PULLMAN, Wash.–A photo chronology of artists from the village of Mata Ortiz in northern Mexico and examples of their work are features of a Washington State University Museum of Anthropology spring exhibit opening Feb. 9.
“Portraits of Clay: Potters of Mata Ortiz” is a collection of 54 portraits by Sandy Smith, a photographer from Tucson, Ariz., who documented the artists at work. The photographer will be at the WSU museum in early April to discuss the exhibit that includes authentic pieces of Mata Ortiz pottery owned by WSU Provost Gretchen M. Bataille. The exhibit will be in the museum at College Hall through April 30.
More than 300 of Mata Ortiz’s 1,000 citizens work as artists, making their livelihood with their pottery, Smith said in her book, “Portraits of Clay: Potters of Mata Ortiz.”
Mata Ortiz’s economy was once based on the lumber industry, but when the railroad was shut down, the village revitalized itself with the making and selling of pottery, according to Smith.
The artists are usually paid much more for their art when it is sold in the United States. One young artist, Hector Gallegos, earned $1,000 for a large pot that had an asking price of $200 in Mexico. Since there is no guild system in Mata Ortiz, those with little or no experience can learn the craft freely from family members and others, she said.
The exhibit also will highlight the work of artist Juan Quezada, a native of Mata Ortiz who is credited with directing the area’s “artistic and economic rebirth.” Quezada uses the “casas grandes” style of pottery, an entirely hand-made fabrication technique which was last popular between 1175 and 1400. The ruins of Paquime, where pottery fragments of this style were found, stand on the plains of northern Chihuahua. This village once housed the Casas Grandes people in earthen houses that stood six stories above the plains, Smith said in her book.
To create the pottery, clay is gathered from designated desert areas that are allotted to different families, thus creating pottery of many different textures and colors. The clay is first laid out flat and pressed into the lining of a bowl to create a rounded base. Long ropes of clay, called “chorizos” (a term for Mexican sausages), are then coiled upon the base and smoothed by hand. This creates a very thin-walled, fragile piece of pottery.
The two most popular decorative painting methods are polychrome, a red and black paint motif, and black-finish, an application of two coats of black paint ranging from shiny to dull. Work kits for creating this pottery include smooth pebbles or deer bone for burnishing and paint brushes constructed with children’s hair. While excavations from the nearby site of Paquime exhibit this style of pottery-making, Quezada revived the style without the influence of scholars, books or expert artisans.
The pottery is usually created by husband-and-wife teams, in which the husband generally builds the pots and the wife decorates the finished products. “Sometimes,” Smith said, “the ‘studio’ was the bedroom, and often someone slept while the potter created and I photographed.
“Today, my interest is more in the people than in their technology,” the photographer said. “When I go to Mata Ortiz now, I go to visit friends.”
Smith’s exhibits are shown across the country. “Portraits of Clay” is being shipped from the Field Museum in Chicago. Smith’s previous exhibits include “Rock Art, Petroglyphs in the Tucson Basin,” a collection of desert photos, and “Mural Contemporary,” a photo exhibit of murals painted on public buildings and walls displayed locally in Tucson.
Smith will be at the museum April 3 at 4 p.m. to do a “walk-through,” when she will talk about the pots, people, village and photographs of Mata Ortiz. A reception will follow.
The event is co-sponsored by the WSU Department of English. Museum hours are 9 a.m.to 4 p.m. weekdays.


Editor’s note: Photographer Sandy Smith can be reached at her Tuscon, Ariz., home: