PULLMAN, Wash. — Tucson artist Sandra Smith, whose photo exhibit, “Portraits of Clay: Potters of Mata Ortiz,” is currently on display in the Washington State University Museum of Anthropology, will discuss her work Friday, April 3, at 4 p.m. when she will do a “walk-through” at the museum.
Smith, whose daughter Shawn is a WSU English faculty member, said she plans to discuss the “pots, people, village and photographs of Mata Ortiz.” Though her main goal was to photograph the artists at work, Smith said that over a period of six years and numerous visits to the village, she became closely acquainted with many of the area’s more than 300 potters.
“Today, my interest is in the people,” she said. “When I go to Mata Ortiz now, I go to visit friends.”
Smith’s exhibit chronicles artists at work on their pottery, an art form that single-handedly revitalized the small community, sparing it economic ruin. At one time, a lumber industry supported many of the town’s residents, but after the railroad was shut down, they sought a new source of revenue. At that time, the ancient, all-but forgotten art of “casas grandes”-style pottery was resurrected by local artist Juan Quezada.
Quezada is credited with directing the “artistic and economic rebirth” of Mata Ortiz, Smith said. He renewed interest in “casas grandes” pottery, last popular between 1175 and 1400, and he and his family now educate many of the local artists on this special technique. Today, more than one-third of the northern Mexico village makes its living making and selling pottery. Since there is no guild system in Mata Ortiz, those with little or no experience can learn freely from artists or members of their extended families how to create this pottery, Smith said.
Artists make substantially more money when they sell their pottery in America, Smith said. For example, one young artist, Hector Gallegos, sold a pot for $1,000 in the United States, five times the amount he charged for the piece in Mexico.
Smith also said that tour buses may soon travel from Tucson to visit the village, a result of interest generated from the story of Mata Ortiz’s economic rejuvenation.
The photo exhibit arrived at the museum in early February and will remain there until the end of the semester. Prior to arriving at WSU, the photos were displayed in Chicago’s Field Museum and other locations across the nation.
Museum hours are 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. weekdays. A reception with Smith will follow the “walk-through.”

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