Clay called Virgil Ortiz when he was 15.
The world of the Cochiti Pueblo artist opened when he saw the ancestors of today’s storyteller figures in the gallery of an Albuquerque art dealer. He had sculpted similar figures himself before.
Robert Gallegos asked Ortiz’s parents why his characters look like they are. They didn’t look like traditional storytellers. When Gallegos invited Ortiz and his parents to his showroom, their mouths fell.
âHe had the largest collection of Cochiti pottery in the country,â Ortiz said. (My work) âlooked like historical pieces. It was an ‘Aha’ moment. My parents said, âThe clay chose you. “
With a 40-year career, the artist from Cochiti Pueblo learned traditional methods from his mother and grandmother. He pushed the boundaries from the start, imbuing a passion for fashion and science fiction in early clay figures. These morphed into life-size futuristic figures from a script he wrote about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Charles S. King’s âVirgil Ortiz: reVOlutionâ (Museum of New Mexico Press) examines this creative trajectory through pottery, design, fashion, film, jewelry and decoration. He continued to make social commentary through his art dating back to his first clay figure: a busty woman wearing a men’s suit and bow tie, at the age of 6.
Generations of the Ortiz family have developed the distinctive Cochiti style: black geometric patterns on an ivory background on clay bodies. Although he instantly identified with the storytelling figures developed by Helen Cordero in the 1960s, Ortiz dates his approach to a much older and more daring ancestry.
When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company passed through Albuquerque in 1880, it was carrying circus acts, opera singers, and tourists, figures that the natives had never seen before. Cochiti artists began to create figurative pieces called âmonosâ, serving as social commentary on these âinvadersâ.
Ortiz had started making “Star Wars” figures when he was eight years old after leaving the Santa Fe Indian market in 1977 to see the film. He would later sculpt figures reflecting controversial issues such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Women’s March and Donald Trump.
Today, he weaves these influences into his own screenplay, âRevolt 1680/2180,â his sci-fi and pueblo version of the Pueblo Revolt, which takes place in both 1680 and 2180. During His travels, he learned that Europeans knew about the event, but most Americans had never heard of it.
The revolt of the pueblos was a revolution against the Spanish religious, economic and political institutions imposed on the pueblos. Historians consider it essential to the survival of pueblo cultural traditions, lands, languages, religions and sovereignty.
âIt’s considered the first American revolution,â Ortiz said.
The artist designed 19 character groups, one from each pueblo in New Mexico. In a mix of art and history, he introduces a new character to each exhibition.
After a successful collaboration with fashion mogul Donna Karan, he developed boldly patterned textiles based on his graphic decorative painting.
Sexuality sizzles through his creations. Her silhouettes are sleek and curvy, some with piercings and exposed breasts. Ortiz was inspired by his experiences in underground S&M clubs in the United States and Europe.
âIt’s part of fashion,â he explained, âleather, latex and vinyl. It’s also like the costumes. It is like creating caricatures in clay. They think they are risky, but I was like, âLook what our grandparents did. My stuff is pretty tame compared to that. Some of them showed the sale of prostitutes. Everything is documented in clay.
Ortiz decided to produce the book to help people understand how all of the pieces of his work fit into an innovative puzzle. Author Charles King has exhibited Ortiz’s work in his Scottsdale, Arizona, and Santa Fe galleries for 20 years. âI worked on it as a kind of mid-career retrospective,â he said. âI watched this incredible progress and growth in him, this energy. Everything he touches is gold.
“He’s always one step ahead of what’s trending, what’s trendy,” he continued. “That’s what makes him exciting.”
Before each show, King interviewed Ortiz and wrote down his answers.
âIt was, how do I tell (my clients) what he was thinking and make it make sense? Said the king. “I think that made him stop and think about it too.”
Ortiz’s work made the Pueblo revolt accessible to a younger generation, he added.
“Years ago you could say Pueblo Revolt and they were staring at you like they didn’t know what you were talking about.”
Ortiz recently returned from a guest residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, where he created life-size figures in his oversized kilns. The Santa Fe Museum of Indian Arts and Culture will display the work next Memorial Day weekend. Ortiz will also co-host an exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum marking the 100th anniversary of the Santa Fe Indian Market in August 2022.
Recently named Indigenous Treasure by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Ortiz has won numerous awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market, Heard Museum Indian Market, and other events. His pottery can be found in museums around the world.
When he is at his home in Cochiti, Ortiz always searches for clay with his family and picks wild spinach to make his black paint work the traditional coil method.
For him, it all dates back to the Pueblo revolt. It embroiders the story in a futuristic theme.
âIt’s my way of doing something for a younger generation,â he said. âIt just needs to be cool and up to date. They get a history lesson.