USA Fellows Stories: Virgil Ortiz
Virgil Ortiz - New Mexico
USA Target Fellow 2007, Crafts and Traditional Arts
by Susan Morgan
“The two most important elements of Pueblo life are our language and our art,” Virgil Ortiz declares gently. “We start every day with our language.” A native Keres speaker, Ortiz is a council member of Cochiti Pueblo (pop. 800), one of New Mexico’s 19 distinct tribal communities, a unique place that is among the most ancient indigenous sovereign nations within the United States.
Born in 1969, the youngest of six children, he grew up in a creative environment in which storytelling, collecting clay, gathering wild plants, and producing figurative pottery were part of everyday life: his grandmother, Laurencita Herrera, and his mother, Seferina Ortiz, were both renowned Pueblo potters and part of an ongoing matrilineal heritage.
For centuries, the Pueblo vision of the world has been boundless and inclusive, fueled by an immediate curiosity and the desire to recollect experiences for future generations; storytelling is an essential tradition, and pottery is a time-honored mode of expression. Contemporary Cochiti pottery—handmade, coil-built standing figures of animals, humans, and fanciful creatures—revives a satirical style popularized in the mid-nineteenth century. During the early days of the transcontinental railroad, local artists caricatured the travelers—circus performers, salesmen, and adventurers—suddenly appearing in the Southwest. “The figurative style was a form of social commentary,” explains Ortiz. “They captured in clay the images of all the crazy, nonnative people who were passing through the area at that time. Those crazier pieces and the tradition of pottery as social commentary really leave the board wide open for me as an artist.” In the twenty-first century, Ortiz exuberantly records an ever-widening view of the world; his ceramic figures range from Pueblo antelope dancers decked out in black motorcycle boots and dangling red earrings to horned jesters sporting Maori warrior facial tattoos and twirling art nouveau-inspired moustaches. His social critique, an audacious hybrid of old-world techniques and cutting-edge attitudes, is delivered through his constantly expanding work in pottery, fashion, film, and photography. “It’s a big circle, all the different mediums that I work with,” he observes. “But it’s a big circle that has one heartbeat, which is clay.”
While Ortiz still lives and works in Cochiti—on the west bank of the Rio Grande, midway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe—his career has taken off throughout the world. For a 2003 collaboration with designer Donna Karan, he developed boldly patterned textiles based on his hypergraphic decorative painting. Three years later he established Indigene, his own fashion line; the company’s signature looks—sharp, laser-cut leather jackets, swinging taffeta skirts, and embellished cashmere sweaters—echo the voluminous contours and sinuous motifs of Pueblo pottery and introduce a mainstream audience to the richness of indigenous high style. “There used to be more potters working in the traditional way,” notes Ortiz. “Now there are only a few families, and the tradition was on the verge of dying out. What I want to do is continue the link, pass it on to the next generation and keep it alive.”