When Virgil Ortiz was growing up at Cochiti Pueblo, his imagination soared with such sci-fi classics as “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica.”
Today the groundbreaking artist incorporates that fantastical imagery with traditional and contemporary clay methods woven with the story of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.
This year he’s been named the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Living Treasure, kicking off the Memorial Day Native Treasures Market on May 28-30 at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. The annual designation honors Native artists making outstanding contributions to the field of Indigenous arts and culture.
“They had called me about accepting it,” Ortiz said from his Cochiti Pueblo studio. “I thought it just a nomination. I was very happy; I had no idea. I was very grateful.”
The artist has been working on a film called “Recon Watchmen” to open as the inaugural piece for Santa Fe’s New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary to open this winter.
“We’re going up to the Bisti Badlands” in the Four Corners area, Ortiz said. “It’s like another world, just like White Sands. It’s a really awesome space with rock formations.
“The main focus will be a huge projection of the largest clay pieces I’ve ever done,” he added.
Some of those pieces are 5-feet-tall, 600-pound warriors.
“I’ve always wanted to go large to bring the public into the world of these characters,” Oriz said.
“Their mission is to gather information and store it in their bodies and wait for Po’Pay.” Ortiz said. Po’Pay was the leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.
Ortiz has spent 20 years working on a script, “Revolt 1680/2180,” his sci-fi-meets-pueblo version of the Pueblo Revolt, which takes place in both 1680 and 2180.
The Pueblo Revolt was a revolution against Spanish religious, economic and political institutions imposed upon the pueblos. Historians consider it critical to the survival of pueblo cultural traditions, lands, languages, religions and sovereignty.
“It’s really America’s first revolution, but nobody calls it that,” Ortiz said.
For the new pieces, Ortiz collaborated with award-winning bead artist Elias Not Afraid (Apsaalooké) via Zoom and FaceTime during the pandemic. The work also represents his first dive into color.
“I reached out to some of my friends,” he said. “Elias’ beadwork is amazing.”
The beads sparkle in designs marking the character’s faces like paint.
“I carved into these pieces and left him room” to place the beads, Ortiz continued. “They represent microchips. I’m working with color like never before.”
He fires the glazes multiple times.
“The larger pieces have to dry for at least six months,” he explained. “We have access to hydraulic lifts. Sometimes we need to build inside the kiln. It’s just a whole learning curve.”
Ortiz says he is regularly embarrassed when he shows his work in Europe. In London, Paris and Prague, everyone knows the story of the Pueblo Revolt.
“The Europeans know it more than Americans,” he said. “They all know what I’m talking about. I go to metro areas like New York and Los Angeles and they’ve never heard of it.”
The project is much bigger than Ortiz; it’s about his people.
“I call myself a conduit,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a talent. I get a lot of messages of how to do it, when to release them. It could be my ancestors, it could be my parents. There’s no way to explain it. I’ve never questioned it, whether I’m meditating or zoning out or in dreams.”
Ortiz has won multiple awards at Santa Fe Indian Market, the Heard Museum Indian Market and other events. His pottery can be found in museums worldwide.