Mata Ortiz, Mexico part 1

Or… how did I end up there?!

Back in 2018 I took a huge leap of faith – faith in myself as an artist. Here is a recount of my adventures. I hope you find it inspiring!

How did I end up in the mountains of Mexico taking a class from Diego Valles? How did I find this? And why ever would I do this?

Several months back (years back, now) I was – let’s just say – feeling a bit lost. I had set aside some money from a lucrative, yet less than fulfilling gig. Should I spend that money on some kind of retreat? a class with a guru or yogi, someone who can help me find my path? But a close friend of mine suggested that I was more of a ‘go climb a mountain’ type, rather than the type to go to therapy, or any sort of woo woo thing. 

Now I don’t actually climb, or run, or anything like that. I do yoga religiously – 4 times a year – and usually regret it, until I forget it, and go again. I just don’t learn.

So, one of those random, late-night web serf kinda nights, I found meself looking at pottery pics, Mexican pottery, clicking through to the artists, the community, Mata Ortiz. Holy sh$% this stuff is amazeballs! I fired off a random email or two. And yes, I CAN goto this amazing place and take a pottery workshop! OK, it really wasn’t that quick, it was actually a bit of back and forth, a bit of research, buying a few books, and finally a few issues around intermittent web access. But in the end it came down to a leap of faith. Yes, I AM going to a tiny town, in the middle of a place I didn’t even know was an actual place – I only knew Chihuahua as a small rat like dog. Yes, I am going to go to a place no one I know has ever heard of to hang out with a guy I just learned about. And yes, I’m going to leave my travel arrangements up to him because I don’t speak a word of the language. This all sounds like a spectacularly good idea. 

I wonder why my partner seems worried?

And the whole thing was better than I could have even expected! (Except when it wasn’t, and I’ll tell you about that later)

Getting there was an ordeal. I will travel a different route/way when going back. (And I will be going back). AiroMexico looks great on paper. In fact it looks great in the air! The plane are awesome, service great, food good. The problem is getting into the air on any sort of time line. Delays, missed connections, changing times and gates – all fine and good if you are not traveling into the middle of nowhere and have several, and successively smaller flights.

I ended up flying Vancouver to Mexico City, Mexico City to Chihuahua, Chihuahua to Monterrey, Monterrey to Ciudaz Juarez  (Which by the way is right on the other side of the US/Mexico border from El Paso, Texas). I was stuck in Monterrey for almost a whole day, with no explanation from Airo Mexico. And finally 4 hours in a bus, which was by far the most comfortable part of the journey. Diego picked me up from the bus station – a one room affair, and we drove the hour to Mata Ortiz. 

All in all a rather long and arduous trip. Funnily enough if I had flown into El Paso it would have saved me almost a whole day travel and cost me an extra $300. Next time I’ll spend the money. Or better yet – Ill fly into Chihuahua and bus from there to Casas Grandes. Although the City of Chihuahua is a bit further away from Mata Ortiz that Casas Grandes, the buses in Mexico are so comfortable, frequent and punctual as compared to the Mexican Airlines, I’d rather spend the time on the bus than a plane. Also Chihuahua city is the capitol city of the Province of Chihuahua, so there are a lot more flights in and out.

(A beautiful small town, on a green ribbon, amid the rocky mountains, built on the bones of an ancient people)

So there you go… Now you know how to get to Mata Ortiz. A few other travel notes; unfortunately you cannot bring more than the tiniest amount of Maple syrup to your hosts as gifts. Bummer! I love bringing syrup, its so Canadian, and usually really appreciated.

By the time I made it to Mata Ortiz I had almost turned around to go home, twice. The ‘No Exit’ like stay in the Monterrey airport with no sleep for almost 24 hours was enough to make me question my sanity. But the bus ride restored my faith in humanity all over the planet. And finally meeting Diego at the Bus Station was such a relief. I immediately got a great vibe from him. He was genuinely happy that I had come. He is the sort of gentleman that one rarely meets anymore. And YES, his IS actually THAT good looking. Google him… Yup, that’s not photoshop. His beauty is only matched by his lovely partner, and two perfect children!

Arriving at the Inn at Mata Oritiz was like sauntering casually into a romantic western film in the 1950’s. The Inn is basic, pretty, well-kept and clean. It was built over 100 years ago, whitewashed adobe, with pretty shaded garden areas. Alma, the proprietress speaks not a word of English, but she is fluent in the univerversal language of hospitality. Her food was simply perfection. Each meal was made like it would have been for family; fresh and hearty. Unfortunately, the owners of the Inn were pretty lame on my last night (Not Alma, she remained awesome). Ill get to that later.

Diego gave me a tour of the small town, of around 1000 people. It seemed even smaller, really. Even though I spoke no Spanish, and most of the people there spoke no English – I felt safe. It was such a small town I imagine everyone knew who I was and what I was doing there. There was another potter in town who was doing a class at the same time. I think that those students were staying in Cases Grandes.

So here is a bit of history on the Mata Ortiz – according to Diego and a few other bits I picked up here and there. There are several books written about it. Two of which I bought before going, and neither of them did I read. So here is the Mata Ortiz story, according to me – and I could be totally wrong.

One hundred and fifty years ago some folks moved to the beautiful river valley. Now this river only has running water for about a month out of each year, just during the rainy season. It rains something like 3 days a year, but its monsoon rains when they come. But the valley is slashed through with the verdant strip of green, the trees roots digging deep for the water that is there. In this forest of old willows is ten million birds. Their songs echoing off of the rocky red mountains that flank this valley.

Anyway… people moved here to escape the chaos of the pending revolution. That didn’t end up working out so well… as Chihuahua ended up playing a major role in the revolution, and was not spared any of the violence and upheaval. But just prior to the revolution families moved to the area, and built adobe homes out of the dirt and rocks that was their land. They noticed that there were quite a lot of pottery shards in their adobe. And then they started finding whole pots. Or bits and pieces that they could put back together into pots. By the 1950’s the collectors started coming and so did the archeologists. Many of the locals worked and learned with the archeologists. But they also learned a different skill… copying the ancient pottery so well that they could pass it off as artifacts. There are museums all over the world that has some of these fakes in their collection!

(Ancient pottery shard in the adobe walls of Diego’s childhood home)

The Ancient people – dubbed the Paquime – had been gone for over 600 years. One generally accepted theory is that they moved northward and became the Pueblo people. Their systems of architecture, public infrastructure, and governments were all quite advanced. And their artwork was quite sophisticated. The Mexicans who moved in to the area hundreds of years later learned their techniques for making pottery through trial and error, and by using the materials at hand, the same materials used by the Paquime people. (And this is one reason why spotting a fake can be nearly impossible).

But after a few decades of ‘fakeing it’, a few of the Mata Ortiz potters started to make their own art – based off of the tradition, and with the same materials – but with a unique and contemporary eye. They began to sign their work. And sell to art collectors, not just artifact collectors.

(This bowl is one of Diegos)

(Here are three small pieces I bought while in Mata Ortiz, each with a very different style.)

Next time I’ll tell you about the process of actually making this beautiful style of pottery. And perhaps I’ll tell you more about Alma’s amazing cooking!

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