The Renaissance of Mata Ortiz

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Funds Needed for Completion: $ 100,000.0
Estimated Completion Date: 12/31/2009


The story of how a small village in northern Mexico rose from the brink of poverty and extinction to become a home of world-class art.

Located in the Chihuahuan Desert and surrounded by the Sierra Madre Mountains in Northern Mexico, Mata Ortiz is an unlikely place for an artistic renaissance. Yet the story of the pottery created in this remote village is the tale of creative inspiration, economic self-determination and the rebirth of an ancient art form that combines iconography and designs from ancient people with a variety of newer processes and styles.

As a teenager in Mata Ortiz in the 1960s, Juan Quezada would find pottery created by the Paquimé Indians while searching for firewood in the mountains that enveloped the small village. These pots (up to 800 years old) and their geometric patterns fascinated young Juan and he began to experiment with local clay, pigments and firing techniques. Without any sort of training, Quezada relied on a painstaking trial-and-error method. Quezada’s pots and all Mata Ortiz pottery were and continue to be completely hand-made and fired without the use of a kiln.

After several years, Quezada had mastered the craft and local traders purchased enough of his pots to encourage Quezada to pursue pottery full time. Later, he taught family members and neighbors the art form. From these humble beginnings, the word spread about the amazing art coming out of a small village in the Chihuahua Desert.

In 1976, anthropologist Spencer MacCallum found three of Quezada’s pots in a second-hand store in Deming, New Mexico. The store’s owner told McCallum that some poor people had traded them for some clothing. Fascinated by Quezada’s skill and unique talent, MacCallum decided to track down the artist. Carrying pictures of the pots and his sense of adventure, MacCallum, on the advice of the store owner, headed down to Mexico. He finally located Quezada in Mata Ortiz and convinced him that McCallum could sell his wares in the United States. What began as a hobby for Quezada has turned into a phenomenon that is recognized worldwide.

Today, ceramic pottery - or ollas in Spanish - from Mata Ortiz can sell in galleries for up to $10,000. One of Quezada’s pots resides in the Vatican and, in 1999, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo honored him with the Premio Nacional de los Artes, the country’s most prestigious award for a living Mexican artist. In a village of a few thousand, Mata Ortiz now boasts several hundred potters and numerous diverse styles. Young children are taught the process by their parents to continue this still-new tradition. Prior to Quezada, Mata Ortiz residents suffered many economic hardships, with most living in poverty. With their newfound success derived from clay, pigments, hard work and artistic inspiration, more inhabitants of Mata Ortiz are now able to provide their families with medical care, an education and a future.

The pottery itself is stunning. Made from locally dug clay and pigments, many incorporate long flowing lines (some made with a brush of a single human hair) with geometric patterns of rich blacks, reds and oranges. Others feature animals or ancient symbols scratched into the surface of the pot. Still others burnish their pots to a spectacular mirror black finish. These thin-walled pieces can be incredibly balanced and light. The top artists continue to evolve their personal style and find new ways to express themselves creatively.

Artist Diego Valles was born in the even smaller Santa Rosa, a few miles down a dusty, unpaved road from Mata Ortiz. Extraordinarily smart and creative, Valles earned an engineering scholarship and appeared to be on track for an office job. In an unusual twist, he decided to return to the village to work as an artist. His work is among the most inventive in the village. With a wife and new baby, his struggle to become an established potter will be profiled.

Second-generation potter Manuel Rodriguez's ingenious designs are reminiscent of MC Escher and continue to fascinate both artists and collectors. He frequently depicts fish, birds and lizards, in addition to whimsical human and animal effigy pots. Manuel's inventiveness mirrors the spirit and freedom of the soaring eagles he admires.

This documentary will tell the story of the renaissance of Mata Ortiz, from Juan Quezada’s painstaking recreation of ancient Paquimé pottery to multi-generational families of artists to the aesthetic evolution of distinct pottery styles.



Project's Financial Needs

Director of Photography, Composer, Sound Mixer, Graphic Designer, Translator, Transcripts, Lodging, Gas, Super 8 & 16mm film processing and transfer

Current stage of production


Estimated Completion Date



Armed with degrees in film and economics from the University of Michigan, Petersen began his career on the feature filmZebrahead. Along with working in John (Home Alone, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) Hughes’ office, his résumé includes work on “Antiques Roadshow,” “Rescue 911,” “Unsolved Mysteries,” Fox News, BBC, VH1, the Food Network, MGM Home Entertainment and several feature films and commercials.

Petersen produced and directed the award-winning, feature-length documentary Out Of The Loop, which explored Chicago’s underground music scene and featured such Windy City notables as Veruca Salt, the Jesus Lizard, and Steve Albini. This movie enjoyed a 15-city tour of colleges and universities and played at several festivals around the United States and Europe. Out Of The Loop was broadcast on PBS.

He delved deep into the cutthroat world of tournament Scrabble® with his award-winning 2003 documentary, Scrabylon,which he produced, directed and edited. Media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, TimeOut New York and the syndicated entertainment news program “Extra!” have all featured stories on Scrabylon. After numerous festivals and screenings around the United States, this acclaimed doc was featured on PBS and is now available on DVD.

He currently edits projects for the Recording Academy and Latin Recording Academy, who present the annual Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards, respectively. He lives in Southern California.

Production Personnel

Pete Biagi - Director of Photography

Award-winning cinematographer Pete Biagi’s body of work includes more than 40 short and 17 feature-length films, in addition to several national television commercials. Biagi is a 1989 graduate of Columbia College-Chicago with a B.A. in film/video. He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, studying mechanical engineering before deciding on a career in filmmaking.

Recently, Biagi had the good fortune to operate camera on the Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor feature A Prairie Home Companion and shoot Jeff Garlin’s Someone To Eat Cheese With for producers Steve Pink and Harold Ramis. In his first stint with Altman in 2001, Biagi operated camera on The Company, an acclaimed look at the Joffrey Ballet. He lensed the much-publicized Project Greenlight film Stolen Summer for director Pete Jones and producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore, as well as Jones’ HD follow-up, Outing Riley.

A veteran of many Hollywood features, Biagi's résumé includes work onPayBack, Return To Me, White Boys, and HellCab as well as the award-winning indie feature Normal Life and the television series “Cupid.”

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