The world recently lost a great talent. For those who were lucky enough to know him, Felipe Ortega’s passing runs deep, even more so because this craftsman was one of only a few master teachers left who handcraft micaceous-rich clay pots, just as his Native American ancestors had done for centuries.
We first met Felipe several years ago in his hometown of La Madera, a tiny village nestled in the northern mountains of New Mexico.
At his home studio, writer Deborah Busemeyer interviewed him for a Craftsmanship Quarterly article, “The Clay Conjurer.” Soon after spending time with Felipe, Deborah learned there was much more to this artisan than his pottery.
Felipe was born December 23, 1951, the fifth son of eight children in the remote village of La Madera, where he was related to nearly half of its 150 inhabitants. La Madera is also where he died, three years after learning that he had prostate cancer.
Felipe was a lifelong learner — a spiritual man who held two master’s degrees, and believed the journey was the destination. Some also knew him as a linguist; Felipe studied a dozen languages, including French, Spanish, Apache, Italian, and Portuguese. Even in his sickness, he was learning — trying to heal himself through Chinese medicine that he later shared with others.
Compared to a raven by family because of his intelligence, wit, and humor, Felipe always welcomed others to his table. He shared his delicious Southwestern dishes with his guests in the beautiful clay pots he masterfully crafted. Thousands of admirers made the trek from all over the world to visit Felipe’s remote home, seeking his vast knowledge of pottery, his healing as a medicine man, and his spiritual presence as a leader of a Penitente chapter in his community.
As a boy, Felipe stumbled upon pottery while searching for a pot that would actually make beans taste good (Felipe didn’t believe anything could make him enjoy eating pinto beans). Little did Felipe know, he had not only found a pot that achieved a delicious, sweet taste for the beans, but he also met the blind, 90-year-old craftswoman who made the vessel. She would become Felipe’s mentor.
To create his pots, Felipe would roll out threads of thick clay and stack them in circles until they took on a stable, curved shape. Though it sounds simple, using this technique to build pottery with smooth, thin walls required much study and skill.
Most modern potters use an electric or gas kiln to fire their work because thermostats can easily control the extremely hot temperatures needed to set the clay. Felipe, on the other hand, would simply build an outdoor fire as his mentor had taught him, using nothing but bark, toss cornmeal into the burning embers (a symbolic thank you to Mother Earth), and then carefully place his pots on top of a grill.
A world traveler who studied the origins of micaceous clay as well as the nexus between his Jicarilla Apache and Hispanic roots, Felipe didn’t care if he offended Native Americans who believed in preserving their cultural customs for themselves. He revered what he called “Clay Mother” and felt compelled to teach his ancestors’ pottery traditions.
Felipe cared deeply about each piece he made, and some would say that passion became a part of the foods cooked in his pots. The micaceous clay he used may also have played a role; many believe that clay infuses its own flavors into food, and that its pores hold onto faint aromas from each meal, which it imparts to the next. The shape and curve of his pots also acted as an insulator to hold both heat and flavor.
The fact that his pots were formed from ingredients in the surrounding New Mexican earth, then handcrafted with passion, contributed to the popularity and success Felipe experienced over time. He taught many students — at one point, he estimated he’d had more than 3,000 over the course of his life — and would travel to schools and universities to discuss archaeology as well as his masterful techniques. Felipe even took on apprentices who would live and work at his home.
On February 24, 2018, the bean-pot maker ate two spoonfuls of beans and died shortly after, at peace. During the service, when Felipe’s nephew, Jimmie Ortega, gave the eulogy, he compared Felipe to a raven, in the complex, tricky, clever, funny and skillful ways Felipe navigated his world (true to form, Felipe’s email address was “apacheraven”). Felipe’s ashes will now sit for 60 days in a clay urn made by his students, until they are released in an unnamed place, Apache style.
As friends, family, students, and admirers (more than 200 all told) gathered in La Madera to mourn and celebrate the life of this master craftsman, two ravens flew over the school where they were about to share a meal. “We just kind of laughed and knew that Felipe was watching,” one of his friends said.
In her article, Deborah wrote, “at the heart of Felipe’s layers, he was a man who answered the call of his ancestors: to learn how to make the perfect pot of beans and share that knowledge one pot at a time.” Though Felipe is now gone, the knowledge he shared and the skills he passed on will always keep his spirit alive.
*photos by Kitty Leaken