It was at the 2002 Santa Fe Indian Market, that I and my friend and former I.A.I.A. (Institute Of American Indian and Alaskan Native Art and Culture) classmate planned to converge. Once again we found ourselves in the Land of Enchantment, the place of our alma mater for a crazed week of art and old friends. That year’s Indian Market was all we had hoped for, a week filled with old friends, new friends, music, art shows, film, and fashion.
One night, a fellow IAIA alumnus invited us to a fashion show at The Paramount, a night club in Santa Fe. One of the Designers showing his fashions there was Mr. Virgil Ortiz. I was familiar with Ortiz’ clay figures; resplendent tattooed and pierced, grinning characters made in the traditional Cochiti pottery style of Virgil’s home. It was a memorable show, with Ortiz’ designs and stylings as a definite stand out. His clay figures seemed to come to life as hard edged, leather clad and body painted models strutting Virgil’s designs across the dance floor.
A few days later, my friend and I find ourselves in Frontier, an all night diner in Albuquerque looking to get some late night sustenance when we see none other than Virgil Ortiz there doing the same, so naturally we wanted to congratulate him and tell him how much we enjoyed his work. Virgil was very friendly and humble; we ended up visiting for some time. As we sat talking about art and fashion, Virgil revealed with a smile the exciting events of his day. Seems a woman from New York City came into his boutique, HEAT, in Santa Fe and bought out his entire collection and the punch line was the woman’s name was Donna Karan.
A lot has changed for Ortiz since that fated meeting with the fashion mogul in 2002. A new world opened up to the already internationally successful Cochiti potter and launched him and his work in to the global fashion industry. Still as humble as ever, I had a chance to catch up with the artist/designer and entrepreneur to learn about his incredible journey and the historic story he shares through his artistic vision.
After a highly successful collaboration with Donna Karan, during which Ortiz developed his now signature boldly patterned textiles based on Pueblo pottery motifs, Ortiz launched his own fashion line called VO Creations. His designs are, provocative and powerful, blending soft, feminine silhouettes with sharp edgy clean modern lines; thus creating highly sophisticated and sought after collections that include laser-cut leather jackets, swinging taffeta skirts, cashmere sweaters and silk scarves. His fashions are all based on the Cochiti ascetic. “All of my designs have a story to them that directly relates to Cochiti Pueblo,” says Ortiz.
Virgil was born at Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico in 1969, the youngest of six children. Cochiti Pueblo is about 25 miles south of Santa Fe on the Rio Grande River. His mother, Seferina Ortiz and grandmother Laurencita Herrera, were both renowned Pueblo potters and part of an ongoing matrilineal heritage. Ortiz grew up in a creative environment in which storytelling; collecting clay, gathering wild plants, and producing figurative pottery were part of his everyday life. “I was born with clay in my hands,” says Ortiz. “I didn’t even know it was art until I got older, it was just natural, I thought everyone made pottery.”
Cochiti is known for it’s figures and it’s pottery. The potters work mostly in the black on cream style and are known for making a wide variety of forms. Most Cochiti pottery center on nature inspired designs, but what really distinguish Cochiti from the other Rio Grande Pueblos is their figural forms.
During the 16th century, the Spanish clergy interrupted the tradition because they believed the figures were heathen images. Priests smashed all the clay figures they could find and tried to prevent the potters from making new ones. Despite the harassment, women of the Pueblos continued to make clay figures. In the late 1800’s, almost all the potters in the Rio Grande Pueblos made some human or animal clay figures.
Growing up in a potter family, Virgil soon came to understand the value of their creations as works of art. Every year the Ortiz family looks forward the Santa Fe Indian Market where they show and sell their artwork and enter their pieces to be judged in formal juried competition. Virgil won his first S.W.A.I.A. award at the age of 14. “I grew up participating in Indian Market, it was always an exciting time for my family,” says Ortiz.
Virgil learned how to do the traditional pottery and the sittingstory tellers. “I was taught what my grandmother and mother knew. In their time the storytellers were very popular because they were marketable,” explains Ortiz. “At the age of 15 I began branching out and doing standing figures, no one at that time were making standing figures, it was all the sitting storytellers,” Ortiz said.
A collector by the name of Bob Gallegos saw Virgil’s work and inquired as to how he came to make the standing figures. Virgil explained to the collector that one day he just made a one and liked it, and Gallegos was very excited to share with the young Ortiz his collection of 1800’s Cochiti pottery. Ortiz could not believe how similar the 1800 pottery was to his own work, as he had never seen these pieces before. “In the 1800’s the railroad was built through the southwest and that opened up all sorts of visitors to the Pueblos,” Ortiz said. Cochiti figurative pottery was also made as social commentary.
As it turns out, the potters of the day were making standing figures that represented many of the new visitors that traveled through. These figures included circus side show performers with tattoos, Siamese twins, businessman, dancing bears and other off-beat and what is referred to as “grotesque” images. These standing representational figures, which died out in the early 1900’s, were built to heights as tall as 3 feet. “My mom and grandmother’s figures were 15” at the most,” explained Virgil, “so we not only lost the standing figures in our tradition but we also lost our size.” Gallegos let Ortiz study his collection of all those original 1800’s pieces, which Virgil then adapted with his own style and teachings.
By 16, Virgil was a successful, working artist and he began to travel. “I would have a show, sell pottery and save,” says Ortiz. “With the money saved I would take a friend and we would travel to different cities; New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and I got to experience different cultures.” Virgil was drawn to the night club scene. There he saw many people with tattoos and piercings that reminded him of the 1800’s figures. “I was inspired to create images of what I saw, it gave me a freedom knowing that I was not an innovator or even going outside of tradition, I was in fact a Revivalist,” he said.
These days, Ortiz’ has become quite a mogul himself, expanding his artistic vision to include such diverse mediums as art, décor, fashion, video and film. Ortiz’s exquisite clay works have been exhibited worldwide from the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, Hergotenbosh Museum in The Netherlands to the Foundation Cartier’s Paris, France, to name a few.
Amongst all his endeavors Ortiz holds a very clear mission to keep traditional Cochiti pottery alive. “We are at an age when all the old Masters are dying. We are a small Pueblo with only a handful of families making pottery the traditional way and when they die, the tradition dies,” says Ortiz. This is not only important to the art world it is most important to his people as many of the pieces are used for ceremonial purposes and never leave the pueblo.
“All that I do, all the things I make are all a master plan to get the youth of Cochiti interested in traditional pottery and to keep our history alive,” says Ortiz. He starts with his own family, teaching his many nieces and nephews the techniques, methodsand gathering of materials as he was taught. “I use the same materials and techniques that have been used for thousands of years,” says Virgil.
The whole Ortiz enterprise is a family affair. “Helping to raise the children of my family helps me to relate to the youth of my community and to remember my roots,” he said. “In my family, we are all movie buffs, so when I take the kids to the movies I pay attention to what it is they like and what they are drawn to and it always seems to go back to the really visually exciting stuff, the big special effects type films and superhero characters. So I use this model to teach the kids about Cochiti tradition and about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, which was the first American Revolution,” explains Ortiz.
“My life’s work is to educate the world using different mediums of art.” says Ortiz. He has written a film script to teach about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. “I want to tell the story in a new light with a feeling that will catch the kid’s attention. I am not a scholarly type person so making a documentary film is not for me, I want to tell the story in an imaginative and visually exciting way,” he said.
Ortiz’ fashion designs are a way to develop and brand the characters in his film script. Virgil releases two characters per year using his two main annual shows; one at Santa Fe Indian Market and one at King Galleries in Scottsdale, Az. as his stage. This year’s eVOlution show in Santa Fe revealed the Aeronauts; alien pilot characters from a “Survivor Ship.” I use these characters to get the kids attention and it all comes back to teaching the youth and the world about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt,” says Ortiz.
He has created the script to tell the true story adapted in a modern, futuristic storyline. “There are no real Native super heroes, not ones based on a real life storyline,” Ortiz said.
Through photography, artwork, fashion, and character booklets (which are published for each show) Virgil is creating a complete branding. “I don’t want to lose control of the characters.” The whole project culminates as a sci-fi big budget extravaganza. “I have had some interest in my screenplay, but I am waiting,” explains Ortiz. “I set my standards very high, I will start with George Lucas,” laughs Ortiz. “My goal is to start at the top, and I am not going to stop until it happens.”