I have been a huge fan of Mata Ortiz pottery ever since I learned of it quite a few years ago through a children’s book about Juan Quezada Celado, one of the first Mata Ortiz potters. When an opportunity came up to attend a workshop taught by Eli Navarrete, a third-generation Mata Ortiz potter, at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I signed up right away.
Eli learned about pottery and the Mata Ortiz style from his grandparents, who were living and working in Mata Ortiz. He remembers them working in clay since his childhood, but it wasn’t until he was 22 and had spent time visiting his grandparents, that he decided he too wanted to make pottery, after already being trained as an electrician. It took him about three years to learn the traditional techniques. His wife and his brothers are also potters.
Eli’s Clay Body
For the workshop demo, Eli brought clay from the Mata Ortiz area (see map below). The clay body was very different in feeling from the clays I’m used to for throwing. It was very plastic and yet, somehow drier and also quite strong. He told us he mixed three different clay bodies to create his own recipe; one for weight, one for strength, and one for plasticity. It was a very effective clay for the kind of handbuilding he was doing. To prepare it, he first digs it from the ground, and mixes it with water in a 5-gallon bucket, letting the heavy particles and stones fall to the bottom. The excess water rises to the top, which he pours out, keeping the middle part to use.
Handbuilding in a Puki
Eli begins building in a plaster puki, which is a 3-inch-deep, bowl-shaped mold that helps hold and form the pot’s bottom shape. He makes a large, fat tortilla out of clay, places it into the puki, pinches it up the sides of the puki, thinning the walls into a large-shaped pot, then adds a coil (1, 2). He doesn’t wait for the bottom part to set up because the puki is supporting the pot for now.
After adding that first coil, he smooths the inside with a blue rubber rib (3), and scrapes the exterior with a piece of hacksaw blade to smooth and even it out (4). After each coil is added and smoothed into the form, he cuts the rim off the top to even it out again and prepare for the next coil. Another coil is added immediately, followed by another to finish a good-sized pot (5).
He lets the pot set up in the puki until it can hold its shape, then removes it and allows it to fully dry.
Sanding and Burnishing
Once the pot is bone dry (6), Eli sands the surface with three grades of sandpaper, ending with the finest grade. When he sands, he works outside and wears a mask to avoid breathing in any harmful dust.
Next, he mixes manganese dioxide (MnO2) with a small amount of his dry clay body to create a slip. If the manganese dioxide isn’t mixed with the clay body, it won’t stick to the surface of the pot. Eli applies the slip to the entire surface (7), using a scrap of velvet. Note: Wear gloves when working with MnO2.
After it dries, in a matter of a minute or so, he applies a solution of 5% finely ground graphite, 5% baby oil, and 90% kerosene over the slip to help with the burnishing. Caution: Always work in a well ventilated area, wear a professionally fitted respirator with a cartridge designated for fumes, and wear gloves when mixing and using any of these materials.
Using a highly polished agate, Eli begins to burnish the surface. Immediately the surface changes from matte to a brilliantly shiny black (8, 9). The polishing of the surface also serves to strengthen the pot. He typically applies three layers of slip, burnishing each layer. Each coat is applied, polished, and left to dry. By the third coat Eli wears cotton gloves while working so as not to put any oils from his hands onto the surface. The pot is highly reflective once he’s finished.
Adding Color and Narrative Decoration
Next, Eli uses a brush made of only a few long hairs, usually human hair, to paint very fine lines (10). Surprisingly, despite being so shiny, the surface is still absorbent. Once the outlines are complete he goes back in with a much shorter brush and fills in larger areas of color (11). He uses white, orange, and red slips (12) made from colored clays also dug from the Mata Ortiz area.
The potters of Mata Ortiz often incorporate Mimbres designs shared by the Southwest, Native American cultures while also re-creating ancestral symbols to conceive a unique artistic language on their own pots.
To erase any unwanted color, Eli takes a round-tipped stick and gently rubs off the lines.
He told us it takes him three days to make, dry, and sand a pot, three days to polish it, and at least three days to decorate the entire surface. When he decorates, it takes one full day to paint on the lines, a second day to fill in all the spaces, and a third day to make any corrections.
Firing and Final Thoughts
The Mata Ortiz potters used to fire a single pot inside a sagger in a garbage can using wood as the fuel. Now, Eli fires his work to cone 012 in an electric kiln. Interestingly, the colors are dull when he pulls the hot pot out of the kiln, but they brighten as the pot cools.
I think what I love about the Mata Ortiz potters, besides their spectacularly beautiful pottery, is that they’re working much as their ancestors did. They use simple methods that they discovered themselves. They’re always trying new things and sharing knowledge. Eli said there are now three generations of Mata Ortiz potters, approximately 600 in all. They’ve been making pottery in the area for 50 years. And the forth generation of young children are already learning about and working in pottery. All the potters work completely locally, using materials at hand and in doing this, they’ve raised the standard of living in their area.
All images of Eli Navarrete’s finished and fired Mata Ortiz pots are courtesy of Sandia Fine Mexican Folk Art, www.sandiafolk.com.
Glynnis Lessing lives in a small town in Minnesota with her family. She is a full-time potter and also teaches at the Northern Clay Center and occasionally the Northfield Arts Guild. Check out www.glynnislessing.com.