Polychrome bowl with sgraffito Night of the Dead design made by Hector Javier Martinez of Mata Ortiz and Casas Grandes
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Hector Javier Martinez, Mata Ortiz and Casas Grandes, Polychrome bowl with sgraffito Night of the Dead design
Hector Javier Martinez
Mata Ortiz and Casas Grandes
$ 1500
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Polychrome bowl with sgraffito Night of the Dead design
2 1/2 in H by 11 in Dia
Condition: Excellent
Signature: H. Javier Martinez Mendez Gabriela Perez de Martinez
Date Created: 2019
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Hector Javier
Martinez

Mata Ortiz and
Casas Grandes
Hector Javier Martinez taking a break for a second to look at the camera
Day of the Dead and Mexico City views design incised into a large black olla
 

Born in 1984, Hector Javier Martinez sprang onto the Mata Ortiz pottery scene about ten years ago (2008) with his distinctive style of black and tan pots incised with Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead motifs. Those designs resulted from a comment made to him by Steve Rose (a well-known American pottery dealer). Employed as an auto mechanic and gardener just to make ends meet while he figured out the pottery making business, Javier had asked what Steve thought he needed to do in order to make pottery his permanent vocation. Steve replied, "Time for something different." A few years later Javier won 1st Place in the 2013 Concurso Ceramica Juan Mata Ortiz for one of his Day of the Dead pots. Then in 2014 he won the Presidencial Award at the Premio Nacional de la Ceramica in Tlaquepaque, Mexico, for a large olla incised with Mexico City views and his Night of the Dead theme (the pot pictured above). Since then we have seen his pots with Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead motifs on them with backgrounds from Paris, Santa Fe, Mata Ortiz and New York City.

Javier told us he first learned to make pottery from his mother, but her style was very different from what he found in Mata Ortiz. He had to learn all over again, using local materials and different processes and tools. In the beginning his subjects were religious (the Virgin of Guadalupe, priest images, etc.) and the designs were all painted on his pots. It was 10 years ago that he and Gabriela produced their first black and white sgraffito Day of the Dead/Night of the Dead pots together. The style took off immediately and they haven't looked back since, although they have branched out a bit and now produce bowls and plates, too.

Today, Javier is producing all kinds and sizes of pots with his signature Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead motifs. However, with his success has come competition and knockoffs. That said, the detail of his work sets him well apart and working with Gabriela has introduced some new elements into their Dia de los Muertos collection of designs.

Javier and Gabriela have four sons, ages 4 to 13 (and Javier says he wants another). He says his inspiration comes from his culture and music. Gabriela concurred with that saying that when he's working on a large pot, he might as well be living as a character on the pot.

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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-1970's, 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

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Day of the Dead

Hector Javier Martinez made this sgraffito Night of the Dead design

Hector Javier Martinez
Mata Ortiz
Sgraffito Night of the Dead motif on a red and white bowl

Hector Javier Martinez
Mata Ortiz
Sgraffito Night of the Dead design on a black and white jar

Hector Javier Martinez
Mata Ortiz

The Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos, is a holiday celebrated in Mexico where ancient Aztec rituals going back more than 2,500 years are merged with Catholic beliefs brought by the Spaniards in the 1500's. The holiday is about honoring the ancestors with food, drink, parties and other activities designed to include the ancestors' spirits in today's daily life. Families also set up ofrendas (private altars) to honor their ancestors.

Death is considered an integral part of the continuum of life and, as such, is not to be feared. Celebrations occur November 1 (All Saints Day) when adult spirits come to visit, and November 2 (All Souls Day) when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves of their loved ones. This is a very colorful holiday with marigolds, cardboard skeletons, sugar skulls, incense and tissue paper decorations in riotous colors everywhere.

Depictions of Day of the Dead activities is a motif explored by several renowned potters from the village of Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua, Northern Mexico. Premier among them is Hector Javier Martinez who originated the style in 2008 after searching for "something different" to help him secure pottery making as a vocation. He has since won several major awards for his Day of the Dead (and Night of the Dead) pottery, the very prestigious Presidencial Award from the Mexico National Ceramics Concourso in Tlaquepaque among them. Alfredo Rodriguez, Diana Loya, Martin Corona, Adrian Corona and Emiliano Rodriguez are some of the other Mata Ortiz artists using Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead motifs as inspiration for their own creations.

Sgraffito Day of the Dead motif on a black and white jar

Alfredo Rodriguez
Mata Ortiz
Black and white jar etched in the sgraffito technique with a Night of the Dead motif

Adrian Corona
Mata Ortiz
Sgraffito Day of the Dead design on a black and white jar

Emiliano Rodriguez
Mata Ortiz
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