In area once called Mesoamerica (Present-day Mexico and Central America), the raw traces of pottery date back to 3000 B.C. Pottery and ceramics practices grew very rapidly in Mesoamerica with the appearance of the first advanced civilization, sometimes called the “Mother Culture”, the Olmec civilization. Olmec style pottery vessels as well as clay figures and kitchen tools have been found at archeological sites throughout Mesoamerica such as San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes, and La Venta dating back to 1200 B.C. The Olmec were skilled artisans and talented artists. Providing all the cultural foundation, this civilization is generally considered as the precursor of all significant Mesoamerican cultures. Its artistic influence on the region has been considerable.
Since then, pottery took a key place in the cultures of this geographic area, created and used for both household and ceremonial functions. Whether Toltecs, Aztecs, Mayas or Mixtecs; they all gave great emphasis to the potter’s role in society, as they attributed him a function of creation. Even though each of these cultures share the same vision of the potter’s role in society, each of them has developed its own pottery’s characteristics and patterns.
Even through during the Spanish colonization period, the native potters kept transmitting the traditional pottery and ceramics knowledge to the younger generations, some new ceramics making techniques appeared, recognizable from the Spanish influence such as decoration with lead glaze.
The history of pottery in Mexico explains why nowadays the pottery is one of the most eclectic and versatile components in Mexican Folk Art. Various types of Mexican potteries have acquired an international influence and some artisans benefit from a worldwide reputation of excellence. Among the variety of Mexican pottery types, we choose to emphasize on two specific types of pottery: Mata Ortiz and Petatillo.
Mata Ortiz is one of the finest potteries in the world. This creation takes its name from the small rural village Juan Mata Ortiz, in the state of Chihuahua, located close to the archeological site of Paquimé. This spectacular art is born from the influence of one individual named Juan Quezada Celado. As a young boy, Juan Quezada found some fragments of ancient pottery around the ruins of Paquimé or Casas Grandes; Between approximately 1200 and 1500 B.C., a very sophisticated pre-Columbian culture grew around the City of Paquimé, which dominated the area of Northern Mexico. This city was well-known for its production of ceramics with geometrical motifs especially in red, black, brown and yellow. Juan Quezada admired these crafts created by his ancestors and felt an immense curiosity about the techniques and the raw materials used to create them. When he had some time at home, he dug clay, soaked it and tried to make “Ollas”.
Then he dedicated three complete years to understand and experiment in diverse techniques to recreate pottery in the authentic traditions of Casas Grandes. Over this long process of self learning, Juan Quezada reached his goal, methodically recreating the entire ceramics process and also fabricating the colorants to decorate the pieces. Over the years, he perfected his skills, knowledge and savoir-faire; gaining fame all over Mexico, the United States and European countries.
Juan Quezada did not keep his savoir-faire to himself but generously shared and taught it to family members, friends, neighbors and young apprentices. That is why nowadays Mata Ortiz counts with around four hundred potters who produce exceptional ceramic crafts. The launch of this artistic movement had a remarkable impact on this impoverished town and many inhabitants have the opportunity for a better life. The technique of creation can be described in four main steps:
A) the finding of the raw materials and the mixture processing (a unique mixture of various dry clays and volcanic ashes).
B) The modeling of the piece.
C) The painting and the decoration of the piece.
D) The firing. Some specifications of the process of Mata Ortiz pottery are the following:
– Mata Ortiz pottery is hand modeled without the use of a potter´s wheel. Each piece is created employing the coil method (many small strips of clay).
– All the materials and tools employed in the process of creation originate from supplies that are available locally and from the surroundings of Mata Ortiz: Mata Ortiz pottery is crafted from locally dug clay and the paints are natural and come from minerals found in the valley, the black from magnesium, the red from iron oxides…Many of the artists continue to produce their own paint brushes using children hair.
– The firing is on open ground or in pit ovens. The pots are set on a pile of dry cow dung and wood. If the pottery is fired on open ground, the artist will cover it with a large overturned pot.
Even if Mata Ortiz pottery represents a revival of Paquimé or Casas Grandes ceramics, based on pre-Hispanic pottery methods, it is more than a simple recreation of ancestral motifs. It is an art in constant evolution and characterized by its high degree of innovation: each artist has always felt free to express himself and to take liberties with the designs he creates. That is why nowadays the variety of Mata Ortiz ceramics is impressive and we are witnesses of its constant renewal!.
Another manifestation of wonderful Mexican pottery is Petatillo ceramics. Its name is a direct reference to the decorative crosshatching of very thin lines, which looks like a petate. A petate is a small mat finely woven with dried palms.
However, nowadays, very few artisans launch this work because of the meticulous, challenging and laborious process of creation, which leads to skyrocketing prices. But some artisans choose to undertake this path such as Jose Bernabe, who has created Petatillo pottery for more than fifty years and represents the fourth generation of his family who has mastered this technique! Petatillo technique starts when the artist applies a mixture of red clay and water on the inside and the outside of the piece.
After the drying process, the artist traces the design with a sort of hard-pointed burin and distributes motifs all over the surface of the piece. Then the same forms are filled with colors. The next step consists in decorating all the surrounding areas with the Petatillo crosshatched lines.
Then the piece is fired in a kiln at a temperature of approximately 880 °C and submerged in an enamel to reach its glaze. After the application of the enamel, the piece is fired again, this time at a temperature close to 1000 °C, this last step will foster the shiny finish of the piece, so specific to Petatillo Pottery.