Pueblo Pottery: Renaissance of an Ancient Art

Article excerpt

In her kitchen near the plaza at San Ildefonso Pueblo, Carmelita Dunlap polishes a small pottery bowl with a smooth stone, while her daughter Linda, who is also a potter, cooks dinner. On a shelf, other red clay pots made by family members shine with the mirrorlike finish typical of San Ildefonso. When the pots are fired, the red will turn black in the reduced oxygen of the outdoor kiln. A few miles away at Santa Clara Pueblo, Toni Roller finishes shaping a pot. Like the Dunlaps, she comes from a family of potters. Her mother, the late margaret Tafoya, produced some of the area's finest blackware, and Roller's own work often sells before it has cooled. She and her son Cliff demonstrated their art on the Mall in Washington, D.C., during the 1993 presidential inauguration celebration. "We like to show people how traditional pottery is made. It takes a lot of time. There are no shortcuts," she says.

At Acoma Pueblo, Rebecca Lucario recalls learning to make pottery from her grandmother in the late '50s. "I was lucky--it never occurred to me that everyone didn't know how," she says. She continues the tradition of digging and preparing the clay and natural paints, then shaping, painting, and firing the pottery.

These Pueblo potters are part of the renaissance of a centuries-old art built around Native American families in the Southwest. While names like Aroma, San Ildefonso, and Santa Clara are synonymous with fine pottery, beautiful work is also coming these days from Laguna, Picuris, and Taos--in fact, from most of the 19 pueblos that lie in a wide swath across north-central New Mexico.

In northeastern Arizona, artisans among the Hopi (a mostly Pueblo people), produce wide-shouldered vases, and some of the Navajo (a non-Pueblo people), who also inhabit the area, have a flair for ceramic art.

As with any vital art, innovations abound, but pottery traditions run deep. Acoma is known for delicate, fine-line painting and corrugated whiteware, Cochiti for its open-mouthed storyteller figures. San Ildefonso and Santa Clara for polished black or red ware, and Taos and San Juan for pots made of micaceous clays. Navajo pots are often coated with pine pitch. Though many potters continue traditions, some use them more as bases for their own styles. A strong market for Indian-made pottery encourages both approaches.

Don Owen, executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, which sponsors Indian Market in Santa Fe, points out a dramatic rise in quality and demand in the last few decades, "particularly in the mid-'70s when Indian art in general came into its own. We saw $5,000 pots suddenly appreciate to $20,000."

Such was not the case when Rebecca Lucario helped her grandmother sell their work in the 1950s: "I remember selling pots for 25 cents," she says. "We were so excited when the price went up to 50 cents." (Two of her finely painted works seen in a gallery recently were priced at several hundred dollars, a more equitable compensation for the many hours she spent on each.) Though Indian pottery is now valued mainly for its beauty, function was foremost in the past. Archaeologists in the region have found evidence of pottery as early as the third century, when clay vessels replaced baskets for storing water and food.

The arrival of Spanish colonists nearly four centuries ago began to influence native potters to turn out new forms such as pitchers and drinking cups, and candlesticks for altars.

The opening of trade with the eastern United States in the late 19th century coincided with a dip in the demand for pottery, particularly when the railroad pushed through in the 1880s, bringing metal containers that were lighter and stronger than pottery.

In the early 1900s, scholars and collectors, attracted by the Southwest's cultural history, began noticing the beauty of the old pieces. Artists such as the late Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso studied pieces excavated near their pueblos and started working with the designs; Indian potters began to create new styles based on old techniques; buyers took note. …