Virgil Ortiz

Polychrome jar with corn plant and geometric design

Virgil Ortiz was born into the Oak Clan of Cochiti Pueblo in May 1969. His parents were Seferina and Guadalupe Ortiz, his grandmother was Laurencita Herrera. Both Seferina and Laurencita were well-known potters and Virgil grew up watching them work with clay. During those years, Virgil's mother also taught him and all six of his siblings how to find and process the clay and how to find and prepare the native plants used in the making and decorating of Cochiti Pueblo pottery. She taught them how to work the clay, create different shapes and forms, paint designs and ground fire their pieces when they were done.

Virgil became interested at an early age, making his first storyteller when he was only 6. He went from that to Santa Fe Indian Market where his first entry to the jury earned him a 1st Place ribbon (Student, 18 years or younger) in 1983 when he was 14. He earned ribbons almost every year until he stopped showing at Santa Fe Indian Market in 2001. He's been back since, earning the 1st Place ribbon for figures at the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market.

Virgil likes to make everything from traditional jars to tattooed circus, science fiction and historical figures. The forms he draws on range from circus performers to opera divas to religious figures to the Conquistadors. The designs he likes to paint are also a mix of traditional and non-traditional, integrating Pueblo history and culture with apocalyptic themes, science fiction and stories of his own. In 2017, Virgil provided 31 figures for a solo exhibit at the Denver Art Museum called "Revolt 1680/2180: Virgil Ortiz." It was the high point of his story line relating to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the first true American Revolution. In 1680, after decades of religious persecution and physical abuse the Pueblo people rose up and threw the Spanish out of New Mexico.

Virgil's artistic interests have also branched well beyond the world of pottery into designing textiles, fashions and jewelry, fashion photography and video production. Virgil also lately created a series of figures that became 3D models for an animated Disney feature film.

"Clay is the core of my creations," he says. "My work centers on preserving traditional Cochiti culture and art forms. It's important to recognize that Pueblo communities are very much alive and have a level of vitality that speaks to generations of strength, persistence, brilliance and thriving energy."

100 West San Francisco Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
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Cochiti Pueblo

The view west from Cochiti Lake
View west across Cochiti Pueblo

Cochiti Pueblo lies fifteen miles south of Santa Fe along the west bank of the Rio Grande. What is now Bandelier National Monument is the pueblo's most recent ancestral home. They may have relocated to the Bandelier area from the Four Corners region around 1300.

Cochiti legend says that Clay Old Woman and Clay Old Man came to visit the Cochitis. While all the people watched, Clay Old Woman shaped a pot. Clay Old Man danced too close and kicked the pot. He rolled the clay from the broken pot into a ball, gave a piece to all the women in the village and told them never to forget to make pottery.

Ancestral home of the Cochiti people
At Bandelier National Monument

In protohistoric times, human effigy pots, animals, duck canteens and bird shaped pitchers with beaks as spouts were common productions of the Cochiti potters. Many of these were condemned as idols and destroyed by the Spaniards. That problem left when the Spanish left in 1820 but the fantastic array of figurines created by Cochiti potters was essentially dormant until the railroad arrived. Then Cochiti potters were among the first to enter the tourist market and they produced many whimsical figures into the early 1900's. Then production followed the market into more conventional shapes.

Legend has it that a Ringling Brothers Circus train broke down near Cochiti Pueblo in the 1920's. The tribe's contact with the ringmaster, trapeze artists, opera singers, sideshow "freaks" and exotic animals paved the way for a variety of new figural subjects. An astute observer will find angels, nativities, cowboys, tourist caricatures, snakes, dinosaurs, turtles, goats, two-headed opera singers, clowns, tattooed strongmen, Moorish nuns and even mermaids in the Cochiti pottery pantheon, most produced only since the early 1960's and based on characters described in Cochiti's oral history.

A few modern potters make traditional styled pots with black and red flowers, animals, clouds, lightning and geometric designs but most Cochiti pottery artists now create figurines. Most notable is the storyteller, a grandfather or grandmother figure with "babies" perched on it. Helen Cordero is credited with creating the first storyteller in 1964 to honor her grandfather. The storyteller style was quickly picked up by other pueblos and each modified the form to match their local situation (ie: clay colors and tribal and religious traditions). In some pueblos, storytellers are also now made as drummers and as a large variety of animals.

Today, Cochiti potters face the challenge of acquiring the clay for the white slip. Construction of Cochiti Dam in the 1960's destroyed their primary source of their trademark white slip and gray clay. Now the white slip comes from one dwindling source at Santo Domingo, Cochiti Pueblo's neighbor to the south.

Most outsiders who visit Cochiti Pueblo these days do so on the way to or from either the recreation area on Cochiti Lake or Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Map showing the location of Cochiti Pueblo

For more info:
at Wikipedia
official website

100 West San Francisco Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
(505) 986-1234 - - All Rights Reserved