The legacy of Native American pottery is an ancient one, dating back some two thousand years as far as modern science has been able to document. How the “discovery” that clay, when heated at high temperatures, could transform into an object that is brittle and holds its shape is a mystery. Some scholars venture that the technique came to the early Southwest from Mesoamerica. Others contend that the technique originated into the Southwestern cultures independently. Either theory begs the question. One possible scenario for the discovery of the technique is that the early cultures lined their cooking baskets with mud that would harden and create a better and more durable surface on which to cook and parch.
The archaeological record may support this theory as early vessels have been found with the unmistakable imprint of baskets on their outer surfaces. That individual, for surely it was one person, who first conceived that the hardened, brittle substance that filled a cooking basket could be made into a vessel in and of itself was to create a legacy for his or her people forever. Rodents can gnaw through a storage basket and wreak havoc with the hard won seeds and meals stored there. A “hard” basket would thwart them. A “hard” basket could be coated with pitch just as a “soft” one could, and be made waterproof (Southwestern Native American pottery to this day is not normally glazed and will not hold water without some such inner coating). The “hard” basket could be used for cooking much more efficiently than a soft one. The idea must have been revolutionary. However, a “hard” basket can also crack or shatter. This trait made the use of pottery a luxury to be enjoyed only by a sedentary culture. The nomad cultures of the Great Plains and the semi-nomadic Navajo, Ute, and Apache of the Southwest never made or used pottery to any great extent although some Navajo potters today create a beautiful vase using the pitch covering technique of old.
The early cultures of the Southwest, the Mogollon, the Hohokam, and the Anasazi, all made pottery. It is generally agreed that the modern Puebloan potters of the Southwest are the descendants of the Anasazi. Techniques such as slipping and painting a vessel were well developed very early on and have changed little even today. White settlement in North America and the pioneer push Westward nearly destroyed the art of Pottery-making. Glazed vessels and metal cookware became available in quantity to the Puebloans as trains and traders began to infiltrate the Southwest. But pottery is not now nor likely ever was a purely utilitarian item for the Pueblos. Pottery has a spirit. It is a product of the Mother Earth; her body forms the walls of a vessel, her bounty provides the paints to decorate it and the very need for having it in the first place. Pottery has a sacred place in Puebloan culture and its function is ceremonial as well as utilitarian. The children of Mother Earth who create pottery are aware of the spirit in the clay, the paint, and ultimately the vessel itself. There are songs and prayers to accompany each step in the process of creating a pottery vessel. It is this spirit that kept pottery making from being cast aside completely in favour of more durable and efficient tools.
Though the Puebloans were used brutally by the Spaniards, enslaved and forced to Catholicism, their religion and culture was not stamped out. Instead it went underground. Americans, when they won the Southwest from Spain and Mexico, largely ignored the Pueblos as they were not offensively warlike as the Apache and the Navajo who terrorized homesteaders and settlers. The culture and religion of the Pueblos has endured nearly unchanged. It is only recently, in the last few decades that this culture has been truly threatened. The Pueblos, tiny islands in a sea of an alien culture, are finding their youth less inclined to speak the Native tongue, learn the hard techniques of scratching a living from the earth, and learn the complex and morally strict rites of the kivas.
Yet, despite this trend, Native American Pueblo pottery making enjoys its greatest renaissance. The drive West of the “New Americans” created another function for pottery. Always ceremonial and utilitarian, pottery now became a marketable commodity in a scale never before seen. The intrinsic beauty in the shapes, forms, and decorative art of Pueblo Indian pottery was not lost on the new settlers and traveling Easterners. The potters found the market for their wares growing in the mid twentieth century, but this influx of customers led to a quickly made and poorly painted “tourist pot” in the early twentieth century. The pottery making art declined and the pieces themselves sold for next to nothing. It was the traders who encouraged the potters to bring in pieces of the quality of the vessels they had seen used ceremonially in the Pueblos. The early traders in their posts were always the buffers and liaisons between cultures. They played a tremendous role in cultivating American appreciation for Native American art. Good for the new Americans, good for the Native Americans, and good for the trader’s business.
Prior to 1950, few Native American potters signed their work. In their own communities, the forms and designs of their pieces identified the work of the master potters easily. Regionally traders, collectors, and museums also appreciated these pieces. In the twentieth century benefactors from all of these categories began an earnest campaign to make the important artistry and beauty of these vessels and their makers known to the world. Contests that judged exceptional artistry such as the Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremonial and the Santa Fe Indian Market began to have an impact. The early success and recognition of Pueblo pottery artist Maria Martinez at the St. Louis, San Diego, & Chicago World Fairs helped to pave the way for other exceptional Native American potters. In the latter half of the 20th century the art and names of Pueblo pottery artists like Maria Martinez, Lucy Lewis, Christina Naranjo, Fannie Nampeyo, and Margaret Tafoya were known worldwide. Exhibitions like the Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery, permanent recognition in important museums around the world, and the marketing techniques of the traders and other Native American arts dealers further cemented in art history these names and the names of many, many other fine and deserving potters, both historic and contemporary.
“Why is this pot so expensive?!” This is a question I have heard many times in my years in the business. It is a valid question. Many people are not aware of the process involved in making Native American pottery. First it is important to remember that not all the Native Americans of the Pueblos make pottery. It is a specialized art that many do not have the talent or the inclination to pursue. This has likely been the case through the millennia. Pottery making is an art and a skill that is passed down from one generation to the next. Although styles vary widely from one piece of Pueblo pottery to the next, the traditional process in making the vessels is remarkably similar. Variations in colour are attributed to the clay and the slip. Variations in design are largely tribal or a manifestation of the individual artist’s tastes and expression. Here I will attempt to break the general process down.
The clay used in traditional Native American pottery is usually gathered nearby the home. It is dug from the ground in pits or mines and appears as hard packed dry mud or soft stone. In many of the Pueblos, such as Acoma, the source of the clay is secret. The clay mine in Acoma is deep and dangerous. It is also a closely guarded secret. No roads have been built to the mine for this reason. The potter collects the clay by walking to a mine or pit and carrying back what he or she needs. Traditionally there are prayers offered for the gathering of the clay. Once the clay is retrieved it must be broken up and ground into a fine powder and soaked in water to remove impurities. Meanwhile, old pottery sherds are collected, soaked, and ground into powder to act as temper for the new clay. Preferably, these sherds are remnants of the Anaszi ancestors of the past, but recent sherds from broken pots are used as well. After the clay and temper are combined, the mixture soaks for about a week. A different clay, watery and finer in texture, is used for the slip, or outer covering of the pot. The consistency of both clays must be perfect. If not, the pot may not hold up to the shaping, may shatter in the firing, or the slip may not adhere to the pot. Preparing the clay is an art unto itself.
Once the clay is ready, pots are formed using different techniques depending on the size and design. Smaller pieces are generally molded in the hands. Larger pieces are made using flat coils. Pottery of the San Ildefonso and Santa Clara is traditionally thick walled. The Hopi make pottery of a thinner wall. The Acoma are famous for their very thin walled pottery. The thinner the wall and the larger the pot, the more difficult it is to have the piece keep its form and the more danger there is in a miniscule impurity causing the pot to explode during firing. In the thin walled pieces of the Acoma and Hopi, it is not uncommon to have a tiny impurity in the clay cause a small pock, or ping, in the outer wall even years after it is finished. The better the clay is processed, the less chance of pinging occurs. Once the pot has been molded into the desired shape. It is set aside to dry. Cracks in the clay wall will appear and these are filled in with more clay. Once the piece is dry enough, it is ready for polishing.
The pot is scraped smooth using a piece of gourd or a tin can lid and then water smoothed. Then the pot is polished using a wet pebble called a polishing stone. Potters keep and guard a variety of good polishing stones of varying shapes and sizes to use for their vessels. The stone is kept wet and moved quickly over the surface of the pot which becomes foamy in the process. The slip of fine, watery clay is then applied with a rag and then polished again with the wet stone. The slip and polish is repeated over and over until the slip has come to the right depth. The pot is then set aside to dry.
Some vases are complete after the polishing process. This depends on the intention of the artist. An undecorated vessel is often a beautiful work of art in itself and to add a painted or incised design would only detract from its beauty. Some potters say that the spirit of the pot reveals itself during the process. If it is meant to remain undecorated, the pot will convey that. If it is meant to have designs, then the piece will guide this process as well. Incised or impression designs are most commonly found in Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pottery. Traditional designs such as the feather or the Avanyul, or feathered serpent, are often used. Incised designs are tricky. The artist must ensure that the cuts are not too shallow which creates a superficial look or too deep which can pierce the inside wall or create a shatter hazard when firing. Sgraffito is another technique in which a design is scratched into a pot with a tool. Any design must be carefully planned and executed. The design will encircle the circumference of the pot and ill planning or a slip of the tool will ruin the entire piece. One cannot easily go back and fix mistakes. There is one chance to do it right or all of the hours spent preparing the piece evaporate into the wind. Painting is still most often done with a strip of yucca chewed slightly on the end for a brush. Paints are usually mixed from a combination of ground mineral stones and some type of vegetal matter. The Santa Clara and San Ildefonso paint with clay. Most paints recipes are traditional, having been used in the particular Pueblo for hundreds of generations, but some are new innovations discovered by the individual artist. Most designs, even those of the more contemporary and adventurous artists of today, have their roots in tradition. Lucy Lewis, inspired by the designs found on Anasazi sherds, created the fine line Acoma painting. The black on black technique made famous by Maria Martinez was also revived from ancient pieces of pottery, the lost technique rediscovered by Maria and her husband Julian through trial and error. Shapes and symbols all have a meaning to the potter. Sometimes those meanings are consistent, any member of the tribe would recognize a cloud or a water symbol as such, but sometimes the symbolism is meaningful to the artist alone. That the age-old traditional symbols survive in modern pieces after thousands of years says something about the artists of today. What was important to an artist’s mother, and her mother’s mother has a value and significance that can be traced back for centuries.
Once the pot has been completed, either decorated or plain, it is now ready to be fired. Prayers have been said to gather the clay, to form it, and now prayers are said to complete it in the firing process. Several pieces are fired at one time. The weather must be good, the ground must be warm, the pots themselves cannot be too cool or they will shatter. The finished pieces are laid upon a metal sheet or a layer of pottery sherds; broken reminders of the failed attempt of the past. More sherds are laid around and on top of the finished pots and sometimes another layer of finished pottery is added and covered with more sherds. This mound is then covered with dried cow or sheep dung and tinder is set along the bottom to start the blaze.
Air must be allowed to circulate between the pottery. The heat of the fire is regulated by the amount of fuel, air, and the size of the mound. The pottery of the Santa Clara and San Ildefonso is fired at a lower temperature; Hopi pottery a little hotter; Acoma pottery the hottest of all. An ill-timed wind will cause smoke smudges. A bit of burning cow chip falling onto a piece will blacken the design. Even if all the variables come together perfectly, an unknown impurity or stress in the clay can still crack or shatter a vessel. A larger or particularly fine piece, lost in the firing is a heart-breaking loss of many, many hours of work and it happens frequently.
The firing gives the pot its uniqueness. The austere cloudiness and subtle changes of colour famous in a Hopi pot occur in the firing. The stark, sometimes mirror-black colour of the Santa Clara and San Ildefonso is achieved in the firing, by smothering the fire with powdered dung and causing carbon to adhere to the surface. The hard, thin walls of the Acoma vessels and the clarity of the painted design occur in the firing process. A crack in a fine-walled pot can occur and be virtually undetectable by the eye. A good test is to give the edge a firm, sharp tap. The fine walled jar with no hidden cracks will ring like crystal! Once the piece is fired, it is finished and ready to be used to sell, for ceremony, or for the potters own home or gifts to others of the Pueblo.
Other more modern techniques are used in the making of Native American pottery today. The tedious and time consuming processes of traditional pottery factor into the cost, but many artists use modern technologies. Electric kilns are frequently used in the firing process. Understanding all the factors in traditional firing that can go wrong, this is a logical improvement for the artist. Still, many artists prefer the traditional method and many collectors see the mellowness of colour and the faint clouds of the slip as that which makes a Native American vessel unique. Ceramic paints in lieu of the traditional mineral and vegetal paints are also a common substitute. Commercial paints have a starker appearance and provide a more varied colour palette. Some potters do not form their vessels by hand but rather use greenware, a pre-molded ceramic, which they will then paint or etch by hand. Greenware pieces show a stark white where the unpainted areas occur and are perfectly smooth inside and out. The edges or ridges of the mold can be felt by running the hand inside the vessel. There are many critics of the use of modern technology in the making of Native American Indian pottery. I am reminded of that first person, centuries ago, who first thought to mold the clay and heat it. That was a modern technology then that made life easier. This question of the ethics is moot. The greenware pieces are far less expensive than a comparable hand formed pot. The risk saved in electric kiln fired pieces, and the time saved in grinding paints also shows up in the final price. It is a matter of what the collector wants and can afford. What is unethical is to misrepresent a piece to a buyer. Dealers in Native American art have a responsibility to educate their customers and to be sure they are aware of what are buying. Consumers and collectors also have a responsibility to ask questions, do a little research, and learn about these differences. Only then can a decision be made about the type of piece to buy based on personal taste, matters of individual importance, and budget.
The final factor, the crux of the very reason why we appreciate and collect Native American pottery, lies within the pieces themselves. No matter the physical history, each and every piece of American Indian pottery has unchanging aspects. There is the piece itself, an object of art and beauty. There are the hands that created it, the hands of a human being with a heart and a mind, a talent and a desire to create something personally beautiful and share it with the world outside. There are the voices behind it, in the design, in the form; voices of souls linked by generations long past that can still speak to us through this manifestation of the potter’s art. Finally there is the Earth herself from whom all clay is embodied and into whom we return all things to those who will remain and come after us. These are the qualities of the vessel that its creator and admirer can both share and understand.