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Pueblo Pottery: Enduring Styles of the Southwest

by RoseMary Diaz

Pueblo 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 and Trading

The 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.

Today 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.

The 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.

The 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.


Several 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 forms.

Diego 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.

Major 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 art.

As 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.

The Kiln-Firing Controversy

Firing 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.

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.

As 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.

Although 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.

Kiln 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.

RoseMary 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.

RoseMary wrote 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.

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