Out There: Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a pot

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1998

Out There: Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a pot

In Maya Ortiz, achieving the good life requires a guy like Rick, bachelor and entrepreneur
By Tim Cahill

It was somewhere near three in the morning when Chillero's screams began echoing off the canyon walls. "Oyyyyy-yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy!" Make that first oyyyyy enormously loud. Be sure it's filled with pain and terror and fear. "Oyyyyy-yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy!" Chillero howled again. "Where are you?" he screamed in Spanish. From my position on the ground, I could see his shadow slipping against the starry night sky. Chillero was gliding over the ice, lurching, but never actually falling. He was a graceful man, drunk or sober.

He'd been sleeping in the front seat of my truck, and now, at three in the morning, he was skating around in his slick-soled cowboy boots, looking for his friends. He couldn't see us lying at the base of the canyon wall. We were all trying to sleep, bundled together in a cocoon of blankets and sleeping bags. The ice below was slowly melting under the heat of our bodies.

"Hace demasiado frìo!" he screamed. It's too cold.

And then it apparently occurred to him that, in this dark night, he was surrounded by the souls and shadows of the Indian people who had populated this river canyon nearly a thousand years ago. He felt their spirits, and he sensed animosity, or so it seemed.

"Indios," he screamed in fear and defiance, "listen to me, indios, I am not afraid of you!" Chillero had Indian blood. He was proud of it. He just didn't trust people who'd been dead for a thousand years.

We were all awake now, groggy and shivering, all of us watching Chillero rebuild the fire and wishing he'd shut up. There were seven of us on this archaeological outing to the mountains of northern Mexico. The campsite was no doubt beautiful in summer, but it was the dead of winter, at 6,000 feet, and the waterfall that poured over the canyon wall was frozen solid.

We were out camping on this crystalline winter evening so I could learn about my brother's business dealings in Mexico. Presently, these included the semi-ingenious Mormon defense against planned marriage.

Chillero crouched by the fire and systematically cursed us all. "Hžblenme!" he screamed. Talk to me! He thought we'd abandoned him to the night and the souls of the dead.

I decided to put Chillero out of his misery and fixed our position for him by finally speaking. "Podrìamos matarlo," I muttered to my brother. We could kill him.

This act of kindness was rewarded with a similar gesture on Chillero's part. We'd all been asleep for some hours after assiduously drinking most of the evening, and Chillero brought me just what I needed: a gallon of water in one of those clear, unlabeled plastic jars. I took a big, thirsty gulp. It never occurred to me that in Mexico, tequila is sold in such unmarked jars. This was an unpleasant surprise, and a real tough way to wake up.

My brother glanced over at me and pulled the sleeping bag over his head. Sure, I was sick, but in a few hours, he was going to have to deal with the whole planned marriage thing again.

My brother, Rick, is a trader in pots — ceramics — which he buys in Mexico and sells to upscale galleries in the United States. (Yes, yes, he's heard every conceivable variation of the pot dealer joke.) Rick buys all his fine-art pots from one dusty village of about 3,000 people. The place is called Mata Ortiz, officially Juan Mata Ortiz. If my Spanish serves me well, I believe the place would be called Juan "Killer" Ortiz in English.

My brother and I drove down to Mata Ortiz from Tucson, discussing the derivation of the name with a man named Alain Isabelle, another Arizona trader along for the ride.

The town's namesake, Juan Ortiz, earned the nickname Mata, or Killer, during the Apache wars of a hundred years ago. He was second in command of Mexican troops when Chief Victorio was defeated in 1880, apparently participated in a massacre of unarmed Apaches a year later, and was captured by Chief Juh the next year. The Apaches tortured and eventually killed the man known as Killer. So the town's name celebrates either Ortiz the killer or Ortiz the killed.

"We should stop at that little place for sotol," Rick said.

This is a tequila-like drink that is sometimes kept in a five-gallon glass jar so you can see the dead rattlesnake floating near the bottom.

"They put the snake in the jar alive," my brother said.

"But it's clearly dead," Alain pointed out.

"Of course it's dead," Rick said. "It's a rattlesnake. It can't breathe underwater."

"So you're telling me that Mexicans like to see snakes drown."

"I'm not telling you any such thing. They say the snake pumps out venom when it dies and that the venom is good for your health."

"I don't believe that."

"What, you think Macario lies about sotol?"

"You probably just didn't understand him, is all."

And so on. I said, "No more bickering."

There was a silence of several seconds. "The Mexicans say we argue a lot," my brother said.

"Yeah," Alain said. "They say we're like an old married couple and that we ought to get married because we fight so much."

"Don't tell him about that."

"What, about the woman they want you to marry?"

"Don't tell him about that, either."

"They want Rick to marry one of the village women," Alain said, to my brother's intense annoyance.

"Any particular one?" I asked.

"I'm not going to get married," Rick said. He's successfully avoided this entanglement for more than 40 years.

"We'll see," Alain said. "It's hard to say no to Macario and Nena."

And then we were bouncing down a cruel joke of a dirt road, running past apple and peach orchards, moving up into the Sierra Madre Occidental. The road dove into the Palanganas River and rose onto a high, windswept plain. There were cows and cowboys on the land. The snowcapped Sierra rose several thousand feet above, and there, below us, on the banks of the river, was a dusty town of one-story adobe buildings.

It was Mata Ortiz, a village that today is to ceramists what Paris in the 1920s was to writers.

The story's now legend: in 1976, Spencer MacCallum, an anthropologist, found three extraordinary handmade pots in a Deming, New Mexico, junk shop called Bob's Swap Shop. The owner said that "some poor people" had traded the pots for clothes. "To me," MacCallum wrote in Kiva: The Journal of Southwestern Anthropology and History, "they showed such integrity of form and design" that "I determined to [find] the unknown potter."

The trail took him to Mata Ortiz, a dusty railroad town on the high plains of Chihuahua. MacCallum's questions led to Juan Quezada, a man who had dropped out of school in the third grade and who is today regarded in certain academic circles as a genius.

As a teenager, Juan cut firewood for sale in the village. The mountain slopes where he worked were littered with lustrous shards of ancient polychrome pottery. The Indian culture that created the pottery was known as Casas Grandes, and it flourished near Mata Ortiz around A.D. 1200. Juan, an artist by temperament, felt driven by some internal obsession to re-create these pots. The raw materials (clay, minerals for paints) had to be locally available, and — a major consideration for an impoverished artist — they would be free for the taking.

Juan had never seen anyone make a pot, never read any books on the subject, but he re-created the ancient techniques through a process of trial and error that took 15 years. He eventually quit his railroad job and taught his family the techniques he'd discovered. Today, a Juan Quezada pot sells for thousands of dollars. He teaches pottery classes in both Mexico and the States, and his work is displayed in museums around the world.

In the early 1980s, other families in the village, noting the Quezadas' success, began making pots. Most learned the techniques of the craft from Juan.

The first full-length book written about the Mata Ortiz phenomenon was The Story of Casas Grandes Pottery. The author is Rick Cahill, my brother, and he does a thorough job explaining the mechanics of the technique: how the clay is sifted; how the pots are formed by hand, without use of a potter's wheel; how these intricate works are painted with a brush made of human hair generally plucked from a child's head; how the pots are fired one at a time, under a fire of dried cow chips. (Shameless plug: The book is on sale at various galleries that sell Mata Ortiz pots, as well as in tourist shops throughout the Southwest. It's also available for $17.95 from Western Imports, Box 12591, Tucson, AZ 85732.)

Rick's book brought many buyers to Mata Ortiz and, I believe, helped prices rise to current levels. The village is beginning to prosper. Today there are more than 300 potters making a living in Mata Ortiz.

In Mata Ortiz, my brother generally stays with Macario and Nena Ortiz, who call him primo, cousin. Macario is one of the world-class potters in the village, a big, hearty man who stands well over six feet tall. He has built the only two-story house in town and has painted it in colors I imagine a decorator would call "teal" and "blush." Both Macario and Nena make intricately designed pots, though the interior of their home looks more like that of ranchers than of internationally known artists.

The kitchen cabinets are built-in, there is a gas stove, and there's a woodstove for warmth and tortillas. A few nice works of art adorn the walls, but the major decorations are framed photos of various family members, a framed print of the Last Supper, and a bas-relief wooden sculpture of a nude young woman standing on her tiptoes and reaching up, as if to pick an apple. The woman has the type of body only seen on chrome mud flaps.

We sat at the dining room table, eating chicken mole, with a family friend named Chillero. When he was a kid, Chillero sold chiles on the street corners of Mata Ortiz, hence the name. These days, Chillero works for Macario, growing chiles and wrangling cows on one of Macario's properties. I had the impression that Macario employed any number of neighbors and friends and that he essentially supported several less fortunate families.

"Did you know your brother is getting married?" Macario asked me.

"Let's talk about business," Rick said.

"Your brother should have children," Macario said.

"Children are a blessing," Chillero pointed out.

"I'm only here two weeks out of the month," Rick countered. "How can I have children?"

"The village will help," Nena said.

"Somebody wrote a book about that," I noted.

"There is a woman in Tucson who I'm serious about," Rick said.

Macario shrugged off the comment. "First, of course, you need to buy a house."

"Macario, I don't have money for a house, or for a wife, or for children."

Macario knew how to fix that. Rick should just buy a lot of Macario Ortiz pots, sell them in the United States, bring the money back, and buy a house that — it just so happened — Macario owned and wanted to sell. A bottle of tequila was brought out, opened, and the cap thrown in the trash, as is the custom.

Sometime later we were knocking on the door of an adobe house with apple and peach trees in the yard. The place had electricity, running water, a wood-fired water heater, and a genuine sit-down toilet. Macario's married son lived there. Macario wanted to build him a new house. But he needed to sell the old one first.

A price was mentioned. It was too much. Rick didn't have the money. That was all right with Macario. Rick could write a check for the whole amount, and then, when the check was good, Macario would cash it.

"So," Rick told me later, "I wrote him the check so we could finally stop talking about it. I can always change my mind later."

"I think you just bought a house," I said.

"Macario — you've got to know Macario — thinks I'll be happy here. And I am happy here. In his mind, he does this stuff for my own good. He's my best friend."

As far as I could see, the deal was supposed to go like this: My brother gives Macario a lot of money for his pots, which Rick sells for a profit, that profit to be spent on a house Macario owns. As a home owner, Rick would be in a position to marry someone and support her family — a family, I guessed, presently being supported by Macario Ortiz.

Then, of course, if my brother were to marry in Mata Ortiz, he would have to buy some cows to slaughter for the wedding celebration. Macario, as it happens, has a nice herd of cattle.

"But," Rick told me, "I'm not getting married."

In honor of my visit, we drove my truck up into the Sierra Madre, to a place where the Piedras Verdes River intersects with the Arroyo Casa Blanca. The place looked a little like the canyon lands of Utah. Not that we were able to see it that first night.

It took most of an afternoon to gather up all the people who wanted to come, and we didn't get started on the four-hour drive through the mountains until after dark, which is how we came to camp on a sheet of ice beneath a frozen waterfall.

Then Chillero stumbled out of the truck about three in the morning, screaming and cursing. When everyone was thoroughly awake, he began playing his guitar and singing. For hours.

"Debemos matarlo," I said. We must kill him.

Just after dawn, we walked up the hill to a cave set high in the canyon wall. Cueva de la Olla, the Cave of the Pot, was a Casas Grandes habitation site dating from about A.D. 1000. Set in the center of the cave was a large granary, perhaps 12 feet high, shaped rather like a child's top or an upside-down pot. There was a series of low, tumbledown walls, with the distinctive T-shaped doors that the prehistoric culture favored.

I sat near the granary and looked out across the valley of the Piedras Verdes, thinking. During my stay in Mata Ortiz, I had watched Macario work. He sometimes put in 16-hour days, and several of his new pots echoed the shape of the granary in the Cave of the Pot.

Rick and Macario were sitting beside me.

"The thing is," Rick told Macario, "my brother and I were raised Mormon."

It took a moment, but then I saw where this was heading.

"The Mormon religion," I said, nodding in an imbecilic manner.

"So," Rick said, "I couldn't really get married in the Catholic Church."

"But you don't go to the temple," Macario said.

"I'm an agnostic Mormon."

"Jack Mormon," I said.

"That's right," Rick said. "Jack Mormon."

"Well, then, no, you couldn't be married in the Catholic Church."

Macario seemed to dismiss the entire idea. He turned to study the granary. I imagined that he was planning a new variation on the shape. Some fine new pot. A museum-quality piece of work.

"But isn't it true," my brother's best friend asked him finally, "that Mormons can have several wives?"

I was, it occurred to me, watching a truly great artist at work.

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