The sound called Virgil Ortiz when he was 15 years old.
The Cochiti Pueblo artist’s world opened up when he saw the ancestors of today’s storytellers in an art dealer’s gallery in Albuquerque. He had already formed similar characters himself.
Robert Gallegos asked Ortiz’s parents why his characters looked the way they did. They didn’t look like traditional storytellers. When Gallegos invited Ortiz and his parents into his showroom, the door closed on them.
“He had the largest collection of Cochiti pottery in the country,” Ortiz said. (My work) “looked like the historical pieces. That was an aha moment. My parents said, ‘The tone chose you.’ ”
In his 40-year career, the Cochiti Pueblo artist learned traditional methods from his mother and grandmother. Right from the start, he has pushed boundaries and given the early clay characters a passion for fashion and science fiction. These evolved into life-size futuristic characters from a script he wrote about the Pueblo revolt of 1680.
“Virgil Ortiz: reVOlution” by Charles S. King (Museum of New Mexico Press) examines this creative path in ceramics, design, fashion, film, jewelry and decoration. With his art since his first clay figure: a busty woman in a man’s suit and bow tie at the age of 6, he has continued to make social comments.
Generations of Ortiz’s family developed the unmistakable Cochiti style: geometric black patterns on an ivory-colored background on clay bodies. Although Ortiz was immediately identified with the storyteller characters developed by Helen Cordero in the 1960s, Ortiz dates his approach to a much earlier and more edgy ancestor.
When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company roared Albuquerque in 1880, it carried circus performances, opera singers and tourists, characters the locals had never seen before. The artists of Cochiti began creating figurative pieces called “monos” that serve as social commentary on these “intruders”.
Ortiz had started making Star Wars figures at the age of 8 after leaving Santa Fe Indian Market in 1977 to see the film. He later sculpted characters on controversial topics such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Women’s March, and Donald Trump.
Today he weaves these influences into his own screenplay “Revolt 1680/2180”, his sci-fi-meets-pueblo version of the pueblo revolt, which takes place in both 1680 and 2180. During his travels he met the European event, but most Americans had never heard of it.
The pueblo uprising was a revolution against the religious, economic and political institutions of Spain imposed on the pueblos. Historians consider it vital to the survival of the cultural traditions, countries, languages, religions, and sovereignty of the pueblos.
“It is considered the first American revolution,” said Ortiz.
The artist designed 19 groups of characters, one group from each New Mexico pueblo. In a fusion of art and history, he introduces a new character with each exhibition.
After successfully working with the fashion mogul Donna Karan, he developed boldly patterned textiles based on his graphic decorative painting.
Sexuality sizzles through his creations. His figures stand smooth and curved, some with piercings and bare breasts. Ortiz drew from his experience in underground SM clubs in the US and Europe.
“It’s part of fashion,” he explained, “leather and latex and vinyl. It’s like a costume too. It goes back to making caricatures out of clay. They think they’re daring, but I thought, ‘Look what our grandparents did.’ My things are pretty tame by comparison. Some of them showed the sale of prostitutes. Everything is documented in the sound. “
Ortiz decided to create the book to help people understand how all the pieces of his work fit into an innovative puzzle. Author Charles King has shown Ortiz’s work in his galleries in Scottsdale, Arizona and Santa Fe for the last 20 years. “I worked on it as a kind of mid-career retrospective,” he said. “I’ve seen this amazing progress and growth in him, this energy. Everything he touches is gold.
“He’s always one step ahead of the trend, the fashion,” he continued. “That makes it exciting.”
Before each exhibition, King interviewed Ortiz and wrote down his answers.
“It was how do I (my clients) tell what he thinks and how it makes sense?” King said. “I think it 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 stared at you like they didn’t know what you were talking about.”
Ortiz recently returned from an invited residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, where he created life-size figures in their oversized kilns. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe will show the work next Memorial Day weekend. Ortiz will also co-curate an exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the Santa Fe Indian Market in August 2022.
Recently named a Native Treasure by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Ortiz has won multiple awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market, Heard Museum Indian Market, and other events. His ceramics can be found in museums around the world.
When he’s at home in Cochiti, Ortiz still digs for clay with his family and plucks wild spinach for its black color to process using the traditional coil method.
For him everything goes back to the Pueblo revolt. He’s stitching the story into a futuristic theme.
“It’s my way of doing something for a younger generation,” he said. “It just has to be cool and modern. You get a history lesson. “