Diego Gerardo Valles Trevizo, Chihuahua

Diego Gerardo Valles Trevizo, Chihuahua

Diego Valles was awarded the Premio Nacional de la Juventud Edición Bicentenario in 2010 for his work as a potter of the renowned Mata Ortiz thin-walled pottery. The award was presented by President Calderon in Mexico City at the Palacio Nacional.

Diego says: "I work on my ancestral art of Mexican pottery. I consider my job a blessing, as it not only allows me to make a living, but I dedicate myself to something that fully satisfies me and fills me with pride. Personally I think art in general is the highest distinction between human beings and other living beings by giving meaning to our existence. "

The Mata Ortiz Pottery phenomenon is a rags to riches story that began many years ago in the rough cattle country of northern Chihuahua, hardly the place to find an artistic folk art movement. Yet a few dozen miles south of the rugged San Luis Mountains, the residents of Mata Ortiz produce a thin-walled, finely painted ceramic ware rivaling any handmade pottery in the world.

As the story unfolds below, you will learn that almost everyone who lives in the dusty town of Mata Ortiz now produces the famous thin-walled pottery. One of these potters is Diego Valles. He has won contests for his special technique, which is based on a great variety of sizes and shapes, as well as the traditional Paquime style of Mata Ortiz. Diego considers himself an innovator since he combines different techniques like esgrafiado (scratching) and burnishing in the same piece.

The story of Mata Ortiz' rise to fame begins with Diego's mentor, Juan Quezada. Juan grew up in the surrounding mountains and as a boy found pottery sherds from outlying areas around the ruins of a great city called Paquimé. He wondered about the ancient indigenous people and how they made such objects. When he had time at home, he dug clay in the arroyos, soaked it, and tried to make pots. They all cracked. Gradually, step by step, he mastered the process. Without any instruction, he had recreated the entire ceramic technology from clay preparation to firing, using only shards to guide him.

In 1974 Quezada decided to try to make his living selling his pottery. The sale of just one pot equaled one day’s wages and sometimes more. Within a decade, Juan Quezada was selling his pottery in the US but it wasn’t until he met an American trained in anthropology and art history, Spencer MacCallum, that Juan’s fame began to spread throughout the galleries of New Mexico and Arizona. This story continues in a fascinating tale that has changed the lives of every resident of Mata Ortiz.

Mata Ortiz Pottery was first produced over 1,000 years ago in an area of Northern Mexico called Casas Grandes or Paquimé. At first the pots were crude but evolved through trade with other cultures. The Paquimé culture peaked sometime in the 13th or 14th century and then disappeared for reasons that remain unknown.

In 1976, Anthropologist Spencer MacCallum discovered three intriguing handmade ceramic pots in a secondhand store in New Mexico. After much investigation, Spencer discovered the pots, or "ollas", had been made in the small Mexican village of Mata Ortiz, in the mountains of the state of Chihuahua, by Juan Quezada. Juan had recreated the ancient pottery making techniques of the Paquimé Indians with only shards of the excavated pottery to go by.

Spencer's discovery and subsequent meeting with Juan Quezada set off a chain of events, often referred to as "The Miracle of Mata Ortiz." Not only has Juan continued to produce and market pots of high quality, he has taught others in the village to do the same. (Spencer is pictured to the left in 2008.)

Nearly 400 of the 2,000 inhabitants of Mata Ortiz are now producing pottery, slowly transforming the community from one of impoverishment to one of economic stability. Every stage of production of the pottery is done completely by hand, and each one-of-a-kind piece is purchased directly from the potter. Raw clay and pigment for the pots and paints are collected from the rich deposits found in surrounding hills and valleys. The potter's hand's form the pots, the hair of children is used to make the paint brushes, and the firing is done in the back yard with wood and cow dung as the fuel.

Over the years, experimentation, refinement, and creativity have taken place at all stages of production. Consequently, the potters are more skilled and innovative than ever, earning Mata Ortiz the reputation of a major pottery-producing center, and the status of one of the most skillful of it's kind. 

Mr. David W. Armstrong, President and Founder, American Museum of Art: “… A true artist must be innovative and must never copy the works of others. His inspirations must be his own and he must have the courage to pursue those inspirations in the form of his own artistic expressions. Diego is indeed a true artist.

Indeed, he has created ceramic works that are an outstanding representation of the consummate artist. I also feel that Diego is destinated to become one of Mexico’s great artist of the 21st century, and has already achieved a reputation of international importance.

In addition to his abilities as an artist, Diego was extremely helpful when the American Museum of Ceramic Art created a documentary video on the artist and ceramic art of Mata Ortiz. The video is entitled “The Mata Ortiz Pottery Phenomenon”. With Diego’s suggestions, the video successfully records the history, economic challenges, and contemporary innovations of the Mata Ortiz ceramic community. Diego acted as liaison, interpreter, and coordinator for the 60 minute video. Diego was also one of the featured artists in the video and demonstrated his skills and techniques in creating his unique ollas.”

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