Mata Ortiz, Mexico part 2

Back in 2018 I traveled to Mata Ortiz Mexico to participate in a workshop run by master potter Diego Vallez. Here is part two of my adventure…

In the first part I had written briefly about how I found out about Mata Ortiz and Diego, how I got there, and a little about about the history of  the pottery of the area. Next Ill speak a bit more about the workshop itself and how the pottery is made.

I also briefly spoke of the Adobe Inn where I was staying and Alma, the caretaker. Alma always had the most amazing breakfasts for me. The time of the meals were always somehow communicated to me, and I was always on time in the dining room. After the first day I understood why Mexican breakfasts were so fantastic. It’s so damn hot during the day – that you really don’t want to eat a big meal until things start to cool down again in the evening. Lunch is a most minimal meal. But the breakfasts… mmmmmm!

Each morning Diego either picked me up, or had one of the other participants of the workshop come and fetch me. Eventually, at any rate. There is definitely a different sense of timing in Mexico. I had been forewarned about this, so I was somewhat prepared. What I was not prepared for was my complete inability to be NON-punctual. Which meant that no matter what, I was dead on time, and waiting. Now I was happy to wait, because as I said before, I was expecting ‘Mexico time’. But I think I made people uncomfortable. I really do need to learn to chill out. But that is a whole other topic.

At any rate, I was picked up each day. I am quite happy I chose not to drive there. I pride myself as being able to handle almost any road. But the roads in Mata Ortiz are rough and are not laid out in any pattern. The town is all about pottery and farming, is quite spread out, and everyone drives trucks as the roads are all dirt and quite rough.  There is only one small stretch of paved road and that looks quite silly, really. Some time ago some politician decided to spend some crazy money on a stretch of paved road and a bunch of very ornate metal benches that are strewn about town. They looked very uninviting – metal seats shining and baking in the hot sun. Again, I digress…

The actual workshops took place a few miles further down a dirt road, in a gathering of about 5 houses, a church and a school room – a ‘town’ called Santa Rosa. The property is three un-plastered adobe buildings. One was the childhood home of Diegos. The other was a neighbors house that he bought. And there was a third smaller, but taller building, that I think may have originally been a barn and hay loft. These buildings bordered on the green strip of the dry river, and was towered over by the El Indio mountain. Diego bought up these buildings, fenced and gated them together (all of the houses here are fenced and gated). He and his family rebuilt the small barn first, creating a cool and beautiful space for the necessities, washroom and seating areas. Next he poured new concrete floors and put a new roof on the home he grew up in. This becomes the main studio room. On the roof is a gravity fed water tank, and an ingenious sort of solar power system; heat of the sun boils water in tubes on the roof and creates steam to generate power. How cool (hot) is that?!

The other buildings are yet to be finished. The eventual plan is for there to be a place for workshop participants to stay. We spoke about how he was trying to preserve as much as he could, while also having all of the modern convinces. I am a bit of a geek about building and building techniques – as my mum is in architecture and engineering. I really loved hearing about how he saved the hundred year old wood beams, reinforced a collapsing wall, or the plans for reclaiming the old wood doors.

When all of the other participants gathered, I saw this was going to be different from any other workshop I had done. Two of the participants were tour guides in nearby Casas Grandes. They gave tours of the museum that focused on the Paquime and they wanted to learn more about how the pottery was made. One person was a photographer, and I think, a friend of Diegos. There was a housewife who just wanted to try her hand at pottery. There was one other potter besides me, who was actually from Mata Ortiz. She makes and sells lots of work, but in a different technique than what Diego uses. She buys her green ware (un-fired) from other potters. What that means is that she decorates pots made by someone else by scratching patterns into them. Diego knows how to dig and process the clay, make the pots, and decorate by painting with locally sourced minerals. She wanted to expand her skills.

The other thing to know is that this was the first workshop like this Diego has run. He has several others scheduled for this year. I hope that he gets many more participants. But this group turned out to be an ideal size, and the diversity of skill levels quite interesting. Neither of us potters where really any further ahead than the first timers.

We sort of started a bit out of order, but it all made sense in the end. The first day was wedging clay and learning how to build a basic pot shape. The clay was unlike anything I had ever felt. It was dark deep red, perfectly smooth, and very fine bodied – not one bit of grog or larger particle. It was also very plastic and flexible while not being slumpy, retained its moisture, and almost seemed to refuse to crack. It was SO forgiving! We half coiled, sort of pinched, round bottomed pots started in plaster, or ceramic bowls. And we could build the basic pot shape in about a day, using the simplest tools; a cut piece of serrated saw blade, and a bit of plastic container lid for smoothing. And hands. That’s it. So simple. 

This was the lesson I would be reminded over and over in the week I was there – the only tools you really need are hands and mud! Pottery does not need to be complicated or hard. Nor do you need special or fancy tools, kilns, tables, or other accoutrements to make useable and/or beautiful pottery.

Day two we went out to see where the clay was dug, and how to process it. Again, so simple; shovel, bucket, water, time and strain. Simple perhaps, but not easy. The locations of the clays were a carefully guarded secret in some cases. We came to one place that two other potters where digging, at first they seemed a bit put out that we were there. I learned from one of the other participants who spoke a bit more English and can translate for me, that the med digging have done all the work uncovering this vein of clay – the arduous task of digging the hard earth and stone off of the top of the layer of clay – and they did not appreciate that others where just coming and digging up the unusual yellow clay now that it was exposed, by their labours. We dug elsewhere.

We did this driving about and digging the hard earth in the early morning, arriving back at the studio for lunch. Hot and dusty. Ready to have our plain lunches and drink some cool drinks. The remaining hours was spent working on our pots, coiling up, cutting the openings, and smoothing both the outside and inside of the pots. 

The remainder of my day was filled with the music and cadence of the Spanish language as everyone but me weighed in on the upcoming elections. Hours of passionate dialog – civilized and thougough. Agreeing, disagreeing, agreeing to disagree, and back ‘round to another point or issue. And my fingers pressing, sliding and scraping over the cool, smooth and supple clay. As I sat in the shade, looking out at the impossible blue and green of the mountains of mexico.

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