Back to the Future

By John Muller
Photography by Minesh Bacrania, Robert Stebler
October | 2015
back_futureSpoiler alert: Virgil Ortiz just might have superpowers. Mild-mannered by day, the Cochiti ceramist mounts exhibitions of his work in museums and galleries at an inhuman clip, while somehow finding time for adventures in painting, photography, video, digital art, screenwriting, and more. He’s an imaginative time traveler, passing freely from traditional clay figures inspired by Pueblo history to futuristic sci-fi dreamscapes. And should he ever need a cape, he can supply one himself, thanks to his personal fashion line, born of a collaboration with Donna Karan.

With so much going on, his reaction to receiving a Governor’s Award might as well be a tagline for his life so far. “The reality,” he says gently, “hasn’t really hit.”

True to comic-book convention, Ortiz’s backstory begins simply. He was raised in Cochiti village by a potter mother and a father who makes drums. “We were all creating art growing up. It was just part of everyday life,” he says. His mom, Seferina Ortiz, was well known for her work. She taught Virgil to craft ceramics as her own mother, Laurencita Herrera, and countless generations before them had, gathering clay and mixing paints themselves. He still produces much of his work this way, putting in weeks of labor for a single 20-inch figure.

As a child he accompanied his parents to Indian Market, where they manned booths while he and his friends roamed Santa Fe on foot. In the summer of 1977, when he was eight years old, the kids wandered over to the movie theater at the DeVargas Center and bought tickets to Star Wars. After the credits rolled, they watched it again. And again. “We probably saw it ten times that weekend,” he laughs. It was his first brush with science fiction, and started him dreaming of worlds far, far away from northern New Mexico. By their teens, he and his friends were escaping to New York, Chicago, and L.A., soaking up culture and lusting after clothes they couldn’t afford. When they came home, they taught themselves to sew and made their own forward-thinking fashion.

But it was ceramics that first earned Ortiz a reputation as an artist. While his mother’s generation made popular storyteller figurines, the teenage Virgil experimented with standing clay figures that recalled an earlier tradition. An Albuquerque collector took notice and invited him to see his trove of 19th-century Cochiti art. “A lot of the things they made back in the day were taken from circus sideshows that came through on the railroad, so the cooler pieces were all Siamese twins and tattooed bodies and just really grotesque, outside-the-box stuff,” he says. The weirder his own work got, the more people took notice. He was hailed as an innovator, “but it was just reviving pieces based in social commentary.”

Today his figures tell a story he’s been dreaming up for years, one that jumps back and forth between the history of the Pueblo Revolt and a parallel struggle set 500 years later, in 2180. The futuristic bits pit Puebloan heroes called Aeronauts against extraterrestrial conquistadors in a Southwestern space opera that would make George Lucas proud. Ortiz is shopping a screenplay around Hollywood, bundled with elaborate character and costume designs that marry his many talents to those of collaborators like the Santa Clara artist Rose Simpson. The goal is to raise awareness of Pueblo history, which he sees as a saga of perseverance that’s been neglected lately. “Everybody’s on iPads, they’re on their phones,” he says. “You’re only going to compete for their attention if you have something as cool as what’s out there.”

Ortiz gets attention like Batman gets bad guys. When he’s not manning his own pop-up gallery and gift shop at La Fonda during Indian Market, he’s putting in appearances at the Denver Art Museum, where a current one-man exhibition tells his Pueblo Revolt story in various media, or the Albuquerque Museum, where his massive installation (a life-size warrior figure and her fantastical shoes on a high platform) welcomes visitors to the Brooklyn Museum’s touring show Killer Heels. But like any hero, all he really wants to do after each new conquest is head home, back to his Cochiti studio.

“After all the crazy advances that human life is experiencing right now—yes, it’s really futuristic and awesome, but it’s going to come back to a simple way of life,” he says. “That’s what my prediction is. When all else fails, it’ll come back to the basics.”