For the past 20 years Rebecca and Frederick Russell have visited the small village of Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua, Mexico. With only 1400 residents, some 400 of the villagers make museum quality pottery based on the techniques of the indigenous inhabitants of the land on which their village now resides.
The tradition started over 800 years ago with the Paquime Indians making mainly utilitarian pottery. During and after the Mexican revolution, the Indians disappeared and pottery making was forgotten for many, many years.
People moved to Mata Ortiz for work in a lumber mill on the railroad line, which unfortunately, subsequently closed. As a result, the residents had no work and the community became impoverished. While gathering firewood in the local mountains, some of the villagers discovered shards of the old Paquime pottery and long story short, they reverse engineered the techniques and a few tried their hand at making similar pottery. As they were mastering age old the process, they also taught family and friends the techniques.
So began the cottage industry of pottery making in the village of Mata Ortiz, bringing much needed income to the community. Pots were made and sold to antique buyers, but it wasn’t until over 50 years ago that an anthropologist, Spencer MacCullen, who saw a brighter future for these pots, introduced the work to galleries in the U.S.
Mata Ortiz pottery can now be found in prestigious museums and private collections all over the world and the village thrives again. The techniques continue to be passed down, generation to generation and the young artisans add fresh ideas and contemporary designs to the ancient traditions.
“I asked Spencer at last year’s Concurso, a state-run village pottery competition, what he thought of some of the new work. He said, never in his wildest imagination would the pottery be so beautiful in its new and evolving contemporary form,” says Rebecca Russell.
Rebecca Russell, trader, anthropologist, children’s art teacher and potter, recently traveled to Mata Ortiz with Frederick to select a collection of new pots from the village. In the collection are pieces from first, second and third generation potters. Each pot was hand-formed from local clays, burnished and painted with thin slips made with local minerals, using handmade brushes of human hair, some with only three strands of hair. Many of the designs are interpretations of the 800 year old Paquime designs.
The collection will be on display and available for purchase at 10 West Gallery, from December 1-26 (10 West Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara. Open daily, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. 805/770-7711.
Along with the Mata Ortiz pottery, 20 artists represented by 10 West Gallery are featured in a showcase exhibition. The gallery specializes in contemporary art in styles ranging from abstract to expressionism, realism and figurative and includes both wall work and sculpture of various media.