Virgil Ortiz

The following oral history is the result of a recorded interview with Virgil Ortiz conducted by Katie C. Doyle on March 29, 2023. This interview is part of the Rick Dillingham retrospective “To Make, Unmake, and Make Again” at the New Mexico Museum of Art.


Q: Okay.

Ortiz: No, I remember always [coming] to Santa Fe, and we would be going to his [Rick Dillingham’s] house, I don’t remember where it was, but our mother would—Seferina Ortiz—[he] was her friend. That’s how I got to meet him, but it was really cool to see his process and to share stories with them and we always remember him being very kind and willing to share his knowledge, as we were, right. We always shared the knowledge of how we made our paints from Cochiti, because there’s a special way that we do the black paint, and then also how we fired and it was very similar with what he did, with what the cow manure open-pit fire.

He would buy pieces from me, I knew him as a kid, and then when I started in my teenage years really learning how to create and revive Cochiti historical figure pottery, he had a lot of knowledge. He also knew Bob Gallegos, which was one of my main mentors, as far as resources and having the actual historical figure pottery to go look at and study and handle. At that time, when I was getting into reviving these types of social commentary pieces, Rick would purchase them. I think he had donated maybe fifteen or something like that, ten pieces that I remember seeing at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture when we went there, and I think he had donated those to them. So excited, and he would always encourage and purchase pieces from me.

I had no idea his age when he passed—that’s very young. I always remember him with a big old beard, and I was always fascinated by how he created his huge pots as well. What is that, the broken-pot technique? When he built his pieces, he would bisque them, and then purposely break them apart, and then gluing them back together, applying the gold or the copper or any metal material that connects this type of gilding method back to—it was cool how he did it, and painted them in different shards, different patterns of what you see in all the pueblos. Because when you walk around in different plaza areas you find a lot of the shards with different types of designs on them, so he created his own designs as well as was influenced by numerous pots. He was doing it with a kind heart, so I think that meant a lot rather than just taking advantage of it, because he was friends with a lot of Pueblo people. I know he was influenced by ancestral Puebloan pottery and the people, and his friendships with everybody proves that he was a good dude.

I know he studied with Paul Soldner—I learned about him and I visited his home in Aspen, that’s where it was at, I can’t remember, but it was pretty cool to look at his home and the type of energies that people Paul or Rick Dillingham had around them. They were able to communicate with other potters and share their knowledge and I think Rick was at UNM [University of New Mexico] like you said he studied—UNM, and also I learned about Maxwell Museum through Robert Gallegos as well, so I know he was big down there and also the book that he wrote, the [Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery], and then later another came out of Fourteen Families in Pueblo Pottery. My family was included in that too, so that was pretty cool to be a part of this and to get to—because when you’re meeting people you don’t know the importance of who they are until later, and then see how the show explained how many friends he had in all the different pueblos, the relationships he created and the knowledge that was passed back and forth. It was really amazing to see, but yes, I knew him as a kid and then also got to really know him a little bit more in my teenage years, so what I can recall was he was a really awesome dude, very talented and very kind.

Q: There’s a photo of you in his Fourteen Families book, it’s a ten-year-old you, and he extracted a quote.

Ortiz: Oh no.

Q: From you. About why pottery is important to you as a ten-year-old, so let me find it and get it scanned and send it to you if you want. [Laughter] It’s a trip. That’s why I chose to reach out to you, because I was like, “Oh, Virgil! Virgil knew Rick! Virgil probably has some stories!”

Ortiz: I know we were in shows together, it was Gallery 10 or something that represented him as well, and that was way back in the day with working with Roxanne Swentzell and Doug Hyde, the Youngbloods [of Santa Clara Pueblo], all these people that were in [Santa Fe] Indian Market and also at galleries like Gallery 10 on Canyon Road and Lee Cohen was the owner of that, I think. Yes, he knew everybody, Rick did, so that shows exactly how interactive he was within all these different families that created with Pueblo techniques.

Q: I have to have my questions list here. I hope that’s okay. We already talked about how you met and your relationship with him, and you talked about him having a kind heart. Beyond kindness and the beard [laughter], how would you describe him?

Ortiz: He was always supportive. His voice was very gentle, he was very approachable, and hands-on in everything and knowing that he worked in clay as well, which helped me let my guards down to really interact with him and share stories and stuff, and always look forward to visitations, whether he came to our house or—we mainly went to his home, or, I don’t know if it was a gallery. I can’t remember, but I think it was his home. To see all of the shards that he was working on, he would paint and then glue them back together. At first I was like, “Why do you break your pottery up and put it back together?” But I like them. They were really cool, and he always gave us something to eat as well. That’s just kindness, but that’s what Pueblo people do. When they invite you into their home they’re, “Here’s coffee, here’s a soda, here’s water, here’s tea, whatever, here’s something to eat.” He picked that up and that made me feel comfortable as well.

Q: What do you remember most vividly about him?

Ortiz: His beard. [Laughter] That sounds so funny, but it’s this white dude making pottery, because, back in the day we weren’t exposed to a lot of artwork, pottery and stuff, except only indigenous people that worked with clay. During Indian Market time, those relationships go way far back. I remember sleeping underneath my parents’ pottery table. Getting there early in the morning and I’d sleep under there, me and my cousins, and then we’d wake up and then enjoy Indian Market. Yes, it’s just funny how I’ve always remembered him being kind and his beard and really always talking about clay.

Q: How did you, and we talked a little bit about this, but how did you see that kindness and generosity manifesting itself in what work you remember or the work that you saw in his studio? Or even in the way that he worked, if he ever worked around you?

Ortiz: We watched him work and he explained a lot of it, but it wasn’t in the nitty gritty of it. For him to support us and to really share his knowledge of all the historic Cochiti figure pottery and share his ideas [pause] for him to purchase anything that we made, that was very awesome of him to do, and that’s what I want to do with all the up-and-coming potters is to help them, purchase their pieces, encourage them to keep going because it is a dying art form, Cochiti, so hopefully I make that connection, my family does, to the next generation, I hope it doesn’t die out. Having Rick as a resource, not only for money but for friendship and sharing knowledge—it was priceless. Him doing what he did and to write those two books, or all the studies that he did, he was a treasure trove of knowledge and about all these different families that created it, and that’s—if he didn’t do it, I don’t know, all that knowledge would have been lost. We’re pretty much all thankful to him and what he accomplished.

Q: Do you have a favorite story or memory of him?

Ortiz: He helped me name what we called the revival pieces, and they all looked like faucet hands, what was we called them. That was a funny, yes, a funny memory, because a lot of these pieces that were from the 1800s, they all had these funny-looking hands that were very cartoon-looking like and maybe instead of having five fingers they had three or four. I remember talking with him and Robert Gallegos, they’re like, “Oh yeah, we’ll just call ‘em faucet hands,” because we really didn’t know what to call them, except monos, right, but that’s what all the figurative pottery were called at Cochiti were monos. He’s [Rick’s] like, “Okay, can I get an order for faucet hands?” I knew exactly what he was talking about, but if you look at your old bathroom fixtures, where the four little ceramic handles, that’s what their hands looked like. That’s a fond memory of him is how we named them with Robert Gallegos, calling them faucet hands.

Q: Is there anything else? I know that sometimes in these conversations new things will sprout up like daisies as you’re talking and remembering. Is there anything else that you would like us to know or anything else coming up before we finish up or other clarifications that you would like to make?

Ortiz: We’re talking about Rick, right?

Q: Yes.

Ortiz: I have nothing. I’m just thankful to him for contributing and making friendships throughout Indian Country and all the indigenous artists who got the chance to know him, it’s pretty cool. Thankful for what I did, writing those books. I don’t know if he wrote the Fourteen Families or if it was just an extension of the Seven Families book, but for him to do that was incredible. I’m thankful for him, I don’t know how many people he supported, for us to continue our artwork and to purchase our pieces, so that was a highlight as well.

Q: Thank you, Virgil. And this will probably be living in our digital archive – I’m just gonna keep recording, and we can end the interview here, but just in case anything else pops up as we’re wrapping up, we’ll have record of it.