Pueblo Pottery: Continuity and Change: Lucy Lewis

By Herzog, Melanie | School Arts, January 1991 | Go to article overview

Pueblo Pottery: Continuity and Change: Lucy Lewis


Herzog, Melanie, School Arts


Looking carefully

The art of American Indian potterymaking has a long history. The indigenous peoples of what is now the United States of America have been making pottery for over two thousand years, and women living in the pueblos, or villages, of the Southwest continue this tradition today. But this tradition is not static. While there has been continuity from ancient times to the present, there has also been change.

In many American Indian communities, continuity with the past is highly valued. Lucy Lewis, a potter from Acoma pueblo in New Mexico, looks to ancient pottery traditions of this region for inspiration. The designs on her black on white jar with the spiral and stepped patterns recall the painted designs on ancient Anasazi pottery made in northern New Mexico about one thousand years ago. Her fine-line hatching and solid areas of black and white provide a balance of light and dark and of textured and solid areas, in a rich and varied design that covers the surface of the vessel. Design elements are arranged so that the largest forms, four evenly spaced spirals, occupy the widest part of the pot and enhance its curves. A combination of angular and curvilinear forms establishes a rhythmic equilibrium of visual expansion and enclosure.

Lucy Lewis uses design principles of balance, repetition and rhythm in innovative pottery decorations that are entirely her own. In her fine-line pot with an all-over linear design, the pattern she creates with carefully painted hatching seems to vibrate with the visual complexity of optical illusion. As in the pot with the spiral designs, the design elements are placed to fit the form of the vessel. The pattern that appears to be made up of straight lines actually swells and contracts in accord with the contours of the pot.

Techniques

The potterymaking techniques used by Lucy Lewis are centuries old, and remain relatively unchanged since ancient times. She learned these techniques from older Acoma women. Using clay from the land near Acoma pueblo, the artist shapes her pots by hand. She joins thick coils of clay to a bowl-shaped base, and thins and shapes them to form the walls of the vessel. After the pots are scraped and smoothed, they are painted with a white slip made from local clay. Lucy Lewis paints her intricate designs with an iron-rich mineral pigment, applied with a yucca brash.

An artist such as Lucy Lewis who uses techniques that depend on natural materials must develop a knowledge of the resources that the land has to offer. This type of knowledge takes years to acquire, and has been passed down through generations of potters. In addition, because Lucy Lewis fires her pottery in a traditional man her, in an open outdoor firing without a permanent kiln structure to shelter the pots, she must be keenly aware of weather conditions to ensure a favorable outcome.

Tradition and innovation

Lucy Lewis inspired by the ancient pottery that she regards as her artistic heritage. However, until she visited the New Mexico Museum of Anthropology in the late 1950's, where she saw examples of old pottery that had Been preserved intact, she was familiar with ancient pottery designs only from broken pieces of pottery, or sherds, that she found near her home. Perhaps this is why she applies her interpretations of ancient designs to vessel forms from the more recent Acoma pottery, tradition. The two vessels made by Lucy Lewis that are shown in this month's centerspread take the form of Acoma water jars, although they were made to be looked at and not to cant water.

The pottery that Lucy Lewis knew as a young girl was made and decorated using techniques and materials similar to those used by the ancient Anasazi potters of the area. Decorative principles, particularly a concern for balance and rhythm, were similar as well. Many turn of the century pots were decorated with fine-line geometric designs. …

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