Along the Palagana River near the ancient ruins of Casas Grandes, in Northern Chihuahua, Mexico, a local, self-taught potter named Juan Quezada founded a native art movement inspired by traditions that had died out around the time of the Spanish conquest.
Members of the extinct Casas Grandes (Big Houses") culture, so named for their principle town, consisting of an adobe structure that towered six stories over the plains, left a wealth of pottery fragments. These fragments inspired Juan Quezada, then a young woodcutter, just as pottery shards had inspired the legendary woman Hopi potter, Nampeyo, at the end of the nineteenth century. The result was similar. Nampeyo revitalized Hopi Indian pottery, and Juan's village Mata Ortiz nearly a century later is undergoing an artistic explosion.
Unlike the villagers of Mata Ortiz, Nampeyo had the advantage of being a potter. In Chihuahua, pottery making was a lost art. The villagers, however, experimented with the same raw materials available to their predecessors centuries before. With no input from the outside, by trial and error alone, they taught themselves and finally mastered the ancient craft.
Their spectacular achievement accomplished only since the 1970's has been widely publicized. Their product, featured in major world museums, has set new standards of quality for hand built pottery. Of the many potters now working in Mata Ortiz, a gifted handful are carrying quality to heights rarely achieved in the history of art.
These villagers' one-of-a-kind, signed works of art are formed and painted by hand using only local clays and mineral colors and without benefit d a potter's wheel, kiln, or commercial tools or materials. Work kits include smooth pebbles for burnishing, a piece of hacksaw blade, paint brushes snipped from children's hair. Each vessel is individually fired on the ground in a carefully piled "bee hive" of dried cow chips.
From such humble beginnings emerge not only extraordinary art pieces, but new possibilities for contemporary design inspired by an aesthetic whose roots reach back a thousand years. Born of earth, water and fire, these pieces with proper care will give pleasure for yet another thousand years.
This style is also called Palanganas, or, more popularly, Casas Grandes Pottery, although the latter name creates an unfortunate confusion with the prehistoric pottery of that name. The new is not a copying of the old, but a creative departure with its own integrity.
© 1991 by Spencer Heath MacCallum