The Clay Conjurer

October 13, 2022 Craftsmanship Initiative Season 4 Episode 21
The Clay Conjurer
More Info
The Clay Conjurer
Oct 13, 2022 Season 4 Episode 21
Craftsmanship Initiative

Felipe Ortega was known for his controversial opinions on culture, as well as his expertise with an unusual form of pottery. He devoted his life to bucking tradition, in more ways than one.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the original version, which was first published in our Spring 2015 issue. This update contains historical and culturally-based corrections, along with new reporting.

"The Clay Conjurer" originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Craftsmanship Quarterly, a multimedia, online magazine about artisans, innovators, and the architecture of excellence. You'll find many more stories, videos, audio recordings, and other resources on our site — all free of charge and free of advertising.


Introduction by CHRIS EGUSA


Produced by CHRIS EGUSA


Show Notes Transcript

Felipe Ortega was known for his controversial opinions on culture, as well as his expertise with an unusual form of pottery. He devoted his life to bucking tradition, in more ways than one.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the original version, which was first published in our Spring 2015 issue. This update contains historical and culturally-based corrections, along with new reporting.

"The Clay Conjurer" originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Craftsmanship Quarterly, a multimedia, online magazine about artisans, innovators, and the architecture of excellence. You'll find many more stories, videos, audio recordings, and other resources on our site — all free of charge and free of advertising.


Introduction by CHRIS EGUSA


Produced by CHRIS EGUSA


The Clay Conjurer

Felipe Ortega (1951 - 2018) devoted his life to creating the perfect pot of beans—and to bucking tradition, in more ways than one. 

It took Felipe Ortega four years to find the elusive, perfect bean pot in a neighboring village, 11 miles from his home in Northern New Mexico. This was the pot that was supposed to make him like pinto beans for the first time. As a 13-year-old, he had first asked around his own village of La Madera, where he was related to more than half of the 150 inhabitants. When Ortega finally found the pot he was looking for, he also met the last person in the area who knew how to make one. The trick, it seemed, was to use a locally sourced, raw material called micaceous clay, and then form the vessel with a traditional, coil-and-scrape pottery method that dates back at least 2,000 years in the American Southwest—where it traveled from much earlier origins in Mexico, around 4,000 years ago. But the woman who had made this pot was 90 years old and blind; she couldn’t make any more. Did he want to learn how to do it?

Just the day before this discovery, on May 24, 1969, Ortega had celebrated his high-school graduation. The fifth son of eight children, he was a devout Catholic and had been accepted into seminary. He had no intention of becoming a potter. But he wanted to prove his mother wrong—that no cooking vessel would make pinto beans taste good.

Ortega’s decision to accept the potter’s offer would accelerate the arc of his life into some untraveled realms—regarding his pottery, his spirituality, and his very identity. It would also spark controversy among Native Americans who are protective of their traditions—and wary of outsiders. As Ortega would later learn, the type of clay pot that he wanted to make helped his ancestors survive; to some, in fact, it’s the quintessential symbol of the traditions of his people, the Jicarilla Apache tribe.


Mica flakes are used around the world as a pigment enhancer in paint; an insulator in the heating and cooling industry; a surface coating in asphalt shingles; and as a glittery shine in makeup. Micaceous clay develops from eroding mica bedrock and is found in specific volcanic regions, says B. Sunday Eiselt, Ph.D., an anthropological archaeologist and associate professor at Southern Methodist University, who has written extensively about micaceous clay, and about Jicarilla Apache culture. 

The material is prized because the mica’s insulating properties add to the power of clay, which is already one of the world’s best insulators. “The mica,” Eiselt says, has “certain electrical and physical properties that make it ideal for a cooking pot.” From 1998 to 2002, Eiselt spent every summer as Ortega’s apprentice while doing research for her own work. “You can take this pot and put it on a stovetop” she says—that is, over a burner, with no protection underneath. “You can’t do that with a plain clay pot.”

Equally important, given the American West’s worsening droughts, clay seems born for one food in particular: beans—a plant that demands little water, yet delivers mounds of protein and other nutrients. All of which turns the prospect of an unusually luscious pot of beans into a very timely quest.

Ortega’s teacher, Jesusita Martinez—who was also Jicarilla Apache, from the village of Petaca—told her son-in-law to take Ortega to some nearby clay pits and help him dig. Then,  Ortega started making pots. From the end of May to the beginning of August 1969, Ortega visited his teacher once a week so she could check his progress. He practiced the simple techniques Martinez had learned as a young woman: rolling out breadstick-sized coils of clay and piling them up in circles until they formed a uniform vessel with a gentle, feminine curve. Then, before the clay dried, he had to smooth out each coil without ruining the pot’s hard-won shape.

Since Martinez couldn’t see Ortega’s work, she rubbed her hands over his pots so she could tell him what he’d done wrong. His first five pots broke in the fire but the sixth survived, and it still sat, unglazed but shimmering nonetheless, on the top shelf of the studio behind his home in La Madera. It was a simple, reddish-brown pot, the sparkly flecks of mica plainly visible on shoulders that curved inward to make a small, constricted neck.

Ortega kept that pot for sentimental reasons, but soon learned what it took to make a perfect bean pot. At first, he built pots with thick walls, the way most beginners do, until he saw the thin walls of his ancestors’ pots in museums in Santa Fe and Denver. That’s when he realized that he had to make his own pots almost dangerously thin—down to a fragile, one-quarter of an inch—so they could absorb heat efficiently and be light enough to handle.


Ortega, who was 63 at the time of my visit, would gather his clay twice a year, cultivating 3,000 to 4,000 pounds at a time on top of Clay Mountain, which sports a 70-degree incline on one side and could be seen from his property in La Madera. To add shimmer to his pottery, he coated it with mica-rich clay that he gathered from another peak called La Petaca. For years, like other local potters, he dug from pits on U.S. Forest Service land. He moved seven times, whenever other potters discovered the pits and the digging started getting messy. Then, in 1998, an acquaintance let him have a pit all to himself on a piece of private land.

La Madera lies an hour north of Santa Fe near Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort, a popular tourist destination. Ortega grew up in this 5-mile-long, remote village where horses and cows graze close to the road. When I visited in 2015, La Madera was home to roughly 50 families, who still lived without cell phone service. The morning light was pouring into his studio when I arrived and Ortega was already at work, hunched over a clay pot. He was dressed simply for messy work, wearing his long gray hair pulled away from his face in a looped-under ponytail, revealing small, silver-and-coral stud earrings. In these comfortable, humble surroundings, someone who did not know who he was might never suspect the renown he had gained for his work—or the substantial credentials he had accumulated. Over the years, Ortega traveled the world, earned two master’s degrees, and learned 10 languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Swiss German, Apache, a little Croatian, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek).

Back when he was a boy, and he cooked beans in that sixth pot, Ortega told his mother she was right. There was no comparison between his beans and hers (which were cooked with lots of salt in a pressure cooker). Ortega was seldom short of words but repeatedly said, "Oh my God," in his attempt to describe why food tastes different in these pots, which he said he had been using continuously since 1976. In Apache, he called the food da’/likao go/lini ("it tastes sweet").

Many people believe they taste something special in food that has been cooked in clayware. The opinions about exactly what that is—or whether it’s even real—vary widely. 

Katharine Kagel, long the exclusive seller of Ortega’s pots from the art gallery above her popular Santa Fe restaurant, Café Pasqual’s, speaks effusively about cooking in micaceous clay pots, which she uses almost exclusively in her home. Kagel first met Ortega in 1996 after discovering her neighbor’s collection of Ortega pots. The neighbor told her that Ortega made both pots and hornos (outdoor clay ovens, which Ortega used for baking bread). The next morning, Kagel  called Ortega to order an horno; he arrived at her farmhouse about an hour later with a bag of “dry-land” pinto beans (grown without irrigation, only rainwater) and one of his 4-quart bean pots. He told her to add water to cook the beans—no salt, no oil, nothing else—and to call him in the morning. “I was blown away. I asked him if he would sell his pots in our gallery,” she says.

Many people have tried to define what makes food taste differently in these pots. Retired archaeologist Richard Ford, Ph.D., believes a micaceous pot is self-seasoned, leaching its own salts into food. Steve Sando, who grows and sells heirloom beans through his California-based company, Rancho Gordo, believes he can detect different flavors depending on the pot’s type of clay: smokier flavors from the black bean pots of Columbia, earthy flavors from Mexican pottery, and saltier flavors from micaceous pots. Paula Wolfert, perhaps America's leading expert on cooking with clay pots, says there is "a certain brightness" in food cooked in micaceous clayware. "It's got punch," she says. "It tastes earthier. But with Felipe's, it's so strong. It's vivid. It's like eating something in technicolor." 

Much of Kagel’s enthusiasm derives from a very simple attribute that these and most other clay vessels possess: curves. “Metal pots have straight sides so they don’t capture the essence of the food,” Kagel says. “The flavor is on the ceiling.” That lost steam, in Kagel’s view, is what leads cooks to add too much water. “That’s diluting the flavor,” she says. “This is capturing the flavor, and the properties of the clay.”

That may be all the more true with an Ortega pot. One of the distinguishing characteristics of his work was his ability to make lids that fit perfectly into the pot’s overall curve. That in itself is a mark of skill, because ceramic parts tend to shrink away from each other during the intense firing process, which typically goes well beyond 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But when it comes to how heat behaves in a clay pot while it’s cooking food, in comparison with other pots, that is another question entirely.

When I asked Ortega to explain how micaceous pots cook differently from their steel cousins, he took me inside his home, a thick-walled, adobe building next door to his childhood home—where his 95-year-old mother still lived at the time. Clay pots hung above the wood stove and lined the wall on the other side. One small, round pot sat on a low-burning flame, his lunch of beef stew slowly simmering inside. He picked up the pot with his bare hands, moving it to the counter and back again to show that he didn’t have to use hot pads. “The mica is an insulator,” Ortega explained. “It wants to keep the pot cold if the weather is cold. If you apply heat to it, it wants to keep it hot.”

To test Ortega’s hunches, Eiselt and a graduate student conducted experiments with eight cooking pots Ortega had made. Each pot was the same size and shape, but made with different thicknesses and composed of different clay compositions (mixtures of plain and micaceous paste). Their goal was to see whether there was a difference between how plain clay and micaceous pots heat up and stay hot, and whether the thickness of a pot’s walls have any effect. For an hour, they took the water’s temperature every 2 minutes, then again for a half-hour after removing the pots from the burners. They found no difference in either heating or cooling time based on wall thickness. As for the type of clay, both the plain and clay pots also took roughly the same amount of time to heat up. But the mica pots held their heat significantly longer than those made of plain clay.

“It’s not so much that you cut down the cooking time, but you definitely cut down on the resources,” Ortega said. “After it boils, it becomes totally efficient, and you lower your heat and save energy. It will continue to boil for five more minutes after you put it on the table, and the food will stay warm throughout the meal.” In 2009, Ortega and Eiselt presented their results to the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

The porous nature of clay also allows both moisture and heat to circulate slowly, thus making these vessels ideal for followers of the slow-food movement. “This indicates why this clay may have been chosen to make cookware—the tradition around cooking in Northern New Mexico is low and slow," Eiselt says. “Traditionally, things cooked in these pots are stews.”

Whatever its attributes, or lack thereof, there seems to be something about a clay pot that pushes our atavistic buttons, making a cook feel connected to our most primal past. After all, a clay pot was the result of mankind’s first effort to make a cooking vessel. Quite possibly, people who love pottery appreciate this fact, even if only unconsciously. “I love that someone figured out so long ago that this will work for generations,” Kagel said. “I love that it changes color the more I use it, so it brings my personal history forward. I revere the authenticity, and all the wisdom encapsulated in it. Felipe is not manufacturing these. This is earth, wind, and fire.” Even before 


The same year that he made his first pot, Ortega left New Mexico to pursue a college education. He had initially planned to become a priest, a choice that brought him academic grants from the Roman Catholic Church for 9 years of undergraduate and postgraduate education. (Ortega was raised by an elementary school teacher who practiced the Socratic style, even at home, and most of his siblings went to college, too.) After earning a bachelor's degree in linguistics and classical languages at Duns Scotus College in Detroit, he went on to graduate studies in biblical theology and divinity at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.

While studying religion, Ortega realized that Catholic and Apache morality conflicted. Within his small, Northern New Mexico community and within his family, Ortega was accepted as a “two-spirit,” a term some Native Americans use to describe gender-variant people. (While Ortega acknowledged past relationships with both women and men, he said he was no longer interested in relationships; for him, being a two-spirit was about blending masculine and feminine interests.) When he was a youngster, Ortega’s Apache father taught him not to judge anyone, and to accept everyone. It wasn’t until he attended seminary that he realized the Catholic Church considered being a two-spirit a sin.

In the years that followed, Ortega discovered that he came from a greater mix of cultures than he had thought. When he met Jewish people at college, he realized his Catholic maternal grandmother had practiced Jewish traditions as well (lighting one candle at sunset every Friday evening, baking unleavened braided bread, and lighting eight bonfires around Christmastime). It was an ancestry so well-hidden for generations—a fear passed down from the Spanish Inquisition, when Spain ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain—that his mother denied any connection.

After yet another period of anthropological study, consulting with the state historian about Jews in New Mexico, Ortega learned that the maternal side of his family were Crypto-Jews who, to remain free and safe, became what Ortega viewed as ultra-Catholic—under the name Penitentes, a local Christian organization that appeared in Northern New Mexico during the late colonial period and continues to this day. Suddenly, Ortega understood why the men of his community had worn masks and traveled to each house that lit December bonfires, requiring the children to kneel and recite their prayers in Spanish to prove they were Catholic.

Ortega abandoned his formal religious studies in 1976, and returned home with no plans and no income. But at least he could make pots, so his father suggested he sell them at Taos Pueblo, a Native American village about an hour’s drive away. When people wandering by his booth told him that the Jicarilla Apache were never potters, Ortega sought to prove them wrong.

Archaeologists and potters have debated for years about which population made micaceous pottery first—a challenging question due to poor access to ancient pits, the nomadic nature of the Jicarilla Apache, and the tendency of different tribes to intermarry. To parse such a complex history, Ortega embarked on an ambitious archaeological mission. After researching his own origins, and those of micaceous clay, he spent four summers helping Eiselt gather 300 to 400 clay samples from roughly two dozen ancient pits in Northern New Mexico. Eiselt then studied each sample through a process called neutron activation analysis. In the end, she traced micaceous pottery to all kinds of tribes—Jicarilla Apache, as well as Tiwa and Tewa Indians such as Taos, Picurís, Tesuque, Pojoaque, Nambé, and Santa Clara Pueblos. Even people of mixed Hispanic-Indian heritage joined the micaceous pottery craft by trading for pottery as well as for raw clay. “It is a transcultural tradition,” Eiselt says. “Everybody has done it.”

Once Ortega realized how little was left of his own tribe’s pottery tradition, he made a bold move: He resolved to teach it to the world. That decision did not sit well with many other Native Americans, who are protective of their heritage. Understandable as that may be—as so much has been lost to time, colonialism, termination and relocation, and the reservation system—it didn’t make sense to Ortega—a man whose mother is full-blooded Hispanic and whose father is half Hispanic, half Jicarilla Apache. “Should I take out the three-quarters of my blood that is Hispanic when I make my pots?” he asked. “Everything is a mix. My ancestors weren’t making closed casseroles. Why do we have to codify tradition?”

According to Emily Haozous, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, and a Fort Sill Chiricahua Apache, the reasons for not openly sharing such traditions are crystal clear:

“The colonized world has a very different perspective from Indigenous peoples when it comes to knowledge,” says Haozous. “For most people, knowledge of any sort is yours for the taking. People are only limited by time, money, and their cognitive capacity. If someone wants to learn, by all means, go out there and learn it! But in our Indigenous lifeways, there is a very different approach to the ownership of knowledge. In contrast to this egalitarian ideal of education, many Indigenous cultures understand that knowledge is protected, and different people or groups in a community are allowed access to different types of knowledge. Knowledge of the sacred sites where micaceous clay can be found is definitely considered special and protected knowledge in the Pueblo communities in New Mexico.” 

When micaceous bowls are sold as art, they can cost as much as $10,000 each. Ortega’s price stayed the same for more than 22 years: $100 a quart. “I’m of the opinion that everyone should be using micaceous clayware for cooking,” he said. “So, do I make it so cost prohibitive that only affluent people can afford it? I can’t see becoming so greedy that I am going to abuse Mother Earth.”

Ortega estimated that he had taught more than 3,000 students since he first started offering workshops through Ghost Ranch in the early 1980s. Eventually, he expanded his teaching to public school districts across the state, as well as to Santa Fe Community College and Northern New Mexico Community College. He also taught many Pueblo Indians in New Mexico and students in Mexico. He traveled to the University of Michigan each year to give classes to archaeology and art students, and used his anthropological investigations to assist surveys, sometimes pointing out aspects of a site that the archaeologists didn’t notice. “He has had an enormous influence on archaeology at Michigan and here,” said Ford, who has now retired to Santa Fe, where he cooks beans and posole in the pots he made under Ortega’s tutelage. Ford joked that Ortega was probably more famous in India than in the U.S., because so many East Indians traveled here to study with him.


Lonnie Vigil is a well-known potter from Nambé Pueblo who has won more than 100 awards for his micaceous clayware, which helped establish micaceous pottery as objects of high art. Vigil doesn’t expect his water jugs to be used as anything other than art and he never publicizes his pottery prices, as a matter of privacy. While he has been publicly critical of Ortega’s decision to teach non-Natives, the two potters remained good friends. Yet conflict around this topic persisted throughout the region’s Native tribes.

On one side are a few Taos Pueblo potters who think only Taos and Picuris Pueblos should make this clayware, believing their ancestors were the region’s first micaceous potters. Vigil accepts their position, but knows the craft is also traditional to his village, a Tewa community about 20 miles north of Santa Fe. To Vigil, all this sharing has led to what he calls “cultural misappropriation.” He didn’t mind Ortega teaching people the art of pottery, but he’s bothered, he says, when non-Natives set up a market “like they are Natives. It feels like such a violation, like thievery. As a Native person, I feel this tradition belongs to us.”

Haozous points out that there is a well-known federal law, “The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644), that prevents people who are not enrolled members of federal or state-recognized tribes from advertising their products as Native American-made. 

“The artists who take offense at Mr. Ortega’s practices are certainly aware of the act,” Haozous stated via email. In Native American cultures, “Producing any item—whether it’s a carving, a piece of pottery or a beaded necklace—is a form of prayer, from the moment of conception to the moment of completion, and prayer is sacred.” 

Ortega himself was not so sure about Vigil’s term: cultural misappropriation. “Taking something from someone’s culture and making it your own... hmmm,” he said. “It is interesting that a lot of people have a myopic vision of who they are. Whenever you have cultures interacting with one another, you’re going to have bleeding across and sharing of concepts and traditions.”

A prime example, in Ortega's mind, were the very homes that Pueblo Indians are known for—buildings made of mud adobe. “I'm grateful the tradition came to the New World.” One might call it the inevitable chaos of history, and it left Ortega with a question: "Why should there be a limit [to sharing]? We would be in trouble if we didn’t have wheat. Everyone has been talking behind my back—‘Why is Felipe Ortega teaching these white people how to make this pottery? It’s our tradition, our livelihood.’” 

As it happens, both Ortega and Vigil's families have Hispanic blood. Yet Vigil says he doesn’t recognize that side of himself because he was raised entirely as a Native. Like many Native Americans, Vigil has never quite gotten over what both Hispanics and whites took from his people. For him, clay is the last straw. “What more do they want from us?” he asks.

As Haozous wrote, “The issue is not just about protecting a physical location, or stopping people from learning how to make clay coil pots. The issue is about sharing sacred knowledge with people who have not earned or been given permission to own that knowledge.”

It’s no surprise, then, that many potters who work in the Native tradition, no matter what their bloodlines, feel protective of these clay pits. For many Native American potters, there is a religious connection to gathering the clay and making pottery for traditional feasts. And, no matter what one's identity, it’s becoming harder all the time to get at the clay. Mining, and the increase of private land ownership, have gradually diminished the number of pits that are easily accessible. Getting to them now requires travel on narrow, winding, treacherous roads in mountainous areas, with no cell phone reception in an environment where it’s easy to get stranded. Sharp rocks puncture tires. Washed out roads are common. If you have to turn around, you might find yourself in a place where there is no room to do so.


When Ortega collected his clay, he would say prayers in his head, asking Mother Earth for forgiveness for intruding, and thanking her for her gifts. Then he would leave his own gifts of cornmeal. Sometimes he also brought pots, or offered her jewelry. “If Mother Earth is generous and gracious to us, we also have to be gracious and giving,” he said.

Ortega stored his clay outside his studio, in a mound that didn't look much different from the surrounding dirt. His ancestors used deer hides to clean the clay, then built it into pots on top of a ring of corn husks. Ortega cleaned his clay with a cement mixer and a window screen. When it was time to make a pot, he would reach for a yellow plastic bag from the local Dollar Store, press the bag over a turntable, and coat it with Pam cooking spray to keep the clay from sticking. His teacher had taught him to use the lid of a Spam can to scrape the pot smooth as it takes shape, just as she had learned to do. Dried gourds are also traditionally used as pot-scrapers. But Ortega eventually moved on to using professional potter’s tools for scraping, as well as agates he had collected for polishing.

The phone rang often as Ortega worked, and he would always answer it, in Spanish and English. He had to—he also ran a bed-and-breakfast, housed photography students for a friend six times a year, taught five-day pottery workshops, and took on apprentices who lived and worked with him. He worked through every conversation, the phone’s receiver squeezed between his chin and shoulder, while finishing a four-quart casserole pot in less than 20 minutes. As we talked, he made his points by asking rhetorical questions, followed by a long “Hmmmm?”. His voice was teasing at times, which helped me understand why his friends and former students described him as an uninhibited, exuberant person, who sometimes explained techniques by singing dirty ditties.

Since micaceous pottery isn’t glazed, great care must be taken to make it smooth. Ortega would begin by working over a finished pot with a metal scraper. Once it was dry, he sanded it with a sandstone. Then he would polish it by adding three layers of “slip”—muddy clay, but in this case, a form with a higher concentration of mica that looks and feels like heavy cream. On the third layer, he used smooth agates to finish the polish, then he wiped the pot with a damp sponge. As a final step before firing, he would warm his pottery in an outdoor kiln. If it isn’t completely dry before firing, clay will crack in the blazing fire that follows.

Some modern potters use intense gas or electric kilns that can approach or even exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, with thermostats that carefully control temperatures. Ortega, like most traditional Pueblo potters practicing today, simply built an outdoor fire next to his studio with newspapers and wood. He would sprinkle the fire with cornmeal (another gesture of thanks to Mother Earth), place the pots on top of a long grill rack, then encircle them with wide strips of bark until I could barely see them. While watching this process, I was standing at least 10 feet away, yet my jeans felt hot on my legs.

As the fire roared to right around 1500 degrees, the pots turned surprisingly black, then gradually regained their earthy, reddish-brown color, telling Ortega they were done. The entire firing process took 15 or 20 minutes. That’s barely enough time to get the attention of most pottery, which sits in higher temperature kilns overnight, sometimes longer. Ortega told me the mica is what allows for quick firing. Its insulating capacities slow the absorption of the fire’s heat; there is no thermal shock. So, you can put a mica pot directly on a fire that is already roaring hot without cracking it—something that could never be done with a standard clay pot.

Of the thousands of students Ortega had taught, he thought that only about 1 percent—maybe 30 people—went on to produce micaceous pottery for sale, and almost all of that was cookware. He had seen some students get greedy, but that didn’t bother him. “The important thing is people experience Clay Mother,” he said. “Who does it is immaterial to me.” Ortega even encouraged his students to surpass him. “If this tradition is going to continue, I need these guys to be innovative,” he said. It was nearing lunchtime, and Ortega stopped for food and a siesta. As he cleaned up his firing area, he paused for a moment, looking reflective. “I can’t sit and preach and have a soapbox,” he said. “What I’m doing is one bean pot at a time.”