This 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 Beloiter Charles C. Di Peso’42.
Archaeological sherds found throughout the region intrigued and inspired Juan Quezada, the most famous Mata Ortiz potter. He began recreating the designs on pots made with local clays and pigments. Encouraged and supported by an anthropologist who “discovered” his work, Quezada was making a living by the late 1970s by selling his pottery.
Last winter, serendipity and the generosity of an alumnus came together, making it possible for Logan Museum staff to travel to Mata Ortiz to collect some of this remarkable pottery, which complements a collection of prehistoric pieces already held in our collection.
Quezada shared his skills with members of his extended family and neighbors. Today, more than 400 individuals in a village of barely more than 1,100 people make pottery for a living. Mata Ortiz pottery is entirely handmade, 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.
Samantha “Sammi” Kinard’16, an anthropology major and museum studies minor, joined me in a small group led by Henry Moy’78, director of the Museum of the Red River in Idabel, Okla., and former director of Beloit’s museums. Sammi was able to participate thanks to a museum studies program acquisition fund, established in 2013 by Richard Dexter’70, which gives students opportunities to acquire objects for the Logan Museum of Anthropology and the Wright Museum of Art.
The acquisition process works like this: Students enrolled in the Introduction to Museum Studies course start with a list of suggestions from museum staff, then submit their own proposals for acquisitions to the museums. Sammi’s proposal to acquire a piece of pottery from Mata Ortiz was selected by the Logan. In my Introduction to Collections Management class the following semester, she took the next step when she purchased a polychrome Mata Ortiz jar for the Logan from a gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. I had asked Henry Moy for suggestions of reputable vendors of Mata Ortiz pottery, knowing that the Museum of the Red River was building a substantial collection.
A year later, when Henry was planning another trip to Mata Ortiz, he invited us to join the group. Sammi quickly made plans to get her first passport, and we flew to Tucson last February, where we met Henry’s group and then made the long drive to Mata Ortiz the following day.
Once there, we began three days of adrenaline-fueled collecting. We made purchases directly from artists in their homes, in the plaza of the guest house where our group stayed, and at galleries in the villages of Mata Ortiz and Nuevo Casas Grandes. We meticulously recorded our purchases and took numerous photographs of the artists and their pottery. We also visited the archaeological site of Paquimé and spent an incredible afternoon with Juan Quezada on his property. In total, our Beloit duo purchased more than 120 pots, many of which were made available for sale in the Museums Gift Shop.
Selected pieces, including all of those shown on these pages, were added to the Logan’s permanent collection. These ceramics provide a lens for faculty and students to examine the intersections of craft production, cultural and gender identity, tourism, cultural appropriation, economic pressures, and the U.S. art market and its impact on innovation.
The trip to Mata Ortiz, the acquisitions fund that spurred it, and the ongoing potential of the collection itself are vivid examples of the opportunities Beloit students have to put what they learn into practice.
Nicolette B. Meister is the curator of collections for the Logan Museum of Anthropology and adjunct assistant museum studies professor.
What is Active Collecting?
“Museums often receive gifts of family heirlooms and collector’s treasures. When these objects are offered, museums must determine whether to accept them based on the museum’s mission, scope of collections, and gaps in the collection. In contrast, active collecting is more intentional. It entails an explicit selection, actively pursued through first-hand collecting, purchase, or donor cultivation. Rick Dexter’70 created an opportunity for students to actively collect on behalf of the Beloit College museums in 2013 with a generous gift. According to Rick, ‘One thing missing from the museum studies program was the hands-on experience of acquiring objects.’”—From Collecting Today: Mata Ortiz Ceramics, Logan Museum of Anthropology
More pieces from the collection