Southwest Pottery from the Crocker Collection, Sacramento
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
The Southwest is an open book of geologic time, with rivers and canyons tracing through a land marked with mesas and fantastic rock formations that change with every turn. Ancestral Pueblo history is indelibly etched into this environment, from the petroglyphs of ancients scattered across the region to the contemporary pueblos today.
Ancestral Pueblo peoples, or Hisatoinom (Tewa for “ancient ancestors”), first appeared in the Southwest over 10,000 years ago. Using extensive trade networks and sophisticated irrigation techniques, they cultivated the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans, and squash.
One can still see traces of those early lives in the buried treasure of pottery and artifacts left behind. Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly are just a few of the ancient Pueblo sites, so called because of the distinctive stone or mudbrick multistory buildings. The stepped, flat roofed buildings framed plazas, while circular subterranean kivas served as sacred spaces. These communities, carved into cliffs and canyons, flourished until roughly 1400 CE, when the people depopulated sites and melted back into the landscape.
Today, their descendants comprise nineteen distinct pueblos and carry on the traditions of their ancestors. They still recall the ancient stories of the first people emerging from the underground and still dance as embodiments of spirits from the mountains who are responsible for rainfall, fertility, and all the other blessings of life. Pueblo women have continued the tradition of pottery as prayers that connect the ancient to the new, and three dimensional reflections of an evolving landscape.
Clay from Mother Earth is the source of Southwest pottery, and the process of creation is itself a ceremony. Each potter has their own site, often passed down from family members from which they gather clay. Like all things from nature, clay is a living entity, and each potter gives thanks in their own way for that gift.
The chemical composition of the clay reflects the distinct geography of every pueblo. In Arizona, the Hopi mine a light gray clay that transforms to buff in firing, and is the hallmark of all their vessels. The Acoma and Zuni of New Mexico use a kaolin rich clay that allows for strong, thin-walled vessels. Neighboring pueblos like Laguna, Santo Domingo and Zia have a similar clay with slightly different mineral makeup. Further north, along the Rio Grande, a dense, iron-rich clay is used in Santa Clara and San Ildefonso.
Though the clay changes, the process of creation is the same. Once the clay is gathered, it’s soaked to remove impurities, then sieved, pounded, refined and rested over a process of months to distill the clay into its purest form. To reduce shrinkage while drying, the clay is tempered with other materials like sand or stone; often, ancient shards are pulverized and added in, literally folding history into the new vessel.
Most vessels large or small start with a small disc around which rolls of clay are coiled to make a vessel. As the walls rise, they are paddled smooth and left to dry before a new section is added. Once clay hardens to a “leather-dry” state, vessels are painted with natural paint or liquid clay (slip). Colors vary according to the region and mineral content: white, brown, rust, orange, black.
Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo) coling clay
Forms follow function: plates or stepped bowls were originally used for ceremonial offerings, high-shouldered jars (“ollas”) or double-spouted canteens stored water, ovoid seed pots with small openings preserved seeds, and large jars stored a variety of foods.
Southwest pottery: offering bowl, olla, canteen, seed jar
Images are painted directly onto the body using a yucca brush. Most convey hope for rainfall and fertility in a desert world, with plants, birds, clouds, and rainbows forming graceful patterns across the vessel. Regional aesthetics emerge on neck and belly designs. Hopi pots trace kachinas, birds, and bears in complex curvilinear designs, with the visual focus on the flattened tops. At Laguna, Santo Domingo and Zia puebloes, polychrome pots of white, black and orange bring birds to life.
Southwest pottery at the Crocker: Zia, Laguna, Santa Clara pueblo pottery in front
Desert animals leap across Zuni vessels, often with a “spirit-line” to convey the breath of life inherent in all living things. There is a preference for spare asymmetry, divided by heavy black lines and the potter’s onane, or broken line, at the neck. Stepped cloud motifs with lightning bands, feather plumes, and all variety of geometric curves complete the composition.
At Acoma, a similar style is combined in all over designs filled in with cross-hatched lines. Look closely at the eye numbing black and white patterns and you’ll see abstract renditions of corn fields, squash blossoms or rain clouds. On San Ildefonso and Santa Clara pots, the ancient avanyu, “water dragons” that bring luck, peace and prosperity to the Pueblo people also sanctify the vessels, visual reminders of water as a sacred source of life in the harsh desert environment. Bands of feathers or geometricized clouds often form orderly patterns across the heavy thick walled pots.
Acoma: Marie Zieu Chino vessel, Carrie Chino Charlie olla, JoAnn Chino Garcia vessel 1991
After painting, the entire vessel is painstakingly polished with a river rock to smooth the surface. Depending on the expertise of the potter, the result is a matte surface, dull gleam or high sheen. Once again, the potter returns to the earth to be fired in ground pits for an hours-long process of outdoor firing in which the fire must be fed constantly. The temperature must remain consistent, no small feat in area of known for sudden changes in weather. Once fired, the pots are cooled and often ritually “fed” a pinch of cornmeal to acknowledge the gift from nature.
The physical and cultural landscape of the Southwest weathered enormous changes as tourists and academics began to visit in the latter half of the 19th century; with the introduction of the Santa Fe Railroad, even more flooded the region.
Southwest pueblo potters at Santa Fe railroad stop; Hopi potter Nampeyo
Many potters benefited from the influx of buyers. The Hopi potter Nampeyo, studying ancient Sityatki designs uncovered by Southwest archaeologists, transferred the intricate parabolic patterns of bear claws, bird wings and other natural phenomena to her own golden hued vessels. On one small pot, bird wings beat across a central band, mimicking the migration which gives the pattern its name. The flattened oval of a seed jar frames four feathered circles on a white ground.
Hopi Pueblo: Nampeyo vessel c. 1905, olla with bird migration pattern
Maria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso potter and painter, also forged new designs using old techniques. In the late 1910s, they began to experiment, remaking ancient black on black pots and finally achieved it through a process of firing, using reduced oxygen conditions that drew the iron in the clay to the surface, with the red clay blooming into a lustrous black. Maria formed the pots; the elegant images painted on by Julian were then polished to perfection by Maria and fired in a kiln smothered with cow chips.
San Ildefonso Pueblo: Maria and Julian Martinez Jar c. 1915, Bowl with Checkerboard & Kiva Step Designs b. 1930
Around the same time in the neighboring Santa Clara pueblo, Sarafina and her daughters Margaret Tafoya and Christina Naranjo used the same clay and firing process to new effect; they deftly carved into the thick walls of the vessels, creating beautifully sculpted and burnished works in red (the original color of the clay) or black (reduction firing). Compare Margaret’s more sedate avanyu encircling a burnished blackened pot to Christina’s striking avanyu which leaps from the belly of a perfectly carved red pot to
Santa Clara: Margaret Tofaoya, Jar with Avanyu. Christina Tafoya, Jar with Avanyu
Potters today are the descendants of early potters—new branches on an ancient family tree, each with a distinct style of pottery. As part of that history, they still hew to the same process: collecting clay from local (and still secret) sites, refining, building, painting and polishing the clay before it returns to the earth one last time for firing. While their predecessors sold pots at roadside and railway stands or trading posts, today’s potters create for Indian Market and museum collections. What emerges are new variations on old traditions. Patterns and designs are recombined, often with new materials and contemporary motifs.
It’s difficult to conceive that the same patterns can nourish a family tradition for over a century. But another granddaughter, Tonita Hamilton Nampeyo, put it best: “I want to continue the traditional methods and designs. I don’t want to deviate from what my mom and grandmother did and hand it down to the young ones. That’s the most important thing, to keep the tradition alive.”
On Nampeyo family pots, flocks of birds still take flight, echoing Sityatki forms on the same golden-buff ovoid pots (the Nampeyo family has tried to copyright the Sityatki designs). A pot by Priscilla Namingha Nampeyo mimics the same bird-migration motif seen in her great-grandmother Nampeyo’s smaller version.
Hopi: ----Namingha Nampeyo and ---Nampeyo bowls Rachel Namingha Nampeyo Olla with Traditional Bird Migration Pattern 1962
Next door, Rachel Namingha Nampeyo uses longer, leaner lines to honor her grandmother’s designs, while Dextra Quotskuyva Nampeyo creates a seed pot incorporating the pottery patterns from the countless pottery sherds found scattered across the Southwest.
Hopi: Dextra Quotskuyva Nampeyo Sherd Pot nd
The Quotskuyvas and Youvellas, two different branches of the Nampeyo family tree, favor ivory wares the color of cornsilk distill single motifs (corn, bird wing or dancer) using a repousse technique to push and mold clay from the interior of a still wet pot, a testament to the elasticity of Hopi clay—and creativity of Southwest potters. Now he recreates scenes of the landscape on his vessels--still using the same technique!
Hopi-Tewa: Al Qöyawayma Vessels nd, 1994
The great-great grandson of Nampeyo, Les Namingha, uses acrylic paint to interpet Sityatki, or Australian, or Pop, or abstract expressionist styles; his contemporary pots become canvases of global cultures. His cousin Dan Namingha paints the landscape the Hopi inhabit in saturated colors, recalling the ancient pueblos and ageless mesas. And Dan’s son Arlo creates the spirits that danced across those spaces, in abstract wood and metal forms, contemporary versions of the kachinas his great-grandmother once created.
Hopi: Les Namingha, Golden Pot with Oval Opening 2011and abstract vessel 200? Arlo Namingha Cultural Images #3 2004
Acoma potters also keep many of the ancestral Pueblo designs alive. Still using a yucca brush, Rebecca Lucario directly paints black and white designs that blossom and shrink in perfect syncopation with the rounded form. As with her foremothers, the entire design is conceived and executed from a mental template.
Acoma: Dorothy Torivio Olla nd. Rebecca Lucario Seed Jar with Geometric Designs 2011
Cerno family pots bring the natural world to life with polychrome patterns of black, white and orange interspersed with hatched and cross-hatched designs. On Barbara Cerno’s pots, a minuscule world of insects, lizards, fish and turtles swarm around small pots whose single hole (necessary to let heat escape during firing) is almost impossible to find. On her son Joe Jr’s massive dough pots (over three feet high and still fired in earthen pits), birds flounce their tails and deer make a path along curving patterns with hatched lines. In other cases, trains do. Can you find the air hole on the top?
Acoma: Barbara Cerno Seed Pot with Turtles, Fish and Lizards 2012
Acoma Pueblo: Joe Cerno Jr. Olla with Deer and Bird 2011, Barbara & Joe Cerna, Pictorial Train Olla, 2011
The feather plume design of Julian still radiates around a bowl, perfectly formed and polished to perfection by Maria. Another plate shows the same design as interpreted by Maria and Julian’s son, Popovi Da who collaborated with Maria after the death of his father. Popovi was the first to inset stones into clay, and create a shallow sgraffito carving on the surface of the vessels. After his death, his son Tony Da worked with Maria, creating some of the first red/black vessels.
Other members of the San Ildefonso family chime in: Maria’s sister Desideria Montoya; Tonita Martinez Roybal and Crucita Calabaza (Blue Corn), all singing a different tune based on the same melody.
At Santa Clara pueblo, too, an enormous proportion of the population continues the tradition of ceramics today. The spirit line emanating from the mouth of the avanyu becomes the focus on the pot of Sherry Tafoya, granddaughter of Christina Naranjo. Tammy Garcia, great-great-granddaughter of Christina Naranjo, also transforms clay into new forms: pots, cubes, columns, all carved with sharp recessed designs that echo the past in unusual ways. Familiar forms like birds and feathers are cut out in sharp relief. Curved shapes that echo the form contrast with sharp angles (sometimes punctuated with metal or stone inlay). Clay is replicated in silver, bronze or glass in a prodigious variety of forms.
Santa Clara: Autumn Borts-Medlock Dragonfly pot nd Tammy Garcia Northwest Native Bear 1999
As modern as the forms may appear, for the potters, the importance is their reference to the past. According to Margaret’s grandson Nathan Youngblood, “The way we do our pots, the traditional way, was the way that was handed to us by the spirits that came before us. In order to show the proper respect for the clay and to the clay we need to continue doing it the old way, and that means digging your own clays and mixing them together, hand coiling, hand burnishing and outdoor firing.” Using that traditional way, his family (including sister Nancy) makes strikingly modern, exquisitely sculpted pots in the iconic red or black colors. They recall the older melon pots, but with sharply recessed ridges that catch the light.
The sgraffito technique of etching into the clay also provides new avenues of creative inspiration. Tami Romero uses the technique on her Pueblo Girls, ancient dancers brought into the contemporary world—but she uses a river stone “that still bears the handprints of her great-grandmother and grandmother” and keeps tradition alive by translating it to textiles, bronze, and glass.
Santa Clara: Nancy Youngblood Vessel Nathan Youngblood Carved Black Egg 1988, Jody Naranjo Large Square Jar with 194 Figures 2003
In the Pueblo world, the first humans emerge from the ground. One thinks they might have resembled Roxanne Swentzell’s figures: short squat smiling figures filled with life. Her people recall the ancient stories: emergence into the world, the potters and home-makers, the storytellers, and the black and white koshare--sacred clowns whose duty is to entertain and educate. They all have an earthy sense of humor. Toe Jam memorializes the most mundane of acts. In Swentzell’s work, as with the rest of the clay, the earth comes to life and speaks to us once again.
Santa Clara: Roxanne Swentzell, Toe Jam Looking for Root Rot 2004
Ultimately, Southwest potters are storytellers in three dimensions. No potter illustrates this better than Helen Cordero of Cochiti Pueblo, who began adding small figures to her clay pieces in the 1960's, a memory of children listening to the stories of the elders when she was young. Today, storyteller figures are a ubiquitous presence in Southwest tourism, with all sorts of creatures listening in rapt attention to the words of their ancestors.
Cochiti: Helen Cordero Storteller, nd