Artistic Journey

Pottery helps forge connections across the turbulent U.S.-Mexico border

Chihuahua is a vast weave of dense mountains, scruffy chaparral and the remnants of revolution. As such, it's little surprise that the enormous state--with borders reaching from Texas nearly to Arizona--looms huge in the mythos of Mexico.

Anthropologist Spencer MacCallum ventured into this larger-than-life landscape in the 1970s. And it was there that he discovered an extraordinary potter--a find which not only would change his life and transform the poverty-stricken Chihuahuan community of Mata Ortiz, but ultimately spark a remarkable cross-cultural phenomenon.

This weekend, MacCallum will discuss the Mata Ortiz phenomenon as part of two days of pottery demonstrations in Marana.

The story of Mata Ortiz dates back to the late 1950s, when a poor woodcutter named Juan Quezada discovered ancient pottery shards from the Casas Grandes people in nearby foothills. Quezada took the fragments home for more study--and spent the next 16 years elaborating on the design of those ancient wares, creating an entirely new art form in the process.

For MacCallum, the story starts at a yard sale in California, where he stumbled upon an unusual pot. "Then it sat on a piano in my apartment for a year," he says. "I walked by it several times a day and became really fascinated by it. I knew it was prehistoric, and that it came from the Southwest, but it wasn't any style that I was familiar with."

Eventually MacCallum, an anthropologist, learned that his find was actually a 14th-century piece, also from the Casas Grandes people. Not long after, he was snooping among dusty wares in a Deming, N.M., junk shop when he came across two more pots that seemed awfully familiar.

"When those pots saw me," he recalls, "they practically jumped up on their hind legs and shouted, 'Look at us--we know who you are!' There was such integrity about them. And they were first cousins to the pot at home on my piano.

"That was how it started," he says. "I bought them, and to complete the adventure, I wanted to find the potter, who I assumed to be a woman, because women so often do pottery in the Indian groups."

Instead, he found a man, gifted artistically, but toiling away in the obscurity of Mata Ortiz. "It was March of 1976 when I located Juan in Mexico," MacCallum says. "And it wasn't the completion of the adventure that I'd been looking for--it was just the beginning. I spent the next six years full-time promoting his work.

"I knew when I first saw those pots that this was the work of potentially a world-level artist," he says. "And after I met him, I wanted to have something to do with the fostering of that talent."

At first, MacCallum "bought everything Juan made. And I didn't want to sell any of them, because they were all like children to me. But I knew that if was going to build a market for them in the states, I had to place these pots in good collections--the best collections and museums. That was my approach."

So the pair set off on a publicity crusade. Still, these men seemed unlikely candidates for the gargantuan task; Quezada was painfully shy, and MacCallum was something of a bashful loner, a characteristic worsened by a terrible stuttering problem during his teen years.

Nonetheless, they set out to conquer the world. And the world, it seemed, was ready to listen. "During that six years, I was able to arrange some 20 museum exhibitions," MacCallum recalls. "People asked how I did it. Well, it was easy. All I had to do is walk into a museum and set one of Juan's pots on the director's desk. Then I'd just stand back, and each particular pot did the introduction and everything else. I just went along for the ride."

Quezada had meanwhile begun spreading his craft through the community. At the time, Mata Ortiz was just another dirt-poor Mexican town on the verge of vanishing--but it sniffed the potential for prosperity.

Today, in a hamlet of approximately 3,000 residents, an estimated 500 are potters. All of them trace their talents back to Quezada. And the dusty village, lying at the feet of the Sierra Madre, has gained a worldwide reputation for its elegant creations, ranging from shimmering, eggshell-thin designs to thicker, Casas Grandes motifs. Some are deep crimson, with striking black swirls; others are completely black, their radiant finishes overlaid with precise geometric designs.

So just as MacCallum alerted the world to Quezada's talents, Quezada has helped liberate his village from the constraints of poverty by inspiring an army of fine Chihuahuan artisans. They include Jera Tena and Celia Veloz, winners of the annual Mata Ortiz pottery competition. Both will be on hand for this weekend's demonstrations.

Why has Mata Ortiz been so successful? According to MacCallum, Quezada gets the lion's share of credit for his generosity as a teacher and for extraordinary talent that earned him the Premio Nacional de las Artes--Mexico's highest award for a living artist--in 1999.

MacCallum now runs an inn with his wife, Emalie, in Casas Grandes, only a few minutes from Mata Ortiz. And he continues to be amazed by his good fortune in running across that odd pot at a yard sale so many years ago.

"I can hardly believe that I could have been involved with such an extraordinary phenomenon," says the soft-spoken researcher. "When I started out, I had a strong idea of the potential of this individual. But I had no inkling that it would come to involve an entire village and effect the economy of a region."

With events such as this weekend's workshop, it also helps soften some of the harsher attitudes along the U.S.-Mexico divide. That's vital, says MacCallum, who spent part of his childhood traveling in Mexico with his mother, and came to cherish his adopted country.

"My mom was a teacher, but she also thought travel itself is a teacher," he says. "It was her mission to increase the understanding between cultures."

Today, that mission lives on, as does the beautiful work of Juan Quezada and his remarkable village of artists. "With these potters going to U.S. and giving demonstrations," MacCallum says, "we could not ask for better cultural ambassadors."