Micaceous Pottery: A Northern New Mexico Tradition

Written by Elizabeth Rose

December 6, 2021
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Micaceous pottery is a Northern New Mexico tradition. Discover those traditions, chat with the artisans, and discover how you can buy your own pottery for cooking, bringing a bit of New Mexico home.

Even though this hand-made pottery is designed to be utilitarian, it sparkles. The soft red-brown color of the clay and the organic sparkle made me want to learn more about micaceous pottery. My first encounter with micaceous cookware was after a healthy brunch at Café Pasqual’s in downtown Santa Fe and a short visit to their upstairs gallery. On their shelves were simple micaceous pots, perfectly shaped, and suitable for cooking. The beauty of the simple pots, with smoke clouds—a result of the traditional outdoor firing process—intrigued me. To me, it was pure art. But I was soon to find out that this type of pottery was part of this area’s culinary tradition, both Native American and Hispanic.

While many potters make art pottery from micaceous clay, in northern New Mexico skilled potters work the clay into simple cookware just as it has been done for generations.

Art Micaceous Pottery

Art pottery in a northern New Mexico gallery. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

I headed to the northern New Mexico countryside between Chama and Taos where I heard that Jicarilla Apache master potter Felipe Ortega was teaching pottery classes at his home and workshop, Owl Peak Studio in La Madera. The studio was sometimes open to visitors and was often bustling with students. Here is a bit about my own experience with micaceous pottery and how you can buy your own pottery for cooking and bring a bit of New Mexico home.

Felipe Ortega Kept the Pottery Tradition Alive

In fact, the Jicarilla Apache potter I visited after seeing his work at Cafe Pascual’s gallery, was so well known that he taught seminars around the world, including Australia. At the time of my visit, he kept traditional Apache pottery-making methods alive. While Felipe Ortega passed of cancer in 2018, his family has continued the tradition of teaching traditional pottery-making on-site at the Owl Peak Studio. The non-profit foundation they established continues Ortega’s passion for educating others.

Owl Peak

The Owl Peak traditional adobe home and studio in northern New Mexico welcome those who want to learn about making micaceous cooking pottery. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Visiting Owl Peak Studio

When I visited Felipe Ortega some years ago in La Madera, we drove up a rutted dirt road into the compound. Students mixed the clay in a long trough, smoke wafted from an outdoor fire, and Felipe greeted us. He motioned us into his studio and sat down to build a pot, literally from bottom to top using the coil and scrape method. The morning involved more stories than teachings as Felipe worked the micaceous clay—stories about his world travels to teach and learn from other master potters. His eyes twinkled as he inserted warm humor into his discussion.

Felipe Ortega

Master potter Felipe Ortega taught hundreds of students over the years. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

I watched as Felipe took the beautifully created pot, almost finished, cut the top out, and promised it would be a clean match after firing.

Finding the Sparkling Clay

Felipe’s work with the pot was actually mid-way into the process. Before he started working with the pot, he and others at Owl Peak traveled up to ten miles away to a clay pit where they found just the right micaceous clay. They could dig in the National Forest without a permit because it was Apache ancestral lands. They then took the clay back to Owl Peak where the students added water, processed the clay, and dried it for forming the pots.

Firing the Micaceous Pottery

Felipe built the fire in the pit just outside the studio, fueled by carefully placed bark. Then, as a blessing to Mother Earth the provider of the clay, he tossed a bit of cornmeal into the fire.

Firing the Pottery

Felipe gets the pots ready for firing. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

During the firing process, Felipe invited us into his kitchen where the well-used micaceous pottery casserole dishes and pots held traditional Northern New Mexico foods. The black wood stove sat across from the table and just outside was a traditional domed horno for baking bread (or pizza!). You see, the adobe home was set up for the old-fashioned way of cooking. They didn’t have running water and modern amenities until the late 80s when Felipe decided to update the home for students.

Micaceous Pottery

The old wood stove for cooking at Owl Peak Studio. Photo courtesy Owl Peak Pottery Foundation

After lunch, Felipe checked the fire outside and determined that it was time to uncover and cool the pots.

Bark Fire for Pottery

It’s about time to remove the bark from the micaceous pottery. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

While Felipe and his students pulled the pottery from the fire, we noticed that dark grey “fire clouds” appeared artistically on the pots—in my opinion adding to the beauty. But, Felipe cautioned us that these pots were not ceramic art, they were utilitarian and meant for cooking. After all, he started making pots because his mother told him to stop cooking beans in a stainless pressure cooker and start cooking in a clay pot. The clay (and the mica flecks in it) distributes the heat well—perfect for cooking. And, he found, the beans tasted better.

Buying Just the Right Pot

A rack sat on the side of the studio with Felipe and his students’ micaceous pots just looking for adoptive homes. I selected the bean pot with the most beautiful fire cloud and the one that sparkled the most in the sunshine. I also purchased a small bowl with fluted edges that helped support the students.

Micaceous Pottery

Felipe with my chosen pot. I enjoy this pot in my kitchen today but can’t bring myself to cook in it! Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

There were no prices on the pots. To decide what to charge me, Felipe measured out some beans in a quart container and then checked how many quarts of beans were needed to fill the pot. That was his way of determining the price—volume. Before we left, he gave us a sheet of instructions that tell how to prepare and season the pot, and then how to cook in it.

Felipe Ortega

Felipe measures beans in the pots we wanted to purchase. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

What’s Going on at Owl Peak Studio Today

I spoke with Jimmy Ortega, Felipe’s nephew and Godson, who had inherited the family property. He was the one who set up the foundation to continue his uncle’s educational work. Pottery-making seminars by master potters like Lee Moquino, who studied under Felipe, have re-started recently. The rooms were being made for students to live there while taking seminars once again. The garden, where much of the food is sourced, is being tended again.

Owl Peak is known as a place where you can get excellent micaceous clay. Those living there, and students who study there, dig, process, and clean the clay, and then it is sent all over the U.S.

Since these pots are not created for art, classes on how to cook in the micaceous pots have been held at Owl Peak. More will be scheduled. The instructor, Jt Beggs, a chef by trade, is considering putting together some online seminars.

Owl Peak Pottery

To find out about seminars and other programs offered at Owl Peak, follow their Facebook page.

Where You Can Buy Your Micaceous Cooking Pot

Felipe Ortega’s main outlet was the second-floor gallery at Pascual’s in Santa Fe where I first learned about the beautiful pots. The master potters who teach and work at Owl Peak today, also sell their pots there. You can find a variety of micaceous pots on Etsy. Be sure and research the source and find out about the potter so that you can get the quality you are looking for.

Micaceous Pottery

Felipe Ortega’s pot always has a place of honor in my kitchen. It reminds me of my travels in northern New Mexico Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Rhonda Avidon, owner of Micaceous Pottery on Etsy, uses the coil and scrape method and pottery looks similar to the traditional pottery I saw Felipe make, so I checked with her and found that, yes indeed, she had studied under Felipe Ortega!

Avidon remembered the many classes she took. “We always had a good time. And Felipe, who was also a world-class cook, would make us a fabulous lunch using his own mica pots. Very delicious. I think that’s where we really learned how good food can be when cooked in a micaceous pot.”

Cooking Pottery and New Mexican Cuisine Reading List

Here are a few of our suggestions for what to read about micaceous pottery and some suggestions for creating your own New Mexico flavors for your cooking pottery.

More Northern New Mexican Travel Finds

Discovering Native American and Hispanic traditions such as the micaceous pottery and the local culinary styles make a trip to northern New Mexico memorable. Find out things to do and see in New Mexico. Here are some of our favorite articles about New Mexico travel:

Ojo Caliente: Experience Warm Luxury in New Mexico’s High Desert

Northern New Mexico’s High Road to Taos Art Tour

Santa Fe New Mexico at Christmas: Holiday Charm Awaits You

Santa Fe Spanish Market: A Week of Colorful Cultural Events

Best Hotel Stays: La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe

Geronimo: Santa Fe’s Best Fine Dining

5 Reasons You Must Visit Santa Fe in the Spring

Bring Travel Home with Your Own Micaceous Pottery

Micaceous pottery is a Northern New Mexico tradition, but with a little bit of guidance, you can explore those traditions in New Mexico, or use our guidelines and buy your own pottery for cooking. It’s a perfect way to bring travel home.

Micaceous pottery is a Northern New Mexico tradition. Discover those traditions, chat with the artisans, and discover how you can buy your own pottery for cooking, bringing a bit of New Mexico home. 

Micaceous Pottery: A Northern New Mexico Tradition

Written by Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose is back again in the Phoenix area after more than a decade living in New Mexico and Washington state. She travels throughout the West and beyond writing about destinations, accommodations, festivals, and restaurants, especially farm to table cuisine. As an expert in cultural tourism, her writing reflects that passion. She has won awards for her photography and accompanies her articles with her own images. She also provides photos for magazine covers, web sites and magazine articles (both print and online).