W
The Clay Conjurer

The Clay Conjurer

Topics: , ,
Locations:
Materials:
Masters:

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.

Over the years, Ortega’s journey involved such an unusual combination of the traditional and the non-traditional that it puts a very old question into very new light: What’s the right way to look at cultural progress? Should we put a fence around our unique traditions? Or should we share them, welcoming the opportunity to mix with new ideas?

MICA’S GOLDEN LURE


“Your cooking has become simplified because your flavors are so fundamental,” says Glenna Dean, an archaeologist who has studied Ortega’s clay pottery. “There’s something about the food—you can tell the difference in a side-by-side test. It’s sweetness but not entirely that. Your food becomes more complex in flavor. The cooking vessel is getting out of the way of the flavors that’s inherent in the food.”

The glitter of micaceous clay seems like it was born to illustrate the consequences of these choices. Flakes of mica are used around the world as a pigment enhancer in paint, an insulator in the heating and cooling industry, a surface coating in asphalt shingles, and as a glittery shine in makeup. Micaceous clay is found in volcanic regions at elevations above 8,000 feet, says B. Sunday Eiselt, Ph.D., an anthropological archeologist and associate professor at Southern Methodist University who has written extensively about micaceous clay and Jicarilla Apache culture. It develops from eroding mica bedrock.

The material is prized, she says, because the mica’s insulating properties add to the power of clay, which is already one of the world’s best insulators. “The mica,” she says, has “certain electrical and physical properties that makes it ideal for a cooking pot.” From 1998 to 2002, Eiselt spent every summer as Ortega’s apprentice while doing research for her work. “You can take this pot and put it on a stove top”—that is, over a burner, with no protection underneath. “You can’t do that with a plain clay pot. That is why it is innovative.”

Equally important, given the American West’s worsening droughts, clay seems born for one food in particular: beans—a plant that demands little water but delivers mounds of protein and other nutrients. All of which turns the prospect of an unusually luscious pot of beans into a very timely quest.


The clay conjurer | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Ortega's home in La Madera, a village of roughly 50 families an hour outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico

Ortega’s teacher, Jesusita Martinez, from the nearby village of Petaca, told her son-in-law to take Ortega to some nearby clay pits and help him dig. Then he started making pots. From the end of May to the beginning of August in 1969, Ortega visited his teacher once a week so she could check his progress. He practiced the simple techniques his teacher had learned as a young woman—rolling out breadstick-sized coils of clay and piling them up in circles until they formed a uniform vessel with a gentle, feminine curve. Then, before the clay dried, he had to smooth out each coil without ruining the pot’s hard-won shape.

Since Martinez couldn’t see Ortega at work, she rubbed her hands over his pots so she could tell him what he’d done wrong. His first five pots broke in the fire but the sixth survived, and now sits, unglazed but shimmering nonetheless, on the top shelf of the studio behind his home in La Madera. It’s a simple, reddish-brown pot, the sparkly flecks of mica plainly visible on shoulders that curve inward to make a small, constricted neck.

He keeps the pot for sentiment, but soon learned what it took to make a perfect bean pot. At first, Ortega built pots with thick walls, the way most beginners do, until he saw the thin walls of his ancestors’ pots in museums in Santa Fe and Denver. That’s when he realized that he had to make his pots almost dangerously thin—down to a fragile ¼-inch—so it could absorb heat efficiently and be light enough to handle.

“IT TASTES SWEET”

Ortega, now 63, gathers his clay twice a year, cultivating 3,000 to 4,000 pounds at a time on top of Clay Mountain, which sports a 70-degree incline on one side and can be seen from his property in La Madera. To add a shimmering look to his pottery, he coats it with mica-rich clay that he gathers from another peak called La Petaca. For years, like other local potters, he dug from pits on U.S. Forest Service land. He moved seven times, whenever other potters discovered the pits and the digging started getting messy. Then, in 1998, an acquaintance let him have a pit all to himself on a piece of private land.

Ortega grew up in this 5-mile long, remote village where horses and cows graze close to the road. La Madera lies an hour north of Santa Fe near Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort, a popular tourist destination. It is home to roughly 50 families, who live without cell phone service. When I met Ortega, the morning light was pouring into his studio and he was already at work hunched over a clay pot. He was dressed simply for messy work, wearing his long grey hair pulled away from his face in a looped-under ponytail, revealing small, silver and coral stud ear-rings. One would never suspect the renown he has gained for his work—or the substantial credentials he has accumulated. Over the years Ortega has traveled the world, earned two master’s degrees, and learned 10 languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Swiss German, Apache, a little Croatian, Hebrew, Latin and Greek).

Back when he was a boy, and he cooked beans in that sixth pot, Ortega told his mother she was right. There was no comparison between his beans and hers (which were cooked with lots of salt in a pressure cooker). Ortega is seldom short of words but repeatedly says, ‘Oh my God,’ in his attempt to describe why food tastes different in these pots, which he says he has used continuously since 1976. In Apache, he calls the food, “da’/likao go/lini” (it tastes sweet).

Whether it’s fact or fantasy, whenever cooks use clay pots many believe they taste something special. The opinions about exactly what that is—or whether it’s even real—vary widely. (For an examination of the science behind this debate—and evidence that the believers are right—see “The Clay Mystique,” by Todd Oppenheimer).

The clay conjurer | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Felipe Ortega’s version of a Moroccan tagine. Note the tight seal between the lid and the base. On most tagines from the East, the two parts fit together loosely.  But this tight fit–the better to contain the food’s juices–is signature Ortega.

Katharine Kagel, the exclusive seller of Ortega’s clay pots from the gallery above her popular restaurant Café Pasqual’s, is effusive when she talks about cooking in micaceous pots, which she says she uses almost exclusively in her home. Kagel first met Ortega in 1996 after discovering her neighbor’s collection of Ortega pots. The neighbor told her that Ortega made both pots and “hornos” (outdoor clay ovens, which Ortega uses for baking bread). The next morning she called Ortega to order an horno; he arrived at her farm house about an hour later with a bag of “dry-land” pinto beans (that is, grown without irrigation, only rain water) and one of his four-quart bean pots. He told her to add water to cook the beans—no salt, no oil, nothing—and to call him in the morning. “I was blown away. I called and asked him if he would sell his pots in our gallery,” she says.

People across the world have tried to define what makes food taste differently in these pots. Retired archeologist Richard Ford, Ph.D., believes a micaceous pot is self-seasoned, leeching its own salt into food. Steve Sando, who grows and sells beans in California through his company, Rancho Gordo, believes he can detect different flavors depending on the pot’s type of clay—smokier flavors from the black bean pots from Columbia, earthy flavors from Mexican pottery, and saltier flavors from micaceous pots. Paula Wolfert, perhaps America’s leading expert on cooking with clay pots — or at least their most prodigious collector (see our story, “The Clay Mystique) — says there is “a certain brightness” in food cooked in micaceous clayware. “It’s got punch,” she says. “It tastes earthier. But with Felipe’s it’s so strong. It’s vivid. It’s like eating something in technicolor.” Some have gone so far as to wonder whether the quality of affection put into a hand-made pot somehow translates into taste. “True, it’s the clay that makes the basic difference,” Philippe Beltrando, a master potter in France, once told Wolfert. “But I also feel it completes the cycle of hand-cooked food.” And that, in Beltrando’s view, “touches our humanity. You have a chain of caring that is never broken.”

Glenna Dean, a retired archeologist and former student of Ortega’s, says she uses her clay pot to cook home-grown, fingerling potatoes with just a tiny bit of oil, and they turn out deliciously—simultaneously crisp and creamy. “Your cooking has become simplified because your flavors are so fundamental,” Dean said. “There’s something about the food—you can tell the difference in a side-by-side test. It’s sweetness but not entirely that. Your food becomes more complex in flavor. The cooking vessel is getting out of the way of the flavors that’s inherent in the food.”


The clay conjurer | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Ortega keeps his hard-dug micaceous clay outside, in a mound at the back side of his studio.

Much of Kagel’s enthusiasm derives from a very simple attribute which these and most other clay vessels possess: curves. “Metal pots have straight sides so they don’t capture the essence of the food,” Kagel says. It’s all gone up and the flavor is on the ceiling,” she said. That lost steam, in Kagel’s view, is what leads cooks to add too much water. “That’s diluting the flavor,” she says. “This is capturing the flavor, and the properties of the clay.”

That may be all the more true with an Ortega pot. One of the distinguishing characteristics of his work is the ability to make lids that fit perfectly into the overall curve of the pot. That in itself is a mark of skill because ceramic parts tend to shrink away from each other during the intense firing process, which typically goes well beyond 1,000 degrees. But when it comes to how heat behaves in a clay pot while it’s cooking food, in comparison with other pots, that is another question entirely.

When I asked Ortega to explain how micaceous pots cook differently from their steel cousins, he took me inside his home, a thick-walled adobe building next door to his childhood home, where his 95-year-old mother still lives. Clay pots hung above the wood stove and lined the wall on the other side. One small round pot sat on a low-burning flame, his lunch of beef stew slowly simmering inside. He picked up the pot with his bare hands, moving it to the counter and back again to show that he didn’t have to use hot pads. “The mica is an insulator,” Ortega explained. “It wants to keep the pot cold if the weather is cold. If you apply heat to it, it wants to keep it hot.”

To test Ortega’s hunches, Eiselt and a graduate student conducted experiments with eight cooking pots Ortega made. Each pot was the same size and shape but made with different thicknesses, and composed of different clay compositions (mixtures of plain and micaceous paste). Their goal was to see whether there was a difference between how plain clay and micaceous pots heat and stay hot, and whether the thickness of a pot’s walls have any effect. For an hour, they took the water’s temperature every two minutes, then again for a half hour after removing the pots from the burners. They found no difference, in either heating or cooling time, based on wall thickness. As for the type of clay, both the plain and clay pots also took roughly the same amount of time to heat up. But the mica pots held their heat significantly longer than the plain clay pots.

“It’s not so much that you cut down the cooking time, but you definitely cut down on the resources,” Ortega says. “After it boils, it becomes totally efficient and you lower your heat and save energy. It will continue to boil for five more minutes after you put it on the table, and the food will stay warm throughout the meal.” In 2009, Ortega and Eiselt presented their results to the annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology.


Over the years Ortega has traveled the world, earned two master’s degrees, and learned 10 languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Swiss German, Apache, a little Croatian, Hebrew, Latin and Greek).

The porous nature of the clay also allows both moisture and heat to circulate slowly, thus making these vessels ideal for followers of the slow-food movement. “This indicates why this clay may have been chosen to make cookware—the traditions around cooking in Northern New Mexico is low and slow,’ Eiselt says. “Traditionally things cooked in these pots are stews.”

Whatever its attributes, or its lack thereof, there seems to be something about a clay pot that pushes our atavistic buttons, making a cook feel connected to our most primal past. After all, a clay pot was the result of mankind’s very first effort to make a cooking vessel. Thomas Moser, the well-known master of handmade wooden furniture, goes so far as to call pottery the only act of craftsmanship that remains truly handmade. With every other craft—woodworking, jewelry, glass-blowing, you name it—at some point, its masters reach for one tool or another to do their work. Not so for the potter, who, Moser says start and finish a piece “just by using their own fingers.” Quite possibly, people who love pottery appreciate this fact, even if only unconsciously. “I love that someone figured out so long ago that this will work for generations,” Kagel says. “I love that it changes color the more I use it so it brings my personal history forward. I revere the authenticity, and all the wisdom encapsulated in it. Felipe is not manufacturing these. This is earth, wind and fire.”

Even before an Ortega pot is fired it begins to glow, due to its myriad flecks of mica. For a complete portrait of Ortega's work as it progresses, see this photo essay.

Even before Ortega's pottery is fired, it begins to glow due to its myriad flecks of mica. The pot at right is an Ortega bean pot. For a complete portrait of Ortega's work as it progresses, see the photo essay below: The Making of an Ortega pot.

PURITY AND ITS CHALLENGES

The same year that he made his first pot, Ortega left New Mexico to pursue a college education. He initially planned to become a priest, a choice that brought him academic grants from the Roman Catholic Church for nine years of undergraduate and post-graduate education. (Ortega was raised by an elementary-school teacher who practiced the Socratic style, even at home, and most of his siblings went to college too.) After earning a bachelors degree in linguistics and classical languages at Duns Scotus College in Detroit, he went on to graduate studies in biblical theology and divinity, at Oblate College in San Antonio.

While studying religion, Ortega realized that Catholic and Apache morality conflicted. Within his small, Northern New Mexico community, and within his family, Ortega was accepted as being a “two-spirit,” the Native American term for gender-variant people. (While Ortega acknowledges that he has had relationships with both women and men, he says he is no longer interested in relationships; for him, being a two-spirit is about blending masculine and feminine interests.) When he was a youngster, Ortega’s Apache father taught him not to judge anyone and to accept everyone. It wasn’t until he attended seminary that he realized Catholics considered being a two-spirit a sin.

In the following years, Ortega discovered that he came from a greater mix of cultures than he knew. When he met Jewish people during his college years, he realized his Catholic maternal grandmother practiced Jewish traditions as well (lighting one candle at sunset every Friday evening, baking unleavened braided bread, and lighting eight bonfires around Christmas time). It was an ancestry so well hidden for generations—a fear passed down from the Spanish Inquisition when Spain ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain—that his mother denied any connection.

After yet another period of anthropological study, consulting with the state historian about Jews in New Mexico, Ortega discovered that the maternal side of his family were Crypto-Jews who, to remain free and safe, became what Ortega views as ultra-Catholic—under the name Penitentes, a local tradition that continues to this day. Suddenly, Ortega understood why the men of his community had worn masks and traveled to each house that lit December bonfires, requiring the children to kneel and recite their prayers in Spanish to prove they were Catholic.

Ortega, still a Penitente, was getting ready for Holy Week when I met him. Already he had been doing a light fasting (no breakfast, light lunch and dinner) for the 40 days of Lent. Today’s Penitentes are a brotherhood of lay Catholics who believe in atonement of sin through sacrifice and suffering. Ortega’s original Chapter House had passed restrictive rules restricting access to divorcees and women, which surpass Catholicism’s edicts. So he and his relatives started their own chapter.

The clay conjurer | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Every year, on the Wednesday before Easter, Ortega joins the other 12 members of his Penitente Chapter House for a week-long ritual. See photo essay below.

Ortega abandoned his formal religious studies in 1976, and returned home with no plans and no income. But at least he could make pots, so his father suggested he sell them at Taos Pueblo, a nearby Native American village. When people wandering by his booth told him that the Jicarilla Apache were never potters, Ortega sought to prove them wrong.

Archeologists and potters have debated for years about which population made micaceous pottery first—a challenging issue due to poor access to ancient pits, the nomadic nature of the Jicarilla Apache, and the tendency of tribes to intermarry, or of Hispanics to adopt Native babies. To parse such a messy history, Ortega embarked on an ambitious archaeological mission. After a researching his own origins, and those of micaceous clay, he and spent four summers helping Eiselt gather 300 to 400 clay samples from roughly two dozen ancient pits in Northern New Mexico. Eiselt then studied each sample through a process called neutron activation analysis. In the end, she traced micaceous pottery to all kinds of tribes—Jicarilla Apache, as well as Tiwi and Tewa Indians such as Tesuque, Pojoaque, Nambé, Taos, Picurís, and Santa Clara pueblos. Even Hispanic-Indian mixes (called “mestizos”) joined the micaceous pottery craft by trading for pottery as well as raw clay. “It is a trans-cultural tradition,” Eiselt says. “Everybody has done it.”

A Penitente Holy Week(Click on any photo below to enter full-screen slideshow)

Once Ortega realized how little was left of his own tribe’s pottery tradition, he made a bold move: He resolved to teach it to the world. That decision did not sit well with many Native Americans, who possessively protect what little is left of their heritage. Understandable as those feelings may be, they don’t make sense to Ortega—a man whose mother is full-blooded Hispanic and whose father is half Hispanic, half Jicarilla Apache. “Should I take out the three-quarters of my blood that is Hispanic when I make my pots,” he asked. “Everything is a mix. My ancestors weren’t making closed casseroles. Why do we have to codify tradition?”

When micaceous bowls are sold as art, they can cost as much as $10,000. Ortega’s price has stayed the same for 22 years: $100 a quart. “I’m of the opinion that everyone should be using micaceous clayware for cooking,” he said. “So do I make it so cost prohibitive that only the affluent people can afford it? I can’t see becoming so greedy that I am going to abuse Mother Earth.”

Ortega estimates that he has taught more than 3,000 students since he first started offering workshops through Ghost Ranch in the early 1980s. Eventually, he expanded his teaching to public school districts across the state, Santa Fe Community College and Northern New Mexico Community College. He has also taught many pueblo Indians in New Mexico and students in Mexico. He traveled to the University of Michigan each year to give classes to archeology and art students, and used his anthropological investigations to assist surveys, sometimes pointing out aspects of a site that archeologists didn’t notice. “He has had an enormous influence on archeology at Michigan and here,” says Ford, who has now retired to Santa Fe and cooks beans and posole in the pots he made under Ortega’s tutelage. Ford jokes that Ortega is probably more famous in India than in the U.S. because so many East Indians have travelled here to study with him.

HERITAGE WARS

Lonnie Vigil is a potter from Nambé pueblo who has won more than 100 awards for his micaceous clayware, which helped establish micaceous pottery as objects of high art. Vigil doesn’t expect his water jugs to be used as anything other than art and never publicizes his pottery prices as a matter of privacy. While he has been publicly critical of Ortega’s decision to teach non-Natives, the two potters remain good friends. Yet conflict remains throughout the region’s Native tribes.

On the extreme side are a few Taos Pueblo potters who think only Taos and Picuris pueblos should make this clayware, believing their ancestors were the region’s first micaceous potters. Vigil accepts their position but knows the craft is also traditional to his village, a Tewa community about 20 miles north of Santa Fe. To Vigil, all this sharing has led to what he calls “cultural misappropriation.” He doesn’t mind Ortega teaching people the art of pottery, but he’s bothered, he says, when non-Natives set up a market “like they are natives. It feels like such a violation, like thievery. As a native person, I feel this tradition belongs to us.”

The clay conjurer | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Ortega sits down to work. He can make a complete pot in as little as 20 minutes.

Ortega is not so sure about Vigil’s term—cultural misappropriation. “Taking something from someone’s culture and making it your own. Hmmm,” he said. “It is interesting that a lot of people have a myopic vision of who they are. Whenever you have cultures interacting with one another, you’re going to have bleeding across and sharing of concepts and traditions.”

A prime example, in Ortega’s mind, are the very homes that Pueblo Indians are known for—buildings made of mud adobe. “I’m grateful the tradition came from Morocco to Spaniards,” he says, “and to the New World to the pueblos. I can see North Africans coming and saying, ‘We didn’t give you permission to use this technique that we took from Mesopotamia.’” One might call it the inevitable chaos of history, and it leaves Ortega with a pretty simple question: “Why should there be a limit [to sharing]? We would be in trouble if we didn’t have wheat. Everyone has been talking behind my back – ‘Why is Felipe Ortega teaching these white people how to make this pottery? It’s our tradition, our livelihood.’ Give back bread and jello puddings then.”

So, too, with micaceous clay. Over the years, Ortega has visited museums in Switzerland, where he teaches annual workshops; and Turkey, where he has found micaceous clay traditions starting 8,000 years ago. “An American Indian tradition – I don’t think so,” he says. In the end, “We are all related, just as I am related to this clay.”

As it happens, both Ortega and Vigil have Hispanic blood in their families. Yet Vigil says he doesn’t recognize that side of himself because he was raised entirely as a Native. Like many Native Americans, Vigil has never quite gotten over what both Hispanics and whites took from his people. For him, clay is the last straw. “What more do they want from us?” he asks.

It’s no surprise, then, that many potters who work in the Native tradition, no matter what their bloodlines, feel protective of these clay pits. For those who identify with Native Americans, there is a religious connection to gathering the clay and making pottery for traditional feasts. And, no matter what one’s identity, it’s becoming harder all the time to get at the clay. Mining and the increase of private land have gradually diminished the number of pits that are easily accessible. Getting to them now requires travel on narrow, winding, treacherous roads in mountainous areas with no cell phone-reception in an environment where it’s easy to get stranded. Sharp rocks puncture tires. Washed out roads are common. If you have to turn around, you might find yourself where there is no place to do so.

CLAY PITS, SPAM CANS, AND A TEACHER’S VISION


Ortega seems bemused by how protective some Native Americans are about their pottery traditions. “Taking something from someone’s culture and making it your own. Hmmm,” he says. “It is interesting that a lot of people have a myopic vision of who they are. We are all related, just as I am related to this clay. An American Indian tradition – I don’t think so.”

When Ortega collects clay, he says prayers in his head, asking “Mother Earth” for forgiveness for intruding and thanking her for her gifts. Then he leaves his own gifts, of cornmeal. Sometimes he also brings pots or offers her jewelry. “If Mother Earth is generous and gracious to us, we also have to be gracious and giving,” he says.

Ortega stores his clay outside his studio, in a mound that doesn’t look much different from the surrounding dirt. His ancestors used deer hides to clean the clay, then built it into pots on top of a ring of corn husks. Ortega cleans his clay with a cement mixer and a window screen. When it’s time to make a pot, he reaches for a yellow plastic bag that he gets from the local Dollar Store, presses the bag over a turntable and coats it with Pam Cooking Spray to keep the clay from sticking. His teacher taught him to use the lid of a Spam can to scrape the pot smooth as it takes shape, just as she had learned to do. But Ortega decided to move past this tradition. He now uses a collection of professional potter’s scraper tools as well as agates he collects for polishing.

The Making of an Ortega Pot(Click on any photo below to enter full-screen slideshow)

The phone rings often as Ortega works, and he always answers it—in Spanish and English. He has to. Ortega also runs a bed and breakfast, houses photography students for a friend six times a year, teaches 5-day pottery workshops, and takes on apprentices who live and work with him. He works through every conversation, the phone’s receiver squeezed between his chin and shoulder, while finishing a four-quart casserole pot in less than 20 minutes. As we talk, he makes his points by asking rhetorical questions followed by a long, “Hmmmm?” His voice is teasing at times, which helps me understand why his friends and former students describe him as an uninhabited, exuberant man, who sometimes explains techniques by singing dirty ditties.

Since micaceous pottery isn’t glazed, great care must be taken to make it smooth. Ortega begins by working over a finished pot with a metal scraper. Once its dries, he sands it with a sandstone. Then he polishes it by adding three layers of “slip”—basically, muddy clay, but in his case a form with a higher concentration of mica that looks and feels like heavy cream. On the third layer, he uses smooth agates to finish the polish, then wipes the pot with a damp sponge. As a final step before firing, he warms his pottery in an outdoor kiln. If it isn’t completely dry before firing, it will crack in the blazing fire that follows.

The clay conjurer | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

The generous host…

Most modern potters use intense gas or electric kilns that can approach or even exceed 2,000 degrees, with thermostats that carefully control temperatures. Ortega is old school. He simply builds an outdoor fire with newspapers and wood next to his studio. He sprinkles the fire with cornmeal (another gesture of thanks Mother Earth), places the pots on top of a long grill rack, then encircles them with wide strips of bark until I can barely see them. While watching this process, I’m standing at least 10 feet away yet my jeans are still hot on my legs.

As the fire roars to right around 1500 degrees, the pots turn surprisingly black, then gradually regain their earthy, reddish brown color, telling Ortega they are done. The entire process takes 15-20 minutes. That’s barely enough time to get the attention of most pottery, which sits in higher temperature kilns overnight, sometimes longer. Ortega says the mica is what allows for quick firings. Its insulating capacities slow the absorption of the fire’s heat; there is no thermal shock. So you can put a mica pot directly on a fire that is already roaring hot without cracking it—something that could never be done with a standard clay pot.

...and a proud father.

…and a proud father. This is the pot that Ortega made when he was a boy–his sixth attempt, and the first to survive a firing. Notice the thick walls, a far cry from the light, ultra-thin walls that Ortega now creates with ease.

Of the thousands of students that Ortega has taught, he thinks only about one percent—maybe 30 people—produce micaceous pottery for sale, almost all of it cookware. He has seen some students get greedy, but that doesn’t bother him. “The important thing is people experience Clay Mother,” he says. “Who does it is immaterial to me.” Ortega even encourages his students to surpass him. “If this tradition is going to continue, I need these guys to be innovative,” he says. It was nearing lunchtime, and Ortega stopped for food and a siesta. As he cleaned up his firing area, he paused for a moment, looking reflective. “I can’t sit and preach and have a soapbox,” he says. “What I’m doing is one bean pot at a time.”

If you are lucky enough to find one, try Ortega’s favorite recipe for carne adovada (pork simmered in red chile), which is offered here.

Deborah Busemeyer is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has won a variety of local and national reporting awards, including several for feature and column writing from the Associated Press. Kitty Leaken is a Santa Fe photojournalist who has specialized in Native American subjects.

Buying Felipe Ortega’s pottery

Felipe Ortega’s pottery is primarily available through the gallery at Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, N.M. Ortega can also be contacted at his studio.

© 2017 Deborah Busemeyer, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: May 1, 2015

Topics: , ,
Locations:
Materials:
Masters: