Back to the Earth: Virgil Ortiz

Born into a family of potters and raised in Cochiti Pueblo, Virgil Ortiz always knew he wanted to be an artist. In addition to pottery, his work ranges from a fashion line to a Cochiti-inspired jewelry collaboration with the Smithsonian to his ongoing multimedia project Revolt 1680/2180, in which Pueblo history meets sci-fi. He has collaborated with Donna Karan, designed costumes and sets for a special Sun Ra performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and created an installation for Meow Wolf. Ortiz received the 2022 Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s Living Treasure Award.


I am a potter at heart. I was raised in a family of potters. The traditional work is the heart and soul of everything that I do. It’s the nucleus, and all the other different types of medium orbit around it. I keep that work, the traditional clay, only at Cochiti. My mom would always say, “Do it again.” When you work with clay, clay’s the master, right? It’s gonna teach you what you can and can’t do. It's gonna humble you quickly. You have to respect the clay, get in tune with the clay.


Where we’re filming right now is very special to me. It’s on the outskirts of Cochiti Pueblo. This is where we’ve been getting clay for a long time. When I was a kid, the whole family would go on a trip once a year to gather the clay. We’d bring it home, store it in the barn until it got bone-dry, because it comes out of the earth damp, and it’s so pure, hence very hard to work with, and sticky. It takes a year to process the clay. Working with the land and the natural materials that come from it, it’s pretty amazing to see the transformation that all the materials go through.


When I was in high school and I couldn’t afford the clothes I’d seen in magazines, that sparked me to try to make my own clothes. I learned how to sew from my mother and my sisters. Right away, I started creating with leather and vinyl latex. After I did that, I found out that those are the hardest materials to work with. Now I can make any kind of clothing that I’ve seen or that I want. It developed into costuming, and now a full line of ready-to-wear–and high-end leather handbags, accessories, cuffs, everything like that.


I wanted to tell the story of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt happening simultaneously in two different time dimensions, 2180 and 1680. Jumping back and forth, teleporting and time jumping. That’s where the Indigenous futurism came into play. I developed 19 groups of characters that represent the 19 pueblos that are still left in New Mexico today. Creating all these characters allowed me to bring in the sci-fi storytelling aspect, which I loved as a kid. I was highly impacted by the Star Wars movies. I’d seen the original when I was six or seven years old, and it stuck with me. I knew all the characters–where they came from, what they did, how they dressed, what kind of ships they drove, the languages, the costuming.


I feel I’m here on earth to make sure that Cochiti pottery, using traditional methods and materials, doesn’t die out as an art form, because all of our masters are passing away. The second part of why I feel I’m here on this earth is to educate the world about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Most people don’t know of that historic moment, even though it was America’s first revolution. I want to educate using art. The more art I make about it, the more it brings attention to it so we don’t repeat it.


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