Can’t Go? Read About Mexico


Destination: Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico

Books:  The Many Faces of Mata Ortiz, several contributors

NOTE: This article was written in 2009 at the height of a serious outbreak of the “swine flu”.

Keith Jenkins, over at his blog, Velvet Escape, asked me if I had met anybody inspirational in my travels. Keith is a true world traveler, and an excellent writer, besides.  I felt honored to write a guest post (reprinted below) for the  series, that Keith calls, “A World of Inspiration.”

The place where I met the man who inspired me– Mata Ortiz, Mexico– seems to be off limits at present (in 2009). So perhaps we would-be travelers can just curl up with a good book, while we are waiting for the swine/H1N1  flu epidemic to end and traffic around the world to get back to normal.

Best Books on Mata Ortiz

The Many Faces of Mata Ortiz (1999) provides a wonderful guide to anyone going to Mata Ortiz to shop for pottery. But even if you are not going there, the pictures of the amazing creations of the villagers, and the photographic portraits of village family members will keep you enthralled. The book covers the history of how Juan Quezada turned the little struggling railroad workers village into a thriving art center. (For more about Juan, you’ll have to go over to Velvet Escape.) Suffice it to say that the work is considered fine art–not craft or folk art.

The book explains how the potters work and how they are related.  You will be amazed at the intricate designs of the pottery and its relationship to the nearby archaeological site of Casas Grandes. The relationships of potters are equally intricate. Writers include Susan Lowell, Jim Hills, Jorge Quintana Rodriquez, Walter Parks and Michael Wisner. Photography is by W. Ross Humphreys and Robin Stancliff.

I hope that if you have never been to Mata Ortiz, a few hours south of the Arizona or New Mexico borders, that you will be able to travel there some time. In the meantime, take a look at this beautiful book.

Another book in my traveler’s library, The Miracle of Mata Ortiz, by Walter P. Parks, was published in 1994, and was the fundamental guide until Many Faces of Mata Ortiz was published.

I have not yet see a book  released in August, 2008, Mata Ortiz Pottery: Art and Life, by Ron Goebel , but it sounds good. It contains more personal stories about the potters.

Following is the article I wrote for Velvet Escape about the inspirational Juan Quezada.

The Man Behind the Miracle

It has been called a miracle. But the artistic renaissance of this dusty village in Chihuahua depended not on some divinity, but on a humble man, Juan Quezada.

As a boy, he painted on walls, his mother said. And as a young man, about the time the railroad jobs were running out in his little village of Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua Mexico, he became curious about the broken pieces of pottery left behind by the ancients. If they could make pottery here, out of this earth, so could he. So by trial and error he taught himself to select the best clay and figured out how to shape it and build a fire out of cow dung. He experimented with the fabulous swirls and mythological designs of the old ones. Gradually, he developed his own distinctive style.

When an American found Juan Quezada in Mata Ortiz and helped him sell his pottery, Juan saw a way for his village to prosper and he started to teach others to make the pottery.”If someone comes to me and wants to learn, I am going to teach them.  I have no secrets,” he has said.

Nowadays, international collectors know the names and styles of each son, daughter and cousin of each family in the village. Nearly every house has its potters and the art world recognizes them as fine artists, not folk artists or craftsmen.

I visited Mata Ortiz the year after the Mexican government awarded Juan Quezada the “Premio Nacional de los Artes,” the highest award it gives to artists. Through an interpreter, I asked the handsome 60-year-old if he had worn a suit and tie when he saw the President of Mexico. He laughed. “No,”he said. “Like this” and he pointed to his worn jeans, cowboy shirt and white straw hat. Juan is always Juan. An unassuming worker of miracles.

Photos at top are from my own personal collection, and the photos are mine.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

3 thoughts on “Can’t Go? Read About Mexico

  1. Alas! I’ve never been to Greece. Have the travel guides, am ready to go, but the trip I’d planned never panned out. It’s still waiting for me. I won’t make it wait too much longer…

  2. Vera,

    Great book. I have that one. Years ago–after a tour of San Antonio for a story I wrote for AAA Highroads–I started writing regularly about Mexican folk art, including the pottery of Mata Ortiz. I bought the book then.

    I like the pottery, but I became a bigger fan of Oaxacan woodcarvings. I love their mystical and fantastical designs–and all that color–and have a few other books you and your readers might like to include in their libraries:

    _Oaxacan Woodcarving: the magic in the trees by Shepard Barbash
    _Arts and Crafts of Mexico by Chloe Sayer
    _Mexicolor: the spirit of Mexican design by Melba Levick and Tony Cohan

    I have yet to visit Oaxaca, but it’s on my list. Only, I’ve promised to go only for Day of the Dead. Have you ever been?


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