Leonel Lopez, Sr.

Mata Ortiz and
Casas Grandes
Sgraffito cathedral and Day of the Dead motif on a red-slipped beige jar
Jar by Leonel Lopez, Sr.
Sgraffito geometric design on a red and white jar
Jar by Leonel Lopez, Jr.

Leonel Lopez, Sr. is best known for his intricate sgraffito work. He usually begins with a white-body pot, then adds slips of different colors. He has also developed a slip of multi-colored dots and another that emulates brush strokes.

After settling on a design and firing a pot he picks up a dental pick and painstakingly cuts through the various surface layers until he reaches the white body of the pot. He scrapes away at the surface until the design stands out in a bold and colorful relief against the background of the white clay base.

Leonel is known for sculpting fish, wildlife, birds and incredibly detailed forest and desert landscapes. He also incises geometric designs, nativity scenes and Day of the Dead/Night of the Dead motifs on his pots.

Prior to the drought that hit Mata Ortiz in 1992, Leonel had worked his fields and tended his stock while his wife Elena (one of Manuel Rodriguez' sisters) made pottery figures. In the depth of the drought, Leonel was sanding and polishing pots for his wife as there wasn't much else to do. Then he started filling in her designs, then began making his own pots. After the first year he graduated to buying unfired blank pots from others, painting them and firing them. Then in 1995 he started to use the sgraffito method of decorating his pots. His brother-in-law Oscar Rodriguez was his inspiration to go into sgraffito but Leonel took it to a whole new level.

As much as Leonel is a full-time artist now he also finds time to tend his cattle and help with the roundups and the branding.

Leonel's sons Leonel Jr. and Abel are also potters. Leonel Jr. generally makes slipped spherical pots and decorates them with sgraffito geometric designs. He also sometimes fuses animal shapes into his geometric designs. Abel is also primarily a sgraffito artist, decorating some of his pots with ominous red cathedrals and Day of the Dead motifs while others he decorates with polychrome birds-in-the-bushes designs.

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


Mata Ortiz and Casas Grandes

Paquime macaw pens
The macaw pens at Paquimé

Casas Grandes is both a municipality and an archaeological district in northern Chihuahua State, Mexico. The archaeological district includes the pre-historic ruins of Paquimé, a city that began to build around 1130 AD and was abandoned about 1450 AD. Archaeologists are uncertain as to whether Paquimé was settled by migrants from the Mogollon/Mimbres settlements to the north or by Anasazi elite from the Four Corners region in the United States or by others. Over the years Paquimé was built into a massive complex with structures up to six and seven stories high with multiple Great Houses in the surrounding countryside. Today, the site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mata Ortiz is a small settlement inside the bounds of the Casas Grandes municipality very near the site of Paquimé. The fortunes of the town have gone up and down over the years with a real economic slump happening after the local railroad repair yard was relocated to Nuevo Casas Grandes in the early 1960's. The town was in steady decline until Juan Quezada, a poor farmer who gathered firewood in the area of the archaeological site, was inspired by fragments of ancient Paquimé pottery and even older fragments of Mimbres forms with bold black-on-white designs littering the ground to learn more.

Paquime polychrome effigy pot
Ramos Polychrome effigy pot from Paquimé

Quezada was successful in his quest to learn to recreate the ancient process using slightly more modern techniques (although no one in the present tradition uses a potter's wheel). He learned to use sand and other coarse materials for temper. He discovered that dried cow dung made an excellent and inexpensive firing fuel. Instead of using gourds for smoothing he substituted broken hacksaw blades. Instead of using yucca fiber brushes for painting he learned to make brushes with human hair. He persevered in his efforts and by 1971 had produced a kind of polychrome pottery. Since then, most pottery-making in the area has used innovations in the design and decoration of the pots but the materials and the basic crafting of the process have remained the same.

By the mid-1970s, Quezada had attracted a significant number of traders and his work was becoming a commercial success. That is when he began teaching his techniques to his immediate family. They in turn taught other family members, friends and the younger generations. Both women and men were included from the beginning.

Originally called Casas Grandes pottery in the early years of its production, the potters of this tiny village have made such an impact on the pottery communities, including many awards and special recognition from the Presidents of Mexico, that Mata Ortiz pottery is now becoming known around the world.

Today, pottery production has changed the village in many ways as there is now electricity, plumbing, vehicles and more for the residents. Virtually everyone in the small town (2010 population: 1,182) makes their living by working in some part of the pottery-making process, from potters to clay-gatherers to firewood collectors to traders.

Mata Ortiz pottery incorporates elements of contemporary and prehistoric design and decoration, and each potter or pottery family produces their own distinctive, individualized ware. Young potters from surrounding areas have been attracted to the Mata Ortiz revival and new potting families have developed while the art movement continues to expand. Without the restraints of traditional religious practices or gender constraints, a vibrant flow of new ideas has enabled the pottery of Mata Ortiz to avoid the derivative repetition common to virtually all folk art movements. This blend of economic need, gender equality, cultural expression and artistic freedom has produced a unique artistic movement in today's community.

Mata Ortiz location map

Upper photo is in the public domain
Lower photo is courtesy of David Monniaux, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

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