Pottery: Enduring Styles of the Southwest
by RoseMary Diaz
pottery of the Southwest is among the purest of all North
American Indian art forms. That is to say, its design and
execution have gone virtually unchanged for generations.
Of course, innovations, technical advances and minor deviations
in style and design have always produced vessels outside
the norm of the day, but for the most part the fundamental
processes of the genre have remained true to time. Today
more than ever pueblo artists are creating ceramic wares
that reflect an abundance of new influences and ideas, and
moving farther away from externally dictated standards of
beauty and value.
borrowing, trading and adopting of artistic techniques, styles
and designs is nothing new to the tribes of North America.
There has always been an interchange of artistic resources
among indigenous peoples, and exterior influences often became
incorporated into otherwise traditional, untainted art forms.
there are more innovations in the ceramic arts than ever before.
The strong and steady flow of new styles and designs is moving
pottery into previously unexplored territories. Forerunners
of this generational journey include Robert Tenorio (Santo
Domingo), whose variations of the traditional storage jar married
old with new; Russell Sanchez (San Ildefonso, pot below
at right), whose bejeweled vessels juxtaposed the sparkle
of shiny stones with the earthiness of the clay form beneaththem;
and Julian Martinez (San Ildefonso, pictured above with
his wife, Maria Martinez, circa 1930s, Museum of New Mexico),
who borrowed heavily from Hopi influences in decorating his
wife's famous black-on-black plates and bowls, and various
novelties such as candleholders and figurines.
recent movement is unprecedented, and potters, especially the
younger ones, are challenging the notion of traditionalism,
and creating their own standards of aesthetic value. Dozens
of today's pueblo potters are incorporating the designs of
other pueblos, as well as other, unrelated tribes: Cochiti
potters are producing wares once more typical of the Tewa pueblos,
such as wedding vases and jars, and decorating them with traditional
Tewa and Hopi motifs, including water serpents, feather designs,
and stylized birds and wings; Laguna and Acoma potters are
incorporating many of these motifs into their work as well,
sometimes slipping their vessels with amber or white pigments
much like those of the Hopi artists.
Tewa pueblos are producing many works of clay that contain
a vast and varied array of tribal influences, including Hopi
designs, which have always been popular among Santa Clara potters,
who have also borrowed several design techniques, including
the black-on-black decorating styles, from their San Ildefonso
neighbors. Tewa villages further south are home to several
potters whose work suggests a Tiwa influence, specifically
from the micaceous vessels common to Picuris and Isleta.
years into the 21st century, pottery continues to evolve. Artists
are not only looking to other tribes for design resources and
inspiration, they are looking everywhere. Within their own
traditions, they are incorporating designs such as dancers
and kachina-like figures, which have never been used before.
Some potters are adding elements of newly adopted faiths, while
others depict motorcycles, acrobats, giraffes, trout, dinosaurs
or spiders (Burrel Naha pot at right) on otherwise traditional
Romero (Cochiti, photo at left, industrial scene) paints
his vessels with freeway scenes including overpasses, cars
and traffic signs, and characters inside automobiles with conversation
written in dialogue bubbles overhead. His claywork also incorporates
strong Greek and Venetian influences, and is often painted
with autobiographical scenarios or political commentary, or
with his trademark characters, Chongo and Indian Girl. Virgil
Ortiz's (Cochiti) ultra-contemporary statuettes of young men
and women are dressed in (painted on) black leather; and the
young Folwells of Santa Clara have been creating works with
Osage and Northwest Coast designs on brownish-black, burnished
surfaces in somewhat abstracted shapes. Miniatures, by no means
a traditional category of pueblo pottery, are quite popular
throughout many of the pueblos and are crafted in virtually
every shape, style and finish.
changes and adaptations in pueblo pottery design have been
long in arriving and, in many respects, have not always been
encouraged. But today it is clear that alongside the continued
production of traditional pueblo pottery, many talented and
prolific artists are breaking all the long-established rules
of the genre, rejecting many of the externally imposed aesthetic
and cultural standards, and redefining the concept of traditional
their artistic vision channels into the ever-changing currents
of creativity, it simultaneously leads the ancient art form
of pueblo pottery into new realms and preserves its place within
the historic pueblo experience.
is one technical element in the pottery-making process that
has adhered to traditional means through the generations. Over
recent years, however, it has become a point of contention
between those who feel that should remain so, and those who
are turning to modern methods, most notably, electric kiln-firing.
methods regarded as traditional include pit firing in which
vessels are placed inside a shallow pit and covered with wood,
bark (and sometimes leaves), and animal dung. These materials
are ignited, and the vessels inside are allowed to smolder
in the thick smoke for an hour or so. A similar process also
involves the use of manure, with the wares being placed into
a metal crate, and set atop stones or old tin cans rather than
in a pit. Depending on the slip used, as well as whether or
not the firing process incorporates manure, the finished wares
may have brownish-red, buff, amber, white, or shiny black surfaces
after firing, assuming they survive the process.
firing is often the final stage of pottery-making, there is
no guarantee that all-or indeed any-of the pieces that entered
the fire will emerge intact; traditional firings can claim
up to 25 percent of an artist's annual production. Considering
the amount of time and energy invested in any one piece that
is a risk not every artist is willing to take.
kiln firing does greatly reduce the casualty rate, it also
presents certain limitations for the artist. For instance,
a Tewa potter cannot achieve the onyx-like finish for her vessels
through kiln firing since it is the oxygen-deficient conditions
created through outdoor firing (and the use of manure) which
produce the famous black finish.
firing of micaceous wares produces vessels that are devoid
of imperfections, such as fire clouds (black areas on an
otherwise light colored surface) or surface blisters. However,
many collectors (and other admirers of pottery) actually
prefer wares with such evidence of outdoor firing, viewing
these characteristics not as flaws but as beautiful revelations
of the processes by which they were created.
It is also worth noting that the artist's adaptation of new techniques and materials
has occurred to some extent for centuries all over the world and in virtually
every genre. The changes in pueblo pottery-making techniques should, perhaps,
be considered more an evolution of the art form, and less a rejection of tradition.
Diaz is an award-winning poet with literature degrees from
the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico
and the University of California at Santa Cruz.
her first poem in 1974, while a student at the Santa Clara Pueblo
Day School, and since then has written everything from autobiographical
narratives to greeting card inscriptions, legal documents to artist
profiles, copy text to television sitcom treatments. Publications
include The Greenfield Review, Studies in American Indian Literature,
Beadwork magazine, The Santa Fean magazine, New Mexico magazine,
The Wingspread Collector's Guide and Native Peoples magazine.
Ms. Diaz is
a free-lance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.