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Mata Ortiz Potters

In 1992, when drought parched the plains of Chihuahua, Leonel lost his job in the fields. To pass the time he helped his wife, Elena Rodriguez de Lopez, by sanding her pots and slowly learning the whole process of making pottery. And now he has become one of the most successful potters of Mata Ortiz with many others copying his signature style.

Leonel's hallmark is his sgraffito, etching the surface of the clay rather than painting, and what he creates is immediately recognizable as quintessential Leonel. Feathers radiate around the rims in perfect symmetry. Animals dance and frolic, fish swim, grasshoppers jump and crawl across the surface. Flip through any book of notable potters from Mata Ortiz and you are sure to see lizards skittering or deer leaping from a rich red olla, another of Leonel's creations.

Leonel begins most often with white clay, the hardest to come by, the least elastic and the hardest to work. But it provides the greatest contrast for his etchings. He first sands and then polishes the surface with oil and his favorite polishing stone. He then does a slip for the pot, and most often this is red, but Leonel is also known for his multi-color slips.

Then comes the painstaking work of etching the pot with one of his trademark animal scenes. For this, he uses a dental pick, cutting into the slip and revealing the white clay and unveiling the picture he has in his mind. The pot is then fired and polished again.

Leonel is the best known potter in Barrio Lopez, the part of the village named after his extended family who settled that area.