The generosity of an alumnus and serendipity collided, making possible a recent museum collecting trip to a small village in Chihuahua, Mexico called Mata Ortiz. Nicolette Meister, Curator of Collections, and Samantha (Sammi) Kinard’16, an anthropology major and museum studies minor, traveled to Mata Ortiz two weeks ago with a small group led by Henry Moy’78, director of the Museum of the Red River in Idabel, Oklahoma.
Mata Ortiz is located about 100 miles south of the US-Mexico border and is the birthplace of a contemporary pottery tradition that has gained international acclaim. The modern tradition has roots in prehistoric archaeological ceramics from the site of Paquimé, which is located nearby and was excavated in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Charles C. Di Peso’42. Enter Juan Quezada. As a boy, Juan became fascinated by the prehistoric shards he found throughout the desert and spent the next sixteen years experimenting with local clays and pigments and firing methods. Encouraged and supported by an anthropologist who “discovered” his work, by the mid-1970s Juan was supporting his family by selling his pottery. Juan is considered the self-taught originator of the Mata Ortiz tradition, but he shared his skills with members of his extended family and neighbors. Today, over 400 individuals in a village of just over 1,100 people make pottery for a living. Mata Ortiz pottery is entirely hand-made, without a wheel, and is hand painted in fine-line geometric and curvilinear patterns. Families work together to build, fire,and paint pots, and the artistic movement now encompasses many styles and forms distinctive to particular families.
The opportunity to collect pottery from Mata Ortiz resulted from the establishment of a Museum Studies Program acquisition fund by Richard Dexter’70 in 2013. The fund was established to provide students opportunities to acquire objects for the Logan Museum of Anthropology and Wright Museum of Art. Working with a list of suggestions from museum staff, students in Bill Green’s Introduction to Museum Studies course submitted proposals for acquisitions to the Logan and Wright Museums. Samatha Kinard’s proposal to acquire a piece of pottery from Mata Ortiz was the successful Logan proposal. She completed the next step the following semester in Nicolette Meister’s Introduction to Collections Management class and purchased a polychrome Mata Ortiz jar by Socorro Sandoval from a gallery in Santa Fe, NM. Nicolette had asked Henry for suggestions regarding reputable vendors of Mata Ortiz pottery knowing that the Museum of the Red River was building a substantial collection.
A year later, Henry was planning another trip to Mata Ortiz and invited Nicolette and Sammi to join the group. Sammi quickly made plans to get her first passport. On February 5 they flew to Tucson, AZ where they met Henry’s group. They made the long drive to Mata Ortiz the following day. Thus began three days of adrenaline-fueled collecting. Purchases were made directly from artists in their homes, in the plaza of the guest house where the group stayed, and at galleries in Mata Ortiz and Nuevo Gasas Grandes. Nicolette and Sammi meticulously recorded their purchases and took numerous photographs of the artists and their pottery. They also visited the archaeological site of Paquimé and spent an incredible afternoon with Juan Quezada on his property. In total, the Beloit duo purchased over 120 pots, many of which will be available for sale in the Museums’ gift store and selected pieces are being added to the Logan’s permanent collection.
The trip to Mata Ortiz vividly encapsulates opportunities extended to Beloit students that “put the liberal arts into practice.” This trip was made possible through the generous support of the Anthropology Department and Richard Dexter.
Submitted by Nicolette Meister, 2/20/15.