct disproportionately non-Latino? Is lopsided attention given to Anglo experience, opinion and influence? Listen carefully. Does the narrative reinforce a subtly colonial point of view? Perhaps emphasis is placed on what we outsiders have done in, and for, Mata Ortiz, rather than what Mata Ortiz potters have done in, and for, the world of art. Have we grown paternalistic and comfortable with that scenario? Maybe like Donald Sterling, some of us cling to lenses that have no place in today’s new forum.

Some of us like to envision the Mata Ortiz of a romanticized past. However, the people of Mata Ortiz are twenty-first century multidimensional individuals, not potters in a stagnant exhibition. Their art is ever-evolving. Each Mata Ortiz potter, like any successful artist, is the creator of her own authenticity, the master of his unique destiny. Only an artist from Mata Ortiz can speak compellingly of his creative desires. Only a Mexican potter can adequately share the truth of her heritage. Mata Ortiz pottery is theirs, an endeavor over which they alone have genuine command. Their art and lives develop in ways only they can articulate. We must listen to their voices. In the words of Mata Ortiz artist Diego Valles, “I believe there should be a potter or citizen of Mata Ortiz in every discussion about it. Don’t you think?” Who can disagree?

As gracious Americans, let’s move to the sidelines. Our view is limited, our commentary incomplete. Let’s make way for the people who are crafting their own extraordinary pottery movement. Let’s hear new voices respectfully revise the outsider-embedded account by presenting a balanced narrative that honors all players in the Mata Ortiz story. It’s 2014 and time for a broad vision of Mata Ortiz and its living Latino art, an image not distorted by Sterling lenses. Let’s welcome a chorus of “Nosotros hacemos las ollas, nosotros hacemos el arte.”  “We make the pots, we make the art.”


 Nancy Andrews is the author of the award-winning children’s book, THE POT THAT JUAN BUILT / LA VASIJA QUE JUAN FABRICO, as told to her by Juan Quezada, and illustrated by David Diaz. A percentage of the book’s royalties goes to Mata Ortiz to be used as individuals there determine.




Juan Quezada, Mata Ortiz Potter

A Visit to Mata Ortiz

Juan Quezada is a friendly and engaging host. He absolutely knows a lot about pottery and all things Mata Ortiz.

Juan Quezada in his back yard with a purple pot

Juan Quezada in his back yard with a purple pot. Notice the movement in the pot’s design.

Among stories shared by visitors:

  • Mark says, “He made a special stop just to tell us how much he liked our work!”
  • Paula Mae says, “He stopped by to bring us some honey from a honeycomb he found in the sierra.”
  • Rochelle says, “He spent an entire afternoon showing us around his ranch and was a most gracious host.”
  • Jason remembers, “So generous with his time. He chatted with us all afternoon about local politics.”
  • And from Tom, “Juan Quezada took us to some of the local areas of archaeological interest. He seemed to enjoy the sightseeing and exploring as much as we did.”

Juan at Home

Juan loves to experiment with clay, rocks and colorants. His wife, Guillermina, says he’s crazy about rocks. His late mother spoke of Juan’s  being covered in a rainbow of colors from his youthful experiments with minerals.

A good example of Juan’s passion for colors and clays is a story Michael Wisner relates in Mata Ortiz Pottery: Art and Life. It happened years ago when Juan and Michael were looking for a new clay in the sierra above Mata Ortiz. A long day of intense searching had yielded a cache of purple clay. Purple! Que milagro!

Juan digging the purple clay in the sierra.

Juan digging the purple clay in the sierra.

With nighttime overtaking the landscape, the two old friends returned to Mata Ortiz. Even with a delicious dinner prepared by his wife Guille, Juan could barely sit still to enjoy his meal. He couldn’t wait to get into his little studio to begin working with this most unusual mauve-like clay. He worked late into the night with the new clay that would soon become a series of remarkable purple pots.

Early the next morning, Michael found Juan busy at work, and looking exhausted. He had been up all night, unable to sleep, his mind racing about the possibilities of the new clay.

Tell us your stories about Juan Quezada. We’d love to hear from you.

Studio photo

Studio photo

Damian Quezada pot, Juan's nephew

Damian Quezada pot, Juan’s nephew




Nighttime Firing and Primitive Pottery

Suzy 5Photos All 030The Community of Potters

“A wild wind howls through the black night of autumn. This is neither the hour nor the weather for firing. Yet near the ancient river, tall flames pierce the dark. Sparks spiral toward the heavens. The shadowy specter of a woman moves within the amber glow of an adobe wall. The lone potter circles the bonfire of her pots.

Her day has been long. Four sons, as bright as they are unruly, have exhausted her. The one girl, her youngest, is sweet-tempered and delicate and worries her. Her man, handsome and talented, tries her patience. At last they are asleep.

On the kitchen table, a J C Penney catalog lies open to a page of children’s jackets. Winter nears. Traders from the north may be willing to bring the coats she has selected in exchange for a fine black pot.

Under the timeless moon, in the abiding warmth of a fire, the woman works into the early hours of a new day. Like mothers through the ages, she is conjuring the future. Like potters of bygone millennia, she sends messages through time, beams of firelight and bits of clay, to past and future artists who rest among the stars.”

2012-06-18 22.54.53References

Gilbert, Bill, ed. The Potters of Mata Ortiz/Las ceramistas de Mata Ortiz: Transforming a Tradition. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Museum, 1995.

Goebel, Ron. Mata Ortiz Pottery: Art and Life. San Jose, California: DeHart Publishing, 2008.