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Pot? No Pots!

It was another roadblock guarded by khaki-clad young men wielding big guns.

After a week on the road in Northwest Mexico’s Chihuahua state it was no big deal. The roadblock was part of the Calderon government’s attempt to stop drug trafficking, but I was in Mexico to see another kind of revolution. A revolution not about guns and drugs, but about creativity, resourcefulness and magic realism.

The young federale walked to the side of my car and peered through the dust-caked windows to see my stuffed hatchback trunk. “What’s inside all those boxes?” he asked suspiciously.

“Pots. I’ve just come from Mata Ortiz,” I said hoping it would not lead to unpacking of my newspaper-wrapped pottery.

“Pot?” he said with mock alarm then added with less suspicion. “Why do you have so many pots?”

“I love the pottery and want to fill my entire house with them.”

He nodded then let me pass through the makeshift roadblock towards the nearby heavily fortified U.S. border crossing.

Mestizo Maestro

Most Americans have stopped traveling to Mata Ortiz, just 140 miles south of the border because of the drug war — and it’s too bad. The cultural blossoming in Mata Ortiz is overshadowed by the grisly headlines, but this is a story of the triumph of the creative soul. A once forgotten railroad hamlet dusts off its prehistoric roots and becomes synonymous with cutting edge 21st century pottery. It’s a revolution in mud; not blood.

There are over 300 potters now entering a third generation and their success has lifted the town’s standard of living tremendously. Master potter Juan Quezada’s work can be found in international museums and his pots fetch upwards of $10,000. Quezada reinvested his success in the community and built its first library, yet he continues to live in a simple home. His interest in pottery was sparked as a young boy when foraging the countryside for acorns and rattlesnake meat, he came upon red and black prehistoric potsherds that fired his imagination.

Two decades later he was able to quit his railroad job to become a potter in the 1970s and inspired others to do the same. A cottage industry that used homespun free ingredients was born. Grass-fed cow manure fired the handmade open-air kilns; children’s hair was converted into brushes to paint the pots. Blind grandmothers and schoolboys became potters.

They didn’t do it through foreign aid, bank loans, NGO hand outs or Facebook networking. These Mestizo people did it by applying the best of their ancestral worlds. Their Indian blood fired their creativity and their European trader roots helped sell their pots globally.

Return to Paquime

About 20 miles north of Mata Ortiz, the adobe ruins of Paquime continue to erode after eight centuries of wind and sun. It took 200 years but by 1200 A.D. there was a sophisticated trade center there where the town’s people lived in high buildings (Casas Grandes). The Anasazi people from today’s New Mexico seamlessly traded turquoise jewelry with southern Oaxacan Indians who brought scarlet macaws and shells. Paquime’s founders grew rich and had the luxury of creating art. They started making red and black pots with intertwined designs depicting their iconic effigies, owls, snakes and birds.

Drought weakened Paquime and when invaders torched the town killing 300 it lay forgotten for over 700 years. In 1911 one of the bloodiest battles in the Mexican Revolution was fought on the site and the rebellion’s leader Francisco Madero was wounded.   Archeologists started excavations in the late 1950s and found the ancient pottery and the more modern skeletons of the dead revolutionaries. Today the Museum of Northern Cultures is one of the Southwest’s best archeology museums. It sits adjacent to the ruins that are located on the outskirts of Casas Grandes. As the archaeologists continue to unravel its history a new history unfolds in the homes of today’s industrious potters who are being tested by the turmoil clouding Mexico.

Pottery Procession

I buy my first Mata Ortiz pot from the back of a broken down 1980 Chevy. The young man in a cowboy hat approaches me as I leave the Paquime ruins and asks me if I’m interested in pots. I pay $5 for a red and black painted pot decorated with macaw feathers signed by Julio Silveira. He wraps it in newspaper and a message has been sent on the potter’s telegraph.

When a gringo with dollars arrives in town the word spreads. Walking the adobe walled streets of Mata Ortiz passing pick-up trucks stop when they see me. Young women get out and ask if I want to see their pots. In the flat bed there is a laundry basket filled with pots covered in soft baby blankets. I buy a beautiful white seed pot etched with green butterflies and yellow hummingbirds.

I stay at Casa de Marta and Martha Velez is the “one woman CNN” of Mata Ortiz. If anything is happening in town Marta has the story. She tells me the town’s gossip and also tells her relatives I’m staying in her guestroom. People arrive at various hours bearing pots for sale.

Marta tells me to visit the barrio of Porvenir and seek out Daniel Gonzalez and Andres Villalba and his son Sabino. Both have achieved success in U.S. galleries with their pottery but live in humble homes that double as their studios. They welcome me when I knock on their door. Daniel’s living room and kitchen is filled with large pots and I want to buy them all, but settle for a multi-textured pot that is braided in mauve and painted/ etched in red. Deer, herons and lizards are depicted and it took Daniel eight days to create it. He sells it to me for just $90 and spends 20 minutes wrapping and boxing it for me. I almost feel guilty paying him so little for such beauty.

The Villalba’s honor the ancient Paquime artisans and their work contrasts dramatically from the Quezada’s more contemporary whorled asymmetrical polychromatic designs. Sabino shows me his collection and most are out of my price range until he shows me a large owl effigy pot whose eye sockets are scarlet macaw feathers. It’s spectacularly simple and embodies many of the geometric symbols of the Paquime past. “This pot should cost $400 but it has a slight crack behind the ear that is barely noticeable. I can’t sell it in the states but it’s yours for $70,”Sabino says. His owl effigy pot not watches all visitors entering my hallway.

Magic Realism

The drug wars have had their effect on Mata Ortiz. Bus tour groups from the U.S. are coming less and this has hurt sales in Mata Ortiz and Casas Grandes. The top potters have relationships with U.S. galleries and their work has a following but many potters rely on travelers to the village. Fewer pottery sales force some potters to find other work in construction and landscaping outside the area.

No drug gangs are operating in the Casas Grandes/Mata Ortiz area but one gallery has closed because its owners got involved in the drug war.

Spencer MacCallum along with Juan Quezada is the leader of the Mata Ortiz movement. In 1976 he found three of Quezada’s pots in a Deming, N.M. curio shop and they gave him the supernatural sense of magic realism that Latin authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez convey in their books. MacCallum’s long and diverse career includes stints as an anthropologist, author and publisher. His interest in Africa led him to publish, “The Law of the Somalis.” He has been a strident voice in making Mata Ortiz pottery a legitimate folk art and contemporary art form. His adobe homes in Casas Grandes include a subterranean secret room where women hid their children from 19th century Apache attacks. He is not about to let Mexico’s current violence stop the creativity and magic realism emanating from the pots.

“An older woman called me last week asking me if it was safe to come to Mata Ortiz. I asked her if she was in money laundering and drug trafficking and she said of course not. I told her to come on down. Mata Ortiz needs you.”