As the youngest of six children, multimedia artist Virgil Ortiz didn’t think he was creating art on a daily basis when he and his family made pottery. Only when he began going to school, did he notice not everyone took to clay the way he did.
Ortiz makes pottery using traditional Cochiti methods, gather red clay from the land, soaking it, adding pumice stone. “The clay is so pure, we need to add pumice to temper it, making it workable,” says Ortiz, who still calls Cochiti home. Formed and dried pieces are sanded followed by a layer of water to remove dust. After alternating between heating in an oven or fire, and eight to ten layers of white clay slip – a glaze alternative – the piece is then cooled. A rag polishing preps it for scratch-made black paint that takes a week to make. “We harvest the leaves when the young wild spinach plants bloom,” says Ortiz. Then, one by one, pieces are open-pit fired on a grate. Placed on a tin, the piece is wrapped with chicken wire to form a cocoon base, then stacked with manure to build an igloo. Cedar and aspen wood burns around the igloo creating a kiln that fires for an hour and a half to two hours. After slowing removing the manure and wire, the final steps can be nerve-wracking. “After about three weeks worth of work, we pray the piece doesn’t explode from air bubbles in its walls,” he says. “If it survives, another rag polish removes any ashes.”
Ortiz’s style differs from the storytelling figure made famous from the northern New Mexico pueblos. As a teen, Ortiz was invited to see the wares of collector and dealer Robert V. Gallegos. “My mouth dropped,” Ortiz says. The collection led Ortiz on a lifelong mission of teaching traditional pottery methods, reviving the style, and using it to study themes that normally wouldn’t warrant exploration.
The pieces he saw in the Gallegos collection were 1800s clay caricatures made by Cochiti natives after seeing the influx of people from the emerging railroad. This style of social commentary on the tattooed bodies of circus travelers and sideshow acts fell out of practice due to “Victorian attitudes,” according to Ortiz. “Our art told stories of what people were experiencing during the 1800s. Creativity comes to me from continuing the story of my Cochiti people and how we see the world around us,” he says. “That opened the door for me to use taboo topics to engage people in today’s society, culture, politics, religion, and even social media.”
Ortiz explores these subjects in his latest body of work, TABOO, where he presents modern tribal imagery melding current themes and the Pueblo Revolt narrative into pieces of pottery. “When traveling internationally, I was shocked how many people knew about the Pueblo Revolt and here it isn’t taught in schools,” he says. “As America’s first revolution, it’s important people know what happened.” In telling the Pueblo Revolt story, Ortiz is working on expanding into glass and modern ceramics, fashion, jewelry, even the big screen.
Ortiz caught the eye of The Walt Disney Company and was invited to present his work at the Walt Disney Imagineering Ideation Summit. “It was amazing to see all the creatives come together,” says the Star Wars fan, who got to meet James Cameron and big shots from DC and Marvel Comics. His love for epic storytelling with different worlds and characters inspired him to tell the Pueblo Revolt story in the same manner. Ortiz’s vision is for the characters in his body of work to culminate into a movie exploring the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 with a mirroring storyline n 2180. “I want it to appeal to the kids like Star Wars did to me,” he says.
Although Ortiz has projects in varying mediums – including a jewelry line for the Smithsonian – Ortiz is first and foremost a potter. “Pottery is the soul and center of all I do,” he says. “I want to demonstrate that Native artists can innovate while using traditional methods. We don’t have to be characterized by those who want the same piece of pottery. It’s time to give the voice back to the clay.”