Anything peaceful and voluntary.

Miracle of Mata Ortiz


Here are some YouTube pictures of my involvement, 1976-present, with the village of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico. They were put together for the occasion of the University of Juárez recognizing my promotion of tourism in the region. But the story has to do with the village itself, which in 1976 was desperately poor and fast becoming a ghost town. At best, the villagers raised some beans and corn, and grazed some animals on unfenced mountain range. It was remote, without even a graded road to it and, because of this, had no effective government and no taxation. In this anarchic setting, the chance collaboration of two individuals, myself and one of the villagers, Juan Quezada, led to what’s been called the “miracle of Mata Ortiz.” Juan was a totally self-taught artist whom I had discovered and felt had world-class potential. Before I met him, through sixteen years of experimenting alone, inspired by prehistoric pottery shards and with no inputs from the outside, he had developed a complete ceramic technology. I gave him economic freedom to develop his art in any direction of his choosing and devoted seven-and-a-half years, full time, to promoting it in the United States, opening a dedicated gallery in Los Angeles, arranging museum exhibitions and demonstrations tours, and thus gradually introducing him to the art world. For his part, he taught the rest of his village, until today there are more than 450 potters in a village of less than 3,000 souls, perhaps one of the densest concentrations of artists the world has known. Juan is a natural anarchist, and from the beginning we both avoided as far as possible any involvement with government.

Today, following three decades of laissez-faire economy, the village has gained a world reputation for its hand built pottery which is technically unmatched anywhere. The villagers are winning competitions all over Mexico and the United States, exhibitions are being held this summer in Brazil and Europe, a traveling exhibition in the united States was partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Juan was awarded the Premio Nacional de los Artes, Mexico’s highest honor to a living artist, a younger artist, Diego Valles won a similar award, the Premio Nacional de la Juventud in the category of art, Mexico’s highest honor to an artist under thirty. Many families are giving their children a university education; Diego himself completed an engineering degree including a year’s scholarship to Australia, before finally devoting himself to art. Dozens of books have now been written about Mata Ortiz. Until now, northern Mexico had never been known for its art. It was a rough country of miners, cowboys, revolutionaries, its two chief histories being Chronicles of a Barbaric Land and Chihuahua: Storehouse of Storm. It was too far removed from central and southern Mexico to be able to relate to mainstream Mexican art; that art, so heavily influenced by Aztec and Maya themes, is not seen in the north. But now its rough norteño energy is being channeled into art inspired by themes from the very earth of Chihuahua.

Conditions were right for the miracle of Mata Ortiz. There was Juan’s superb experimental mind, artistic talent, and generosity as a teacher, and there was my obsession, aided by a modest independent income, with seeing it blossom and come to the attention of the art world. But an essential condition was the total freedom we experienced to do what we chose, free of any kind of governmental supervision, regulation, or taxation. The latter is beginning to change. Attracted by the affluence of the village, the State of Chihuahua is finding ways to take credit for its success, has built a highway to the village and promised a park and extravagant improvements, and in other ways begun to insinuate itself into a position of taxing the artists. But the momentum is there. The future of Mata Ortiz, whatever direction it may now take, is assured.

The following YouTube presentation was done by Raechel Running, artist-in-residence at our Center for Casas Grandes Studies:
Spencer and Emalie MacCallum
Casas Grandes, Chihuahua
August 21, 2011


Spencer MacCallum will be speaking at Libertopia Festival 2011 in San Diego
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2 responses

  1. What an inspiring story! I hope to visit Mara Ortiz before the end of the year.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:06 pm

  2. I need to head down there as well! Thank you, Spencer, for an inspiring account for all those who love art and liberty.

    August 31, 2011 at 10:46 am

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