Touchdown in Chihuahua airport. Sunrise’s pale glow. Dry sandy cliffs. A valley of industry: steel chimneys, turbines, smoky arms reaching into the sky. We rented our car at the airport and quickly headed away from the city and towards our adventure.
I had come to Chihuahua to look for a man called Juan Quesada. A ceramic artist unlike any in the world, Juan lives far off the beaten track up in a town called Mata Ortiz, about four hours’ drive west of the capital among the desert sands. The grass by the highway was beautiful. Thin dry hay turned ashen, silver, ivory, and chalk and emerged into green argon trees and ripe orchards of walnuts. Behind the fields the valley’s surface rose like sanded over shark fins, and sudden thorny stalks sprouted out with glossy scarlet flowers perched on top. It’s the desert, and so of course the prettiest flower has a barbed spine.
In the middle of the town of Mata Ortiz there’s an old abandoned train station of myrtle and Brunswick green. It’s one of those things that points to prosperity long gone, a lonely town on an unfrequented route where train tracks end at nothing and five artisans try to sell their desperate wares by the roadside. The station was wistful; chipped paint revealed layers of fading color and wood and gloss. An old net door swung open and closed in the invisible wind, and the desert just stared on.
In Mexico one finds pockets of cuentos which sound like surrealist magic tales. A shoeless young man working in the fields sees a sealed off cave and knows something is inside. He breaks in, and discovers two withered bodies, entangled mummified on the ground, surrounded by dozens of clay pots. This young man gets inspired by the ancient patterns on the pots and teaches himself ceramics. He refines his skill so precisely that he gains recognition, pot by pot. His pots are being sold across the border in the US. His customers keep coming back for more. They keep paying more. And his business, although I really shouldn’t call it that because it’s true art, is born.
When we arrived, Juan Quesada was out on his ranch and so we drove into the forest to wait for him to return. At a certain point, we found a spot to park along the road, rolled under a barbed wire fence and stole into the vastness beyond it.
Forests have moods. They have patches of character and different phases and are often schizophrenic. The entrance to this wood was a rough outer shell, all pinecones and pine trees with gleaming silky points that shimmered in the breeze. Trees were bent and wound around each other, tortured and spiny, and the overhead foliage was thick with branches. The questions you ask yourself when you’re away from everything, the curiosity brought on by a simple rock, an etching in the bark, a how-did-this-happen and a smile shared at the silliness and purity of the question… It’s a quest. You want to notice each detail, each surprise of nature, you leave your other body behind.
The sun was close to setting and its rays were barely brushing the surface, leaving a light coral glow everywhere they touched. A tree trunk had been spun into a corkscrew like a unicorn’s curved horn, and all the while the half-cup moon gazed brightly on overhead.
We went back to meet Juan and to discover his art pieces. The ceramic vases were burned to perfection: uniform sheen, shades deep and glossy and matte. Up close, it was tough to see where their intricate patterns started and ended, and where they metamorphosed into eagle heads and serpents with gaping mouths and flickering tongues. The designs swirled around the pots and back into themselves in solid chunks of delicate color. And the man behind it all, in a cowboy hat and faded jeans and tucked-in olive shirt, stood behind them. We sat in a circle and assigned, brainstormed, divided, discussed.
Juan took us up the dirt track to his ranch and the desert madness continued – we’re approached by an ostrich, whose foot was just one big claw, like the foot of a morbid dinosaur. We spent that night with Juan on his ranch, discussing his art, his inspirations, the fate of the town and the beauty of the desert night. I highly recommend anyone to venture this far out and find the man himself. Spend some time immersing yourself in the desert. However, if you’re short on time, worry not – I can help you get in touch directly with his family and purchase some of these singular works of art and poetry.
Article and photos: Alexa Firmenich