Mata Ortiz, Oaxaca, and the Art of Mexico

The pottery and catrinas of Magdalena Pedro Martinez
The pottery and catrinas of Magdalena Pedro Martinez

Spring is just around the corner, and it is time for the Annual exhibit of Mexican fine craft at the Superstition Mountain Museum. A four day event, artists travel from the small village of Mata Ortiz (population around 200) located in the State of Chihuahua, Mexico, and as far as Oaxaca. The artists practice craft handed down for generations.

Magdalena Pedro MartínezThe focal point of the event is the large variety of pottery and clay work.  The black pottery is called Barro Negro, known for the sheen and lustre and intricate design work. Magdalena Pedro Martinez is from Oaxaca. I spent time with them at one of the after parties, and talked with the help of their teenage daughter who acted as translator.  Since the extent of my Spanish is “cervesa”, “Besa mi culo”, and “puto” – we needed help.  one will get you a cold beer, the other two will get you beat up!

Magdalena and her husband are physicians, but she spends more time creating her art than practicing medicine. She is a renowned artist in Mexico.

I was showing them photos of some of the mosaic installations that Liz and I have done, and was surprised to learn we have friend in common. Magdalena was an artist at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia, and were guests of Isaiah Zagar during their stay. It truly is a small small world.

One of the features of the four-day event are the daily firings of the Mata Otiz pottery by Lila Silveira and her husband Carlos Carrillo. Lila and Carlos are from Mata Ortiz, hence the name of the pottery. The pottery is made from local clay, which they refine.  All of the pottery is hand turned, no pottery wheel. They are made with coils of clay and smoothed as the design of the vase takes shape. All of the colors are natural colors.  The paintbrushes are hand made – sometimes using an empty ballpoint pen with a single strand of human hair. The designs are all traditional, with the artist’s own interpretation. One vase will take two weeks to create. These are forty hour weeks. They are fired in the time-honored tradition of a pit kiln.

The firing of the clay is the final step, and one fraught with peril. In forty-five minutes, two weeks of tedious work can self destruct. Carlos heats the ground under the pit, to bring it up to temperature, and to remove any moisture in the ground.  Then two buckets are placed over the heated pottery.Wood is piled around the buckets, and the fire is allowed to burn until the wood is nothing but ash. One strong breeze can infiltrate the cover of the buckets and cause the pottery to split.  Typically, one out of four or five pieces is lost in the firing. Each destroyed piece is a loss of income. That means one less trip tot he supermarket, which is an hour drive from town.

Porfirio Guitierrez
Porfirio Guitierrez on the loom

First one bucket is removed to allow the pottery to cool, then the other – the moment of anticipation. As the pottery cools, you can watch the clay change color, and the pigments will change, too. This year, all of the pottery survived the firing.

Porfirio Guitierrez at the after party
Porfirio Guitierrez at the after party

Porfirio Guitierrez is a fabric artist, creating rugs and weaving in the traditional Zapotec method dating to pre-Colombian times.  Porfirio is also from Oaxaca.

The yarns are all dyed with natural dyes from plants, except for the red which is made from the cochineal, an insect. These colors will never fade, as is attested by remnants discovered in ancient archaeological ruins. Porfirio makes his own dyes, the yarn is locally spun from wool. A weaving can take from several days to weeks.

Porfirio works on a handmade loom of very basic construction. He was taught the art by his father, and says the most difficult part of the process is converting his design into the finished product. He says there is a lot of mathematics involved, knowing the thread count, the thickness of the yarn, the intricacy of the design.

Julia Fuentes hand painting a carving
Julia Fuentes hand painting a carving

Julia Fuentes is from the village of San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca. The daughter of master carver Epifanio Fuentes, she carries on the family tradition with her husband. Here she is painting the intricate designs on a carving created by her husband, Jose Juan Melchor. She was standing in the sun because she was chilly. The climate is just a little bit warmer in Oaxaca.

Wood carvings
Wood carvings

The table of carvings contains her art, as well as examples of many other artists that could not attend the exhibit. Many were not able to obtain travel visas because they do not have birth certificates.

All of the artists that attend this annual event are masters of their own craft. I would stand in awe watching them work. Their attention to detail coupled with the use of tools that often are improvised, using supplies and materials that are also handmade and an art in themselves just reinforces the idea that Art Will Find a Way.

I guess I have to end this with a photo of some of the other people that make this event possible.  The Apache Junction Mounted Rangers provide security during the event. The AJ Mounted Rangers are volunteers, working long hours, as volunteers.  Did I mention they work for no pay?

AJ Mounted Rangers
AJ Mounted Rangers

They are an ubiquitous presence, patrolling the parking lots of supermarkets during the holiday season, mingling with the crowds during these events, and exemplifying the Arizona spirit of helping your neighbor.

Of course, this event would be possible without the dedication of the more than 200 volunteers of the Museum, putting in long hours, proving room and board for the artists, and especially hosting the after parties. It is one thing to see the artists practicing their craft and quite another to talk to them, and despite the language barrier, finding many things in common.

I cannot wait for next year, to connect again with new friends, to be amazed at the artistry and to acquire more amazing art for our collection.

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