Posted by: Bob Fisher | March 21, 2014

The Hands of Juan Quezada

An encounter with Mexico’s living national treasure

In many ways, the road to Mata Ortiz is a metaphoric journey to a place in which are inherent artistic integrity and the kind of altruism that is essential to integrated communities.

For the outsider, this tiny, dusty pueblo in the northwestern corner of Mexico’s largest state seems the least likely place to encounter a world-class artist. Appearances are deceiving however because it is the area’s isolation and desert environs that in fact led to the renaissance of a distinct centuries-old art form.

About 300 kilometres south of El Paso, Texas, the village lies close by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range and under the tutelage of El Indio, a craggy peak that resembles a Mexican “Indian” lying on his back gazing at the intense blue of the desert sky. In profile, his sharp facial features are those of the indigenous people of Mexico.

As we discover later, they are also those of Juan Quezada himself.

As we bump along the secondary road from Nuevo Casas Grandes — and at times through dried-up river beds and over simple bridges that are just a suggestion of human intervention in the terrain — we enter a simple and relatively unadorned environment.

The expansive Chihuahuan desert surrounding us has the deceptively vacant appearance that travellers from more verdant environments have difficulty processing visually and aesthetically.

Slowly, however, we begin to appreciate the unique luminosity of the primary desert colours and its vast spatial proportions and perspectives.

Like all such milieus, the Chihuahuan desert conceals its treasures from the casual onlooker.

One of these treasures is the ruins of Paquimé, the imposing pre-Columbian trading centre that flourished in the fourteenth century between A.D. 1060 and 1340. Its mercantile empire extended throughout an area of over 130,000 square kilometres and linked the indigenous peoples of this pre-hispanic world from the Pacific Ocean to what today is the American southwest.

Although, like so many of its kind, this civilization disappeared leaving only traces of its preeminence, it does represent today a trading network that prospered despite the lack of the kinds of infrastructure available to us today. But its ancient trade patterns, community-based networking, and exponential “marketing” were reinvented by Juan Quezada — almost by chance.

Three decades ago, 12-year-old Juan Quezada left school in order to help sustain his family. He worked in the fields and also gathered firewood, a task that led him haphazardly across the countryside. From time to time he would come across ceramic shards, tiny remnants of the ancient civilization from which he and his community were direct descendants.

An intuitive and sensitive child, Juan understood the value of the pieces of the past that he found, and also had a precocious aesthetic appreciation for them. A solitary and reserved child, Juan kept his treasures and studied them closely, fascinated by the traces of intricate geometric designs and nature motifs. He also had a holistic vision of the ancient objects as they were in their entirety; of the whole entity of which the shards were small but significant pieces.

In each fragment he found and prized, he saw the art and the artist, and identified with both. And so, as if impelled by predestination, he began to gather various types of clay and other materials from his immediate environment — a desert landscape that had not changed over the centuries — in order to replicate the artistic process of a civilization long gone. He was in fact, transcending time.

When we arrive at Juan Quezada’s unpretentious home in this very secluded region, he is surrounded by family, friends, other artists, dogs, chickens, villagers — and the landscape that mirrors his art.

Through our interpreter-driver Martín, Juan greets us in a quiet, respectful manner. His gentle welcome suggests that we are as much of interest to him as he certainly is to us. In appearance he is not — initially — an imposing man, although the more we are in his presence, the more we begin to see the rugged, sculpted beauty of his features and calm dignity in his bearing.

Juan does not scrutinize us but neither does he look past us. His eyes suggest that he sees far more than we may be aware of. It is as if we are the object of his attention while at the same time part of a larger context that he understands in a particular way.

He invites us to look around the small gallery in a room to one side of the house. In it are some of his own work as well as that of some of the other 400 artists in Mata Ortiz who are unique in their own right but also part of an artistic community that was created by a curious and visionary 12-year-old boy. After Juan taught himself to create the intricately painted clay containers in the style of the ancient people of Paquimé, he then taught the skills to his two brothers and three sisters.

His siblings formed the core group of what today is a prodigious school of artists working in the Quezada style. And then through another fortuitous set of circumstances, he was “discovered” by the American anthropologist and archeologist Spencer MacCallum.

For seven years, MacCallum studied and documented the revival of the pottery of Mata Ortiz and eventually was instrumental in Juan Quezada and Mata Ortiz becoming international phenomena.

And Juan’s youngest sister Lydia is credited with some of the most original and innovative work of the black-on-black style of pots so typical of Mata Ortiz. Her polychrome patterns with their continuous line designs requiring intense concentration, also are a manifest expression of the Mata Ortiz school. In the hour and half during which we stand and chat with Juan in his courtyard-cum-outdoor studio, we learn how the young man with vision and an intuitive understanding of his cultural heritage, used earth, fire, and water and the fundamentals at hand to create an art form of his own.

From the moment he begins to tell his story — as if recounting a simple sequence of events that are only marginally related to his status as a world-class ceramist — it is clear that the man, his art and his Mexican heritage are one. His self-effacing manner and simple lifestyle are a perfect blend with the desert and mountains of Chihuahua — but deceptively so. The layers of meaning in his work and his earth-based life experience communicate an integration of the self with nature and the formulation of a world view that eclipses the limitations of time, distance, and culture.

Concluding his story, Juan begins to make a pot. He is surrounded by the essential ingredients of his art. There are red, grey, orange and the treasured pure-white clays of his desert home as well as the various minerals from which he learned as a boy to create pigments for painting his pots: iron oxides for the reds, manganese for the blacks, mica, and turquoise-coloured rocks from which he creates various shades of green and blue.

He takes a small quantity of clay, places it on an old wooden table on which he works, creates a tortilla-like base in a bowl-shaped mould, and begins the pinching process. His fingers work the clay with a tenderness and delicacy that mirror his relationship to his work. Slowly he smooths the clay outward and pinches it gently up the sides of the mould. Placing ropes of clay along the edge of this base, he blends the two quantities of clay into a single entity. It is perhaps at this moment that we become aware of the transformation that is occurring. As he continues working the silt-like clay, the deft and rhythmic movement of his fingers give a thin, uniform thickness to the emerging pot. His hands caress the clay as if inviting it to materialize on its own. It is a privileged experience to be this close to an act of creation by such an artist.

We spend time examining the materials lying about in the courtyard and learning about the primitive firing and painting methods used in creating the Mata Ortiz style.

And another special moment occurs when Juan’s grandson-in-law emerges from the house carrying before him a recently finished pot. He presents it to us like an offering; it is a tribute to Juan and to the silent ancestors whose souls are essential elements in the elegant pot.

On a personal level, fame and fortune seem immaterial to this internationally renowned Mexican artist. When we meet Juan Quezada in his home village of Mata Ortiz in the northern state of Chihuahua, we too become aware of how his artistry — imbued with historical awareness and poetry — transcends such fleeting concerns. Juan Quezada is indeed the embodiment of the unique and distinct Mata Ortiz school of pottery, a cooperative initiative that is certainly a role model for grassroots entrepreneurship.

But it is his personification of the potter as a communicator of universal cultural values that resonates with us.

While the others are studying the various materials lying about the courtyard I ask Juan if I may photograph his hands. He does not hesitate. He holds them palms down over the large rock on which he has spread the minerals. I reach forward and touch his hands, turning the right one palm up. Briefly I feel the softness of the skin and am aware of the warmth emanating from his hands. Photographing them seems the natural thing to do.

For more information on Juan Quezada and Mata Ortiz, for more images of their work, and for the history of this part of Chihuahua, the following websites are recommended:

Fine Mexican Ceramics Art Gallery

Ceramics of Mexico

For information on this region of Mexico, visit Tourism Mexico’s website and follow the links to Chihuahua.

See also from Frontline:

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