Velocity jar by Virgil Ortiz

Blending Cochiti Tradition & Sci-Fi—Q&A with Artist Virgil Ortiz

Currently on view at the Denver Art Museum is the exhibition Revolt 1680/2180: Virgil Ortiz featuring 31 ceramic works by the eponymous artist. Ortiz's work is a unique blend of tradition and futurism drawn together to create an immersive story line. Recently, I corresponded with Virgil Ortiz through e-mail for insight on his inspirations and approaches to artmaking.

Eric Berkemeyer: When did you first start making ceramics?

Virgil Ortiz: I was born into a family of potters on my mother’s side, so clay was always around, a part of our everyday lives. I still have a figure that my mother purchased from me when I was 6 years old. Of course I took that money and bought Star Wars action figures.

EB: Clay can be a pretty labor-intensive medium, can you give us a brief overview about what sort of work and materials goes into each piece?

VO: I was taught to make Cochiti clay works using traditional methods and materials. The process to make one figure takes roughly three weeks, provided I have all the materials prepped and ready to go. I dig my own red clay and then mix it with crushed pumice stone. The next step is to sculpt the figure or subject. The drying time takes about a week. I then sandpaper it, then slip it eight times with a white clay slip until the piece turns white. Rag polish and then hand paint it with wild spinach, which is our black paint and only vegetal ingredient. The wild spinach takes six–seven days to make, a constant boiling of the leaves, strained then condensing the juice until it caramelizes. It is placed and dried on corn husks and stored for future use. After painting and decorating the figure, we then pit-fire it using cow manure, aspen, or cedar wood.

Gallery view of Revolt 1680/2180: Virgil Ortiz. All artwork copyright Virgil Ortiz.

EB: In the past you’ve talked about the influence of historic Cochiti Pueblo ceramics on your work. What part of this history would you say are most influential on the work in Revolt?

VO: The Vertigo series is the best example in the Revolt exhibition. These pieces I created to revive the lost art of Mono figure making of the late 1800s. These figures were all based on social commentary, large in stature, capturing subjects that were foreign to the people of Cochiti.

EB: The earlier works of your Revolt series reflect on the historic events of 1680 when the pueblos banded together to push the colonial Spanish out of the southwest. Why did you feel that was an important story to tell in clay?

VO: I am not an academic kind of person, so I tell the story of the Pueblo Revolt through all the mediums I work in. This historic event is not taught in our schools or our history books. It has been swept under the carpet. The Revolt is regarded as the First American Revolution and I want to educate the world about this very important and significant event through my art.

EB: You then push this narrative into the future, to the year 2180. How did you approach developing this new story?

VO: As a kid, I was very much captivated by movies such as the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas. I wrote a movie script about the Pueblo Revolt and the storyline tells the event happening simultaneously in 1680 and 2180. This allowed me to bring in the sci-fi aspect of my vision, hoping it will grasp and hold the attention of children. Not only will it provide them with a lesson of our history, but it also gives them a fascinating storyline that is very relevant to society today.

Venutian Soldiers, © Virgil Ortiz.

EB: You also created the large photo murals found in this exhibition. Besides ceramics and graphic design what other media do you work with?

VO: Photography, jewelry, fashion, hospitality design, body paint, hair and make-up, costume design, and fabrication.

EB: Does that work feed back into your ceramics? In what way?

VO: They all do. I bounce back and forth from all of them. One may influence an idea in the other. For instance, if I make a garment, photograph it on a model, it helps me figure out how I sculpt or paint a figure. Or, if I am sculpting, I may figure out a silhouette or how a fabric may hang.

Image credit: Virgil Ortiz, Velocity Jar, 2012. Clay, slip, and wild spinach paint. Promised gift from Vicki and Kent Logan to the collection of the Denver Art Museum. © Virgil Ortiz

Eric Berkemeyer is assistant project manager for exhibitions. Eric has been at the DAM since 2011. He recommends that visitors don’t miss the exhibition Then, Now, Next: Evolution of an Architectural Icon on level two of the Hamilton Building.