Pueblo to Pueblo: The Legacy of Southwest Indian Pottery

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Pueblo to Pueblo: The Legacy of Southwest Indian Pottery


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


Pottery making in the American Southwest is a tradition that first emerged approximately 2,000 years ago. As a functional and practical art form, this regional pottery technique and decoration was passed from generation to generation over the span of centuries by people living in permanent villages, called "pueblos."

The pottery of each pueblo was unique and distinguished by a variety of characteristics such as the individual clay source and shape of the vessels as well as the designs, or lack thereof, painted onto the surface.

Pueblo to Pueblo: The Legacy of Southwest Indian Pottery, From the Collection of the Kansas City Museum and Union Station Kansas City consists of approximately 70 Pueblo Indian pottery vessels and supporting materials dating from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, and illustrates the remarkable variety of pottery created during that dynamic time of transformation. Some of the vessels in the exhibition are quite conservative and adhere to the older, traditional style of a particular pueblo, while others incorporate innovations specifically designed for the growing consumer market.

It was also during this time period that certain individuals--such as Nampeyo from Hopi and Maria Martinez from San Ildefonso--became recognized regionally and far beyond the Southwest for the quality of their work. This exhibition includes several outstanding examples of their objects as well. Through this exhibition, drawn exclusively from the rich collection of Union Station and The Kansas City Museum, visitors will be introduced to the various styles of Pueblo pottery, as well as an understanding of the narrative behind its continued development.

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The homeland of the Pueblo peoples and their ancestors can be found in what is now the southwestern part of the United States, including New Mexico, Arizona and parts of Colorado and Utah. Their villages were typically located near a water source in an otherwise rugged terrain with a fragile environment.

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Using dry farming techniques, they could grow such vegetables as corn, beans and squash. They lived in multi-room masonry structures, some large enough for extended families, and other structures of a scale to accommodate hundreds of people living cooperatively to survive and prosper.

The tradition of creating Pueblo pottery that is both durable and beautiful has continued with only minor modifications for centuries. The pots, made by the women of the tribe, can be constructed by forming slabs of clay into three-dimensional shapes and joining them together with slip.

The most common technique, however, is coiling. In this method, the clay is rolled into long snake-like sausages, which are coiled upward to form the pot's shape, then joined, scraped and smoothed, inside and out. A variety of polychrome designs or patterns may be applied, or the pot might be left as a polished, monochrome surface.

Each piece reflects the culture of the pueblo and of its maker. Even when adhering to traditions and customary styles and techniques, each object of pottery is one-of-a-kind. Each potter's recipe might vary slightly and would include: the source of the clay, its method of preparation, materials added to the clay, the forming of the vessel, the tools used, the surface decoration (two- and three-dimensional), the drying process and the critical firing process.

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In the late 1800s, after centuries of producing pottery for use only in pueblos, the railroads were built through the Southwest, bringing settlers and tourists who acquired the pottery for personal use and as souvenirs.

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