A workshop led by Mata Ortiz potters Diego Valles and Carla Martinez demonstrated a traditional, low-temp firing in front of the Carbondale Clay Center building. Courtesy photo

After the timber mill went bust and the last train left the railroad station, unemployed residents in the village of Juan Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua, Mexico, got creative. They found a way to earn money from pottery. By taking it, not making it. They dug out ancient pots and colorful clay shards they found at nearby cliff dwellings and burial sites to sell to collectors and second-hand shops on the U.S. border, 100 miles north.

“They started out as looters,” conceded Diego Valles, a Mata Ortiz potter who with his wife Carla Martinez, also a potter, taught a workshop at the Carbondale Clay Center (CCC) July 16-17. Their exhibit “Love, Clay and Resilience” is on display at CCC until Aug. 13, when the couple returns to take it down.

“People had to become looters so they wouldn’t starve,” said Valles. “This is not the written history but it is our history. It was what they did for work.” Today, there is a small gallery where the main dirt road runs along abandoned tracks and the train station. According to Valles, about 400 of the 1,400 people residing in Mata Ortiz are potters.

Legendary among them is a talented man named Juan Quezada, who did more than sell the pots he dug out. Needing more inventory to sell, he taught himself how to copy the ancient wares. Quezada mastered making hand-coiled clay forms and painting the geometric patterns of the 1100-1300 Casas Grandes pueblo era so skillfully that he could pass off his own unsigned pots as antiquities. When an Anglo anthropologist named Spencer MacCallum stumbled across Quezada’s remarkable knockoffs in the 1970s, he tracked him down.

For eight years, MacCallum paid Quezada a monthly stipend to make as many pots as he could. MacCallum insisted that Quezada quit representing his pieces as Casas Grandes and sign his name. He amassed a large collection of Quezada’s work, most of which he donated to museums. Thus began the Mata Ortiz renaissance of a regional pottery-making tradition that dated back before the Casa Grandes era. Valles insisted that the tradition had never fully disappeared; “our grandmothers and our great grandmothers made clay pots for cooking frijoles,” he said.

Unlike the grandmothers’ simple, utilitarian pieces, modern Mata Ortiz ceramics are labors of time-consuming love. They are famous for hand-painted intricate patterns and for being burnished with a smooth stone to alabaster silkiness. The pots are for looking at and not cooking in, because they are unglazed and are fired at lower temperatures.

Mata Ortiz makers, many taught by Quezada and family, strive to be original in their use of color, design and shape. “We didn’t get tied to a tradition like in Southwest pueblos where you have to follow the family line,” said Valles. “The true tradition of Mata Ortiz is innovation.”

My husband and I are potters, and took the Valles and Martinez CCC workshop. We had gone to Mata Ortiz several years ago and happened to meet the couple in their kitchen. Kitchens are where nearly all village potters work with clay. They wash their hands frequently. “We have to keep ourselves and our workspace clean because we also eat and prepare meals there,” said Valles, looking immaculate to mud-caked workshop participants.

Mata Ortiz makers dig their creamy clay, which Valles brought for us to use, from the volcanic Sierra Madres Mountains and creek beds. Potters sell finished work from their living rooms and from the back of pickups that cruise the village’s bumpy roads, looking for roaming pot hounds who come to buy.

In Mata Ortiz, pottery tools are few and ingeniously made. For painting, pin-straight hair of young children is highly prized. They donate a lock or two under a potter’s gentle coercion. Two to six hair strands are needed per paint brush. They are bound to a pencil that requires a steady hand for painting lines as fine as an ant’s trail, without its wobble.

Our workshop homework had been to bring in hair suitable for brushes. As luck would have it, one of the gray-haired participants had saved the blond ponytail her mother snipped off when she was seven. We watched Valles and Martinez fashion brushes for us by disassembling ball point pens and inserting decades-old hair into the empty nib, and marveled at one mother’s foresight.