Contemporary Native American ceramicists take the refinement of traditional art and add another ingredient—innovation.
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It starts with the clay, as it must. Native American peoples of the Southwest gathered it from places that they knew, prepared it, and transformed it into pots. They didn’t use a potter’s wheel—that technology appeared when the Europeans did. Instead, Native American potters rolled the clay into slim coils and placed them on top of each other to build the shape of a piece, smoothing the coils into a cohesive whole with their hands. They painted the pots with slip, a type of pigment made from liquid clay. They carved designs into the pots, and they polished them with riverbed stones to impart a sheen all over or to select areas of the pot’s surface. They fired them in the open air or in shallow pits.
Native Americans have made pots this way for ages; the earliest ceramics discovered in the Americas date back roughly 7,000 years, and those from what is now the southeastern U.S. date back to around 2,000 B.C. The Pueblo cultures of the Southwest have long been recognized for their pottery. Contemporary Native American artists from the region rely on many of the same materials and techniques as their ancestors, but they find novel, exciting ways to challenge, play with, and update them.
Then, as now, it starts with the clay. “It’s rare when Southwestern ceramic artists work with clay they buy online,” says Karen Kramer, curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. “They work with clay they dig with their hands.” Clay-gathering is also the point at which the intensely familial nature of Native American pottery first becomes obvious. Good clay spots are part of a family’s lore, and families will venture out together to collect it. Charles King, founder of King Galleries in Scottsdale, Ariz., notes that artist Virgil Ortiz “brings all his nieces and nephews. Even if they don’t make pots, they know where the clay is. Everybody goes, and everybody participates.”
Family is fundamental to Native American ceramics, including Native American contemporary ceramics. Almost every active artist has blood ties to current or past artists who introduced them to the time-honored craft and helped them troubleshoot their rookie mistakes. Ortiz, who won his first Santa Fe Indian Market award at 14, learned from his mother, Seferina Ortiz. Lisa Holt, half of a ceramic-artist team that includes her husband, Harlan Reano, is the granddaughter of Seferina and the niece of Virgil. Al Qoyawayma, lauded for his exquisite, technically complex ceramics, studied with his aunt, Polingyasi Elizabeth Qoyawayma, also known as Elizabeth Q. White. Nancy Youngblood is the sister of ceramic artist Nathan Youngblood and the granddaughter of Margaret Tafoya, a legendary 20th-century potter from the Santa Clarita Pueblo. Tammy Garcia is the great-great-great granddaughter of Sarafina Tafoya, and the great-great granddaughter of Margaret Tafoya. “It’s culturally a shared experience,” says Denise Phetteplace of the Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., a contemporary art gallery that represents several Native American ceramicists. “The knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. There’s a real understanding of history and tradition in Native American ceramics.”
This is not to imply that wannabe Native American contemporary ceramic artists can prosper just by leaning on a family tree. “You may have a famous last name, but you had better be doing something interesting,” says King, whose gallery specializes in contemporary Pueblo pottery. “In order to get a career out of it, you have to be doing your own style of work.”
The break between the contemporary artists and their forebears begins with the level of craftsmanship on display, which only people who are free to pursue pottery-making full time can hope to achieve. “I think what you see in this work and other work we’ve been talking about is perfection,” says Diana Pardue, curator of collections at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz. “They’re perfectly balanced and perfectly shaped. There’s nothing out of line here, and they’re all formed by hand out of coils on clay, nothing thrown or shaped on a wheel.”
Tammy Garcia explores and extends the traditions of the Santa Clara Pueblo to which she belongs. After the Dance, a 2002 piece in the collection of the Heard, is somewhat atypical for her in shape and hue (Garcia is more likely to favor red or black over tan, which reflects the natural color of the clay used for this piece) but conforms in other respects. “The deep carving is typical of her community—deep-carved work and high polish, leaving some areas matte,” says Pardue. Lisa Holt and Harlan Reano keep a traditional division of labor, she doing most of the pot-making and he handling the graphic design and painting, but their work is very much a collaboration. Their Endless Loop jar, which earned an Honorable Mention at the 2015 Santa Fe Indian Market, shows how far Holt has advanced as a potter. It was difficult to shape and difficult to fire with traditional methods. Reano may not have painted the jar right away, however, possibly preferring to hold the shape in his mind for a while before picking up his brush. “Sometimes a piece will sit there, and he won’t design it for several months,” says King. “Finally he tries something, and it’s the perfect design.”
Al Qoyawayma (pronounced ko-ya-wy-mah), who has Hopi ancestry, takes his aunt’s inspired idea of adapting the French metalworking technique of repoussé to Native American ceramics and carries it farther than she or anyone else could have imagined. He patiently blends and works his clay to produce bewitching vessels that feature detailed miniature pueblos rendered in relief and jars with a single animal or human figure that juts forth from their surfaces. “Al started creating traditional pieces, but he added a lot more definition and refinement to the technique,” says Phetteplace. “Certainly his aunt never did anything like this. His style has evolved from what she did.” Before he turned to ceramics, Qoyawayma was an accomplished engineer, and his approach is informed by a respect for precision that comes from his scientific background. “The carving, the slip work, the polishing, it’s so refined and beautiful,” says Phetteplace. “He’s experimented with over 100 different types of [pueblo] clay to find the best combination to make his pots. He’s that kind of person.”
Diego Romero’s marrying of pop culture and traditional designs is as stark as it is thought-provoking. His childhood was divided between life in Berkeley, Calif., the home of his mother, and summering at the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, the home of his father. His Never Forget series of ceramics spotlights Native American heroes such as athlete Jim Thorpe and Ira Hayes, one of the six Marines who raised the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II.
Virgil Ortiz unites traditional Cochiti shapes and motifs with modern imagery to great effect. A jar in the Heard Museum collection, which he created in 2008, enlists native clay and pigments pressed to depict a female face that could easily belong to a fashion model—a world Ortiz knows well, having collaborated with Donna Karan in 2003 and having created his own fashion line in 2006. A stargazer “Tsin” jar from his Modernly Ancestral series boasts graphics as bold as those from a rock show poster. The jar employs traditional clay, traditional pigments, and traditional firing and has a Cochiti decoration around its neck that is known as a “spirit line.” It also has a less traditional profile of a man with spiked hair and a male figure shown full-length in what may as well be a leather jacket.
The labor-intensive nature of contemporary Native American ceramics is rarely evident on first glance. Nancy Youngblood’s ribbed jars and pots are easy on the eyes but definitely not easy to create. She uses a ruler and standard math (not a computer) to ensure that the ribs are equal in size. Polishing the ribs to her own exacting standard is the real pain—Youngblood can complete three per day. “She’s very much a perfectionist in what she does, and she does it all herself,” says King. Indeed, most contemporary Native American ceramicists do all the work involved in producing their ceramics—from digging the clay to sculpting to polishing to firing to painting—themselves, with no assistants, not even for the most tedious tasks. Understandably, this practice seriously limits their output. The artists under discussion generally produce between one dozen and maybe a bit more than three dozen pieces per year.
While the ways of their ancestors remain important to Native American contemporary ceramicists, some have confronted the limitations of traditional materials and techniques and have chosen to step beyond them. Faced with the choice of toiling over her red clay pieces only to subject them to the risks of outdoor firing, Garcia began employing an electric kiln around the year 2000. “She wanted to create an aesthetic and a particular look, and kiln-firing was the way to do it,” says King. “She spends a lot of time making [her works] and she didn’t want to lose them. She’s very upfront about it, and it’s had no impact on her popularity or her sales.”
Ortiz has ventured even further from Native American ceramic traditions for his ongoing Pueblo Revolt 1680/2180 series. He wanted to create figures that measured two feet or more, but Native community clays aren’t elastic enough to support artworks of that size. Instead, Ortiz turned to commercial clay to achieve his aims, and he fired these larger works in an electric kiln. Watchman: Luminus, which is 28 inches tall and 15 inches wide, is a compelling piece that would not have been possible to make otherwise. King expresses confidence that collectors will accept the new Ortizes “because it’s Virgil, and there’s a reason behind it. He’s doing something so different that couldn’t be done with normal clay. I think people will go along with him.” King notes that these Ortiz pieces are “selling fairly well.”
Garcia, Youngblood, Romero, Qoyawayma, Holt and Reano, and Ortiz manage the trick of honoring the past without letting it constrain or dictate their artistic visions—which bodes well for the future of their chosen art. “Part of what separates artists from craftspeople is that artists push themselves to be more creative, more innovative, more refined, and they keep pushing themselves in that direction,” says Phetteplace. “People tied to tradition may be more refined, but they may not be more innovative. The artists we are talking about are both more innovative and more refined.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley