By Arletta Sloan
Superior — Matas Ortiz pottery is known around the world and owned by public figures such as the Pope, former First Lady Laura Bush and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
You are invited to come to gaze upon the pottery that inspires such devotion, question the artisans, and to begin your own collection at the Fifth Annual Superior Home and Building Tour, Jan. 26 and 27. Where among the many events planned, Mata Ortiz pottery will be on display and for sale, and its potters will be on hand to demonstrate their craft and answer questions.
In 1984, despite the efforts of various American promoters and the potters, it was virtually unknown to all but the handful of residents of the obscure little village in the Chihuahua region of Mexico, for which the pottery is named.
That was the year Walt Parks first met Juan Quezada, and, went on to visit Mata Ortiz, discovering in this little town off the beaten path, dirt poor, with a rich past but little presence and, seemingly, no future, potters who worked without wheels and painted their pots with brushes made from the hair of children, following the techniques of self-taught master craftsman Juan Quezada.
In the early 1950’s, Juan Quezada, lacking all but the most rudimentary formal education, occupied himself with cutting and gathering of firewood in the hills near the foundering village of Mata Ortiz.
Foraging for food, such as snake meat, also brought him out into the hills. It was during one of these solitary expeditions that Quezada discovered first the broken pieces of pottery and then the deposits of clay which changed the direction of his life and the face of his entire village and, eventually, the greater wide world of art.
Quezada launched himself into years of experimentation with pottery making, including paints, brushes, firing methods and ways of handling the clay. With the help of Walt Parks, Juan Quezada has come from extremely humble beginning to become one of the most famous artists to ever come out of Mexico.
The methods of Quezada, followed by the other potters of Mata Ortiz, involve no wheel and use only natural materials, impromptu “found” tools such as broken spoons and brushes made from the hair of their children. In materials used, they are humble pots. In decoration, delicacy and beauty, they are rare pieces of art, sought out by collector’s world-wide.
As Quezada perfected his techniques, he began to teach his skills to his siblings, and from there younger generation of his family also learned his methods. Finally, seeing how the Quezada’s benefited, with pots that were selling for several dollars apiece, other potters began creating their own original motifs for their pots.
Marketing the pots was not easy in the beginning and hadn’t gotten much better by the time Walt Parks entered the scene. Starting in 1999, things greatly improved, with the scheduling of 16 museum exhibitions throughout the United States and Mexico.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Walt Parks, combined with the superb talent of the potters of Mata Ortiz, the pottery has widespread appeal now and commands a far higher price for the best pieces. Yet one can still acquire a humbler, still beautiful pot, for around $5.
If Walt Parks had not come to Mata Ortiz, who knows what the town would have become? Perhaps the men, who had to travel away from their families to seek employment, would have moved their families with them and many of the artisans who dwell there, now – more than 300 out of its approximately 2,000 villagers – would not have learned the craft, and the beauty of their work would have been lost to the world.
Perhaps, if he had come a little later, it would have been to discover Juan Quezada’s pottery shards littering the landscape, near a ghost town.
Fortunately, we will never have to know, because Walt Parks came in time to discover a town beleaguered by poverty but still rich in talent, especially the talent of Juan Quezada, and, through the promotion of the pottery in the United States, lifted the town out of its path of certain doom and into a brighter future.
To Parks, these artisans are friends, and the promotion of their art is his driving quest. Bringing the residents of Mata Ortiz to the United States, Parks arranges exhibitions and classes, while acting as an unpaid translator and financial adviser.
He is quoted as saying, “If you’d had a chance to work with Pablo Picasso in a new art movement, wouldn’t you have done it, too?” whenever he is asked why he dedicated so much of his life to promoting Mata Ortiz Pottery.