Mata Ortiz Pottery


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Juan Quezada
Juan Quezada, Mata Ortiz Potter

In the late sixties and early seventies, Mata Ortiz potter Juan Quezada created a revolution of Mata Ortiz Pottery by bringing ancient southwestern Mesoamerican Indian pottery traditions back into the modern age. Inspired by pottery from the ancient city of Paquimé, which traded as far north as New Mexico and Arizona and throughout northern Mexico, modern potters are producing work for national and international sale. Now, Mata Ortiz Pottery or Casas Grandes pottery from the Casas Grandes region is some of the most sought after pottery in the world. There is a wide variety of Mata Ortiz Pottery, including Black on Black Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mata Ortiz effigy pottery, Mata Ortiz wedding vase pottery, Mata Ortiz dazzler pottery and Mata Ortiz Mariposa pottery.


The clay gathered for Mata Ortiz pots comes from a hole dug by Juan Quezada. He discovered the clay while searching the ground for minerals and clay when he paused for a moment and watched some ants bring round balls of white substance out of the hole. Juan grew curious and dug a hole next the the ant hole, about a foot below was a white vein of clay. This clay provides most of Mata Ortiz, Mexico with their clay.

Mata Ortiz pots are hand built without the use of a potter’s wheel. Shaping, polishing and painting the clay is entirely done by hand. All materials and tools originate from supplies that are readily available locally. The paints for Mata Ortiz Pottery come from grinding minerals to a fine powder. Juan Quezada experiments with new minerals to try to find the richest blacks and more vibrant reds. Each Mata Ortiz pot is hand painted with a human hair brush. These brushes are supplied to about 15 artists by Juan Quezada's granddaughter Judy. These brushes are designed to paint very fine lines and intricate designs.

Mata Ortiz Clay
One Color of Mata Ortiz Clay

The last step in Mata Ortiz Pottery is firing. The preferred fuel for the low temperature firing is grass-fed cow manure or split wood. Mata Ortiz Pottery is usually fired at 1000-1500 F, where the clay begins to melt and turn glasslike. Firing is an art form - [[Mata Ortiz Pottery|Mata Ortiz potters] watch the smoke and flame color to adjust the heat while firing. Two different styles of firing is used for Mata Ortiz pots. One is Oxidation firing and the other is Reduction firing. Each of these characteristics derive from the ancient pottery traditions of the region, however Mata Ortiz ware incorporates elements of contemporary design and decoration and each potter or pottery family produces distinctive individualized ware.

Today, Mata Ortiz Pottery, inspired by the designs of Juan Quezada, is displayed along with other Southwest pottery in many homes in the Southwest as well as around the world. Young clay workers from surrounding areas have been attracted to the Mata Ortiz revival and have joined Quezada and his associates. New potting families developed and the art movement continues to expand. A vibrant flow of new ideas, without the restraints of traditional practices or gender constraints, has enabled the pottery of Mata Ortiz to avoid derivative repetition common to folk art movements. This blend of cultural expression, economic need and artistic freedom has produced a unique artistic movement in the community.

The Story of Mata Ortiz

Chihuahua, Mexico
Chihuahua, Mexico

The town of Chihuahua, Mexico is the largest concentration of artists on the face of this earth; the potters of Mata Ortiz. At the age of Twelve-years-old Juan Quezada abandoned school to work in the fields and make his contribution to the low family economy.

Over the ruins of that civilization, a poor, dusty town was built, lacking everything, named Juan Mata Ortiz. It is there that little Juan Quezada, always alone, began to gather firewood. When gathering the wood he used to find the remains of ceramic which. These ceramics were by the inhabitants of ancient Paquimé Indians . The designs and forms on the ceramics caught Juan’s attention So through his artisan eyes, Juan began to reproduce the techniques used hundreds of years ago.

Mata Ortiz within Chihuahua, Mexico
The location of Mata Ortiz within Chihuahua, Mexico

Juan kept examining the ceramic shards over and over again He knew that the materials used to make the ceramic art had to be close to where he was. Sure enough, Juan found where the material was and was able to combine the right amounts of different clays found in the mountains near Mata Ortiz. Juan the started reproducing pottery that the ancient Paquimé Indians used to make 600 years ago. Juan Quezada started selling his the art to small shops in and around Mata Ortiz.

Juan never realized the magnitude of his accomplishments, and everything indicated that he would go unnoticed by the world. However, Juan gave several of his pots to some salesmen who in turn took them to the US. He exchanged the pots for clothing in a junk store in Deming, New Mexico at Bob’s Swap Shop. One day an American: Spencer MacCallum, an American anthropologist, entered Bobs Swap Shop and saw Juan Quezada's pottery, he couldn’t help but to buy them.

When Spencer got home, he examined them over and over again, admiring their beauty, the perfection of their design, an almost unearthly symmetry. Spencer kept thinking that there is some extraordinary artist out there whose works of art were being sold in modest swap shops. After a month Spencer decides to go find this extraordinary unknown artist. Spencer Found Jaun in just a few days. Juan was very surprised, he couldn’t believe how this American man had come all the way to this lost, dusty town called Mata Ortiz.

Spence offered Juan an opportunity and said to Juan, “In exchange for a monthly stipend please dedicate yourself solely to produce art". Note that Spencer didn't say "produce ollas, pots", he had such confidence in Juan's talent that whatever he decided to create would be artistically worthwhile.

Juan Quezada is now recognized worldwide. His art is being exhibited in very important museums. In 1999, the Mexican government awarded him with the "National Art Award", the greatest recognition given to an artist in this country.

The speed at which Mata Ortiz has evolved is amazing. In less than 30 years the movement has gone from imitating pre-Hispanic designs to developing a creativity whose expressions surprise us everyday. It is now considered that Mata Ortiz has reached its classic period.

The Art of Mata Ortiz

Mata Ortiz pots are hand built / coiled without the use of a potter's wheel. The shaping, polishing and painting of the clay is entirely hand done. All of the materials and tools originate from supplies that are available locally. The paints for Mata Ortiz Pottery come from grinding minerals into a fine powder. Juan Quezada experiments with new minerals to try to find the richest blacks and more vibrant reds. Each Mata Ortiz pot is hand painted with a human hair brush. These brushes are supplied to about 15 artists by Juan Quezada's granddaughter Judy. These brushes are designed to paint very fine lines and intricate designs.

The last step in Mata Ortiz Pottery is firing. The preferred fuel for the low temperature firing is grass-fed cow manure or split wood. Mata Ortiz Pottery is usually fired at 1000-1500 F, where the clay begins to melt and turn glasslike. Firing is an art form - Mata Ortiz potters watch the smoke and flame color to adjust the heat while firing. Two different styles of firing is used for Mata Ortiz pots. One is Oxidation firing and the other is Reduction firing. Each of these characteristics derive from the ancient pottery traditions of the region, however Mata Ortiz ware incorporates elements of contemporary design and decoration and each potter or pottery family produces distinctive individualized ware.

Pot Burnishing

Deer-bone burnishers of the type used by Juan Quezada are available for $25 each, handmade. This extremely smooth tool, about 4-5 inches long with various curves and ends, is superior to any stone-and-oil method and will last a lifetime.

If you know someone who is going to Mata Ortiz, get one directly from Juan or his wife, Guillermina. Or if you prefer, make one yourself. The method is no secret. Take the fresh foreleg bone of a deer with joints closed and attached, clean it, wrap it in a cotton cloth, and put it away in your closet or a very dry place for a year or more (if not kept dry, you will get mold and maggots). This allows the marrow to permeate the bone so that it will glide more readily. Split the bone lengthwise into four sections and these into shorter sections, and sand, ending with #600 black grit paper. Why does Juan choose deer bone? Because he watched all the animals and saw that "the deer can jump highest, and it's bones are finer and stronger."

Here is Juan Quezada’s method for burnishing dry, unfired clay, using his own low-fire, volcanic-pumice body. He dries, sands, and then covers the surface of the pot with baby oil. When the glisten disappears, he smoothes the surface with a slightly damp cloth. He repeats, and then burnishes the piece, either slightly damp or dry. You will notice the difference immediately. The bone burnisher makes a faster, higher luster, deeper polish.

Pot Packing 101

Yes, it is possible to safely ship a pot. Part of the secret is double-boxing. Another is not packing the wadding too tightly; both the pot and the inner box should have some give. A physicist once explained the dynamics of breakage. It's not the first hit that breaks a pot when it falls to the floor. On that first hit, the pot is only bounces. The vibration the bounce sets up, however, causes the pot to break on the second strike. Therefore, damp all the vibration you can by loosely filling the pot with the paper wadding, popcorn, or whatever it is you're using, and then pack the wadding lightly enough around the pot and around the inner box that both can move just a bit. Of course the outer box wants to be strong. Don’t neglect to wrap the pot in a plastic bag to protect the surface from chafing—or from ink transfer if newspaper is your packing material. Your local newspaper may be willing to give you clean newsprint for free from the unused end of a roll. So when visiting the village, take flattened boxes, plastic bags, and newspapers or newsprint. Bubble wrap is very good, but bulky.

Shelley Corwin submits the following from Chinese Clay Arts: “Whether as a gift or for an exhibition, how to get your fragile art work to arrive safely at its destination is a tough question for many ceramic artists. I have been trying a Flexible Foam material for packing my ceramic art works. It works perfectly. Here are the step-by-step instructions:

    1. Obtain a carton box with about two inches of extra space around the piece.


    1. Make the bottom portion first. Spray the foam in the box and cover with a plastic sheet on top, then lay the art piece on top of that and wait for six hours or overnight. Now you can make the top portion by using another plastic sheet to cover the surface of your piece and spraying the foam again.


  1. After a few hours, your fragile art work will be perfectly surrounded and protected by the foam, as well as ready to be shipped out, preferably using double boxes. The flexible foam material can be found in most building material stores such as Home Depot. Ask for Insulating Foam Sealant Window & Door, 16 OZ, $6.78 each. The Dow Chemical Company, Tel. 866- 583-2583.



Protective Rings for Pots

Any pot worth its salt will balance without a supporting ring. Nevertheless, most collectors use rings to avoid scratching the bottom and, in earthquake areas, to stabilize the pot. Sometimes just a jar lid helps, but choose the size carefully. Clay rings, some wrapped with yarn, are available in the village for around a dollar each, but be sure to pick one that is perfectly round, so that the pot will be stable. Here are some sources for other kinds of rings:

    1. Attractive molded nylon rings in black, white, or other colors are available in three sizes, inside diameter 2 1/4" ($2.75/pair), 2 5/8" $3.15/pair), and 2 7/8" ($3.50/pair), from Rochelle P. Price (602-237-3514 / Fax 237-3514), 11605 S. Price Lane, Laveen AZ 85339.


    1. The highest quality rings, if you are looking for a particularly good appearance, are those made by Herman Knechtle (626-447-1346), 140 E. Santa Clara Street #16, Arcadia CA 91006. They are cast rather than extruded, have greater wall thickness (3/16" for the first 4 sizes and thereafter 1/4"), are beveled 45 degrees on the upper edge, and flame polished. Herman is an exacting craftsman. Heights range from 3/4" to 1 1/2". Nine diameter sizes are available, from 2" to 6" by half-inch increments. Cost $6 to $15 each.


    1. Cast acrylic rings can be ordered from Jule-Art Inc. (800-833-8980), PO Box 91748, Albuquerque, NM 87199. Wally Blanchard, who told us about these, usually bought 2", 3"and 4" diameter rings, which range from $1.35 to $2.35 each. Both ends are beveled. The rings are at least 1" high, so he usually cut them in two with a table saw to halve his investment. The 1/2-inch height is right for most pots.


  1. "Cylinder acrylic riser sets" (Cat. #408037/37) designed for elevating pots in displays are available from Rio Grand (800-545-6566), 7500 Bluewater NW, Albuquerque NM 87121. Each set of three includes one 2" x 2" (diameter x height), one 3x3, and one 4x4. They are 1/8" thickness. Per-set price ranges from $19.45 for 1 or 2 to $15.97 for 12 or more. You can make budget protective rings from small tubing. Richard Erlanger, Saga Gallery, South Norwalk, CT, gives one to each customer. He writes:“Ask at any good hardware store for clear vinyl tubing for, say, air conditioning draining. A popular size is 5/8" outside dimension (OD) by 3/8" inside dimension (ID). Cut a short length (1" or so) of the next smaller size, for example 3 /8" OD by 1/4" ID, and with spittle insert it like a plug into the ends of the larger size tube, which has been precut into a suitable ring size for the pot you want to support, and draw the ends together. The next smaller combination (3/8"OD x 1/4"ID) works well when held together by the next smaller size, 1/4"OD x.170 ID. (Note: With 1/4" tubing you are better off using the heavier frosted white vinyl tubing). Now you have a clear ring with the ends firmly plugged together. Display the pot with the seam turned to the back. If the final ring is too large, cut it to suit. Experiment with different sizes for both aesthetics and safety. Very thick tubing does not bend easily, and very thin sometimes does not hold a curve. Avoid inexpensive tubing like that offered by Home Depot that doesn’t have the heft to keep a smooth curve.


Note: For further protection against earthquake, weight a pot with a "bean bag" of sand or lead shot. Then, if you wish, secure the supporting ring to the shelf with Museum Wax, Museum Putty, or clear Museum Gel (but don't put any of these on the pot itself, as they will stain). These special adhesives are available from, among other places, FWH, Seattle (call Florence Helliesen at 206-285-1755).

Made-In-Mexico Stickers

Stickers "Made in Mexico" are required on every pot that enters the United States. All of the regular tapes will permanently stain a pot, so if you have to use such a tape or sticker, put it in an inconspicuous place, like inside the lip (but where it's still visible) or on the inside bottom. If your hand won't reach inside, press the sticker down, just enough so that it will stick, with the eraser end of a long wooden pencil (be sure there's no clay dust inside that will prevent it sticking). Ideally, however, you should use a tape that is least likely to stain and that you can write the required words on directly. Such a tape is 3M Safe-Release Scotch Masking tape No. 2080, available in most larger hardware or building supply stores (however, don’t leave even this tape for an extended period of time, as even it may leave a stain). Since we live in Casas Grandes, we try to keep some of this tape on hand to accommodate visitors. Meanwhile, any of the galleries or any of the people you buy from will probably be glad to give you paper stickers for your pots if you ask. Even stickers cut from Postits will serve. Apply them just before crossing and remove them immediately after.

Insuring/Documenting Collections

The Calendar (via the MacCallums) has some information, available on request, about insuring pottery collections. In documenting any collection for insurance or other purposes, be aware that digital records are not permanent; they begin breaking down in 5-7 years, whereas analog records (photos, microfilm) last a century or more. Back up with analog!

Pointers for Pottery Workshops/Demonstrations


The dramatic highpoint of any pottery demonstration is the open-air firing, yet many galleries and museums sponsoring a demonstration in the United States think they can’t include this because they’ve no place for it. Without exception, however, in our experience, fire marshals have been understanding and cooperative, and with a simple platform of firebrick, a firing does no harm even to lawn grass underneath. Better even than firebrick is a cement board called “Durock,” available from Home Depot, which doesn’t reflect and makes an excellent platform. It comes 4’ x 8’ and can be cut into a piece 4 x 6, which allows room for scraping the coals to one side. Do not, if at all possible, miss this exciting culmination of a pottery demonstration.

Crossing the Border with Clay

An important part ofevery pottery workshop is the experience of working with clay mined at Mata Ortiz. This ball clay* has qualities of plasticity and stability in forming that make it preferred by both Mata Ortiz instructors and students. While some people have experienced delays at the border when crossing with this clay, it is not prohibited if you know where to find the pertinent regulation. Proceed as follows: 

Animal & Plant Inspection Service,USDA


    1. Using the search engine, go to “PPQ and Manuals”


    1. Look for “USDA - APHIS - Import & Export.” [This will probably be the first item you see]
    2. Go there and click on “Port Programs”


    1. Scroll to “Plant Importation Manuals” and click on “Miscellaneous.”This brings up the 208-page   manual,Miscellaneous and Processed Products.


  1. Go to Table 5-150, “Soil as Such and Related Materials.”Under that heading, look for “Lacking the documents…,” then for “Live Rock, Peat, Soil or its Components,” andfinally “Clay.” At “Clay,” you will find “Footnote 3,” which states: “Ball clay, milled, mined, or refined, clay free from organic matter that is intended for use in ceramics, cosmetics, or manufacturing falls outside the scope of the soil regulations.”


You will need Informal Entry form 7523 (the form for imports valued at less than $2000) filled out in triplicate. To save time, prepare this form in advance. It can be obtained on request from the Cargo Dock at any port of entry. (You can’t go directly to a Cargo Dock, but go through the pedestrian walk and ask, and you’ll be directed to the Dock.)

The form calls for a Harmonized Tariff Schedule Code number, which we did not find at the Customs & Border Protection web site ( we were referred to, but the Cargo Officer at the Douglas port of entry told us by phone that if we were not successful in locating it, he would help us once we arrived.

          Also required is an invoice identifying the importation and its value. In the case of clay, this need not be more than a few words on a sheet of paper describing it and giving an estimate of value, which would be the cost of the labor to mine and refine it, something in the neighborhood of $25 for the quantity needed for a public demonstration or workshop.

          Officer Helfrich recommended phoning the port the morning of the day of crossing. The numbers for the nearest ports of entry are: Naco AZ, 520-432-5349; Douglas AZ, 520-364-8486; Antelope Wells NM, 575-436-2792 (open only 8-4pm daily and no commercial importation at this port); Columbus NM, 575-531-2686; Santa Teresa NM, 575-589-9354; and El Paso TX, 915-872-3444.

          Note that the Cargo Docks are closed weekends. Their hours are 9-5 Mon-Thu and 9-6 on Friday. 

*Ball clays are kaolinitic sedimentary clays, fine-grained and plastic in nature, that are mined in many areas of the world including northern Chihuahua for making ceramic articles. The name is believed to have originated because when the clay was mined by hand, it was cut into 15 to 17-kilogram cubes. During transport the corners of the cubes rounded off leaving "balls." For further information see:

Mata Ortiz Pottery Video's

Manuel Rodriguez Reynaldo Quazada

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