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The Clay Conjurer

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Felipe Ortega has devoted his life to creating the perfect pot of beans—and an unusually audacious way of looking at culture.

By DEBORAH BUSEMEYER
Photos by KITTY LEAKEN

The clay conjurer | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

After traveling throughout the world to understand the history and nature of pottery made with mica, Felipe Ortega has taken to teaching others his Native American traditions.

It took Felipe Ortega four years to find the elusive bean pot in a village 11 miles from his home in Northern New Mexico. The 13-year-old boy asked around his village of La Madera, where he was related to more than half of the 150 inhabitants. This was the pot that was supposed to make him like pinto beans for the first time. When Ortega finally found what he was looking for, he met the last person in the area who knew how to make one. The trick, it seemed, was to use a unique local material called micaceous clay, and then form the vessel with the traditional Native American pottery methods that started more than 500 years ago. But the woman who made this pot—a member of the Jicarilla Apache tribe—was 90 and blind, and she couldn’t make any more. Did he want to learn how to do it?

Just the day before, on May 24, 1969, Ortega had celebrated his high-school graduation. The fifth son of eight children, he was a devout Catholic and had been accepted into seminary. He had no intention of becoming a potter. But he wanted to prove his mother wrong—that no cooking vessel would make pinto beans taste good.

Ortega’s decision to accept the potter’s offer would accelerate the arc of his life into some untraveled realms—regarding his pottery, his spirituality, and his very identity. It would also spark controversy among Native Americans who are protective of their disappearing traditions—and wary of outsiders. As Ortega would later learn, the pot that he wanted to make helped his ancestors survive; to some, in fact, it’s the quintessential symbol of the traditions and culture of his people, the Jicarilla Apache tribe.

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