The story of Mata Ortiz is a remarkable one. The gorgeous pottery produced in this small Mexican outpost—located about 100 miles southwest of El Paso—has attracted worldwide attention. Some 400 of the town’s roughly 3,000 inhabitants are artisans whose work has a timeless quality—as if it’s the result of centuries-old traditions carefully passed down. But although it is influenced by the past, the Mata Ortiz phenomenon is less than 40 years old, and largely the product of two men.
In 1976 anthropologist Spencer MacCallum stumbled onto several pieces of exquisite pottery in Bob’s Swap Shop, in El Paso. He was so transfixed by the craftsmanship that he set out to find the artist, appearing two months later at the home of Juan Quezada, in dusty, dying, dirt-poor Mata Ortiz. “He had only been making pots since about 1971,” MacCallum says. “At the time, less than a dozen people in town were doing them.”
MacCallum offered Quezada a modest monthly stipend to create art. Now able to produce pottery in earnest, the craftsman began teaching family and friends, and the rest is history. “I used to give a speech and Juan once heard it,” MacCallum says. “Afterward he said, ‘Don’t tell them so much. Those who are going to get it will do so through discovery.’ I thought, that’s a pretty sophisticated understanding of the learning process, different from the Western approach, where you line people up and teach them. In the Beaux Arts tradition, people are taught that art is difficult. No one ever taught the people in Mata Ortiz that art is difficult.”