Above: Front row, from left: Pottery by Richard Zane Smith, Nathan Youngblood, Nancy Youngblood, and Tammy Garcia. Back row, from left: Autumn Borts-Medlock, LuAnn Tafoya, and a Les Namingha/Susan Folwell collaboration.
Photos from Spoken Through Clay: Native Pottery of the Southwest By Charles S. King Photos by Addison Doty (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2017)
LARGE ENOUGH TO SERVE AS A COFFEE TABLE'S TOP, Spoken Through Clay: Native Pottery of the Southwest delivers soul-satisfying eye candy with every turn of its oversize pages. Written by Charles S. King, a respected scholar, author, and dealer of Pueblo pottery, it spotlights the collection of Eric S. Dobkin, the New York–based financial wizard who pioneered the way companies like Microsoft go public. Dobkin’s collecting genius beams, with samples from trailblazers like Maria Martinez, Nampeyo, and Margaret Tafoya blending with rule breakers like Tony Da, Virgil Ortiz, and Jody Naranjo.
Clearly, Santa Fe enchanted him early in his collecting career, when he made key purchases at Indian Market, as well as international auction houses. Over time, his relationships with artists jelled into commissioned pieces. (One of the artist fellowships at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research is endowed by Dobkin and his wife, Barbara.)
Types of clay and ways of working it vary among pueblos and even among different families within a pueblo. Readers gain some basic knowledge of that—information that’s covered in deeper detail in dozens of other books. This one, though, organizes the artists more existentially—as Dreamers, Traditionalists, Visionaries, Transformists, and more. In a hallmark move, King allows the artists to tell their own stories and reveal what they deem important.
The array of pieces dazzles, especially when even the best potter admits to the failures of poor architecture, uncertain heat, or a clumsy hand. As curator Peter Held says of clay in the book’s essay, “This elemental material is seductive, sensuous, responsive, geologic, and malleable. The material gives evidence of the maker’s hand.”
Meet eight of the forty-two makers featured in the book, and what their hands brought forth.
LONNIE VIGIL, NAMBE PUEBLO
In 1959, Lonnie Vigil’s aunt Quah Povi died, taking with her the last of Nambé Pueblo’s knowledge of making functional micaceous pottery. Years went by. Vigil moved for a job in Washington, D.C., but in 1982 he felt his calling and came home. He began by hiking to a spot with good clay, then sat and held it, thinking. Family members heard of this. One found Povi’s polishing stones; another her clay slip—the decorative coating on pots. With them, he went to work. His first Indian Market booth, in 1990, sold out in two hours. Eleven years later, he won Best of Show. While often credited with reviving the micaceous pottery, Vigil says he shares that honor with other artists, including Christine McHorse, Rose Naranjo, and Marie Romero. “We always know the clay will take care of us,” he says.
Lonnie Vigil, c. 1990s, 25" x 25"
This was one of the first pieces we made [in] this shape. … The fire clouds are the result of the fuel touching the pottery. When we fire the pieces, we use cottonwood bark. The pottery doesn’t get fire-clouded everywhere but just in certain places. It’s serendipitous. … This jar was fired right side up. You can tell because the fire clouding is above the shoulder. If it was fired upside down, the fire clouds would be on the bottom. Often they tell me how they want to sit in the fire. I can fire them upside down or right side up. Some of them are just tottering, so that means they want to be with their mouth to the fire.
Descended from Nampeyo, one of the finest 19th-century potters, Steve Lucas grew up in Gallup watching his grandmother Rachel Namingha and aunt Dextra Quotskuyva gain fame for their pottery. In his thirties, he began learning by failing, eventually moving in with Dextra to watch her and hone his skills. She advised him to start with the old designs—birds, clouds, rain—and he soon fell under the thrall of the abstract symbols of potters from the ancient Hopi village of Sikyatki. “I feel that making pottery is really a process of molding you, the potter, and not the potter molding the pottery,” Lucas says. “All the steps involved in the process define your character and help you grow as an individual.”
Steve Lucas, 2000, 4" x 7"
When I first learned to make pottery, the red slip painted in the designs was difficult to work with. It wouldn’t take heat very well and would scorch and turn black. The red was also difficult to polish. My aunt Dextra had a deep-red color clay slip, and I decided to experiment with it. I took some of our base clay and added the red to it and it polished very well. I then decided to put some mica in there to get that sparkle. That’s where the new red came from, and Dextra liked how it turned out. I introduced them to that. It was nice that, for my teacher, Dextra, I was able to share and teach her something.
YVONNE LUCAS, LAGUNA PUEBLO-NAVAJO
Although born into a pottery family in Laguna, Yvonne Lucas didn’t take up the craft until her marriage to Steve Lucas. From him and his aunt Dextra Quots-kuyva, “I developed tolerance and how to handle constructive criticism.” Although the Hopi leanings of their pottery appealed to her, Lucas’ mentors urged her to consider Laguna forms and that pottery’s white clay slip. Layer upon layer, she built the patterned slip, taking up to a week per jar, then sanding it all off if she made a mistake. Now regarded as both a revivalist and an innovator, she scouts the land for different colors of clay to bring vibrancy to her pots. “I fire my pottery traditionally. … This is one of the most important parts of the pottery-making process. The blushes from the firing enhance the surface and give it life.”
Yvonne Lucas, 2001, 9" x 11"
Am I a Laguna revivalist? I don’t think of myself as a revivalist. Nobody taught me from Laguna. … I’ve researched by looking at books and taking pictures of historic pots in museums. I pull different designs from the historic pots or just from my imagination. Sometimes, when I look at my pottery, I think, “I can’t believe I made this.” … With the pottery you have to be patient and listen. You are never a master. You learn every day.
NATHAN YOUNGBLOOD, SANTA CLARA PUEBLO
When Nathan Youngblood was a child, his grandmother, esteemed potter Margaret Tafoya, took hold of him and said he would be a potter, too, spiriting him toward years of bad polishes, frustrating cracks, and heartrending breaks. Today, his early 15 percent success rate has grown to nearly 100 percent, “but it’s taken 40 years,” he says. In the 1990s, he melded his carved designs with those of Asian ceramics and began using natural clay slips of polished red and tan with matte and micaceous surfaces—the new Santa Clara polychrome. “I’ve come to realize that each pot was a prayer. When you are designing, you convey your message using the symbols of a prayer. … A prayer for water—rain, snow, some sort of moisture. … Anything that will hold water, I put some sort of water design on it.”
Nathan Youngblood, 2013, 13" x 12"
When I made this, I was seeking to show that I could make a round storage jar like Margaret’s. … It’s the biggest red storage jar I’ve made. There are three main medallions. The amazing thing was I was able to duplicate them three times and didn’t get any chipping on them. It took over 40 hours to clean up all the carved channels after the firing. Grandma always said that the people who make pieces consistently over 12 inches tall or wide are the most skilled potters. I need to make a storage jar over 20 inches tall. Grandma set the bar. If you make it over 20 inches, you are a storage jar maker.
TONY DA, SAN ILDEFONSO PUEBLO
A rock star among Pueblo potters, Tony Da embraced contemporary Santa Fe and injected modernism into the traditional techniques of his famous forebears, grandmother Maria Martinez and father Popovi Da. He added sgraffito etching, inlaid stones and beads, and a reinterpretation of Mimbres designs. After 15 years of mastery, a motorcycle accident severely injured his brain and shattered his creativity. “It is rare to witness the artistic arc of a potter with such a short career yet incredible artistic longevity,” Charles King says of Da, who died in 2008. “Tony Da is that rare exception of an artist who broke every barrier in the art, pushed the medium so far beyond its limitations, and yet, as of today, few artists are yet able to match the technical sophistication and aesthetic he was attempting to create.”
Tony Da, 1979, 9" x 7"
One touching thing about her [Maria Martinez]: When we would go to the pits to dig clay, she would pull out the little pouch of cornmeal and sprinkle it all over the ground, silently praying and blessing the earth before she took from it. Later, after the clay had been screened of impurities, any that fell to the ground during the time she was forming the pots, she would carefully pick up, rescreen, and use again. To her, it was shameful to waste it.
VIRGIL ORTIZ, COCHITI PUEBLO
An often irreverent young gun of the medium, Virgil Ortiz traces his lineage to renowned masters, including his parents, Seferina and Guadalupe Ortiz. They and their fellow potters have walked on, and few younger Cochitis have taken up the craft. To preserve both its past and its future, Ortiz maintains a standard that draws on the old “monos” tradition of decorating Cochiti pottery with human figures both whimsical and satirical—a freedom few other Pueblo potters possess. “In some ways I love being the traditional potter. It makes me slow down and take time to help teach the younger generation about the clay. But I also do contemporary work, and that’s personally important for me to be able to make social commentaries about world situations and attitudes.”
Virgil Ortiz, 1998, 13" x 13"
Early on I would stick with the traditional family designs. All the flower images, the corn, the clouds, the rainbows, and the wild spinach plant. But then I would also use the whole pot as a canvas just to give it a more contemporary flair. I would paint the entire piece, even down to the bottom. Traditionally, they would burnish the red on the bottom. … The spirit line was always there on the rim. As long as we have the spirit line on a jar, that’s the most important thing. It’s a break in the whole pattern throughout the entire design. It’s a portal for the spirit of the bowl to enter and leave as it pleases.
CHRISTINE MCHORSE, NAVAJO
A long road to becoming a potter might begin with herding your grandmother’s sheep and, at 14, moving to Santa Fe to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts. Christine McHorse bounced around various mediums before finding ceramics. Navajo pottery, though, was less studied than Puebloan. Research books tended to dismiss Navajo works as “mud pots,” a term that ignited McHorse’s passion. She learned Puebloan and micaceous skills from her Taos husband’s grandmother, Lena Archuleta, then evolved her style from Taos to Navajo to a contemporary vision all her own. “As I work this clay every day of my life, I start to imagine that maybe there is a shape that is too complicated,” she says. “I push the clay to see what its limitations are, but it seems like it doesn’t have many. Who knows what will come along next and excite me? It could be anything, perhaps monumental sculpture.”
Christine McHorse, 2001, 12" x 9"
This is the piece that took Best of Sculpture at Santa Fe Indian Market 2001. This was a very significant piece for me. It was more sculptural, and there were different elements applied within. There are the angles, the little feet at the base, and a comical hole that becomes the opening for the vessel. I think that this was the first time I really concerned myself with the multiple sides of a piece. Before, when I drew my pieces, I could not visualize the back.
SUSAN FOLWELL, SANTA CLARA PUEBLO
A 21st-century experimenter, Susan Folwell learned her skills amid a pottery-making family that included Rose Naranjo, her grandmother, and Jody Folwell, her mother. Her earliest memory was rolling a ball of clay into a snake and selling it for two dollars. As she finessed the right amount of underfiring to enable her intricate carvings, she also encountered the limitations of traditional slips and glazes. So she adopted acrylic paints and styles that ranged from Japanese ceramics to Marvel Comics. “I often create my own iconography on the pottery. I’m not sure if people need to understand the meaning or if I need for them to even realize it’s there. … They are a reflection of time and place. They represent landmarks of my growth as a person and an artist.”
Susan Folwell, Attack of the 50-Foot Collector, 2008, 14" x 13"
Inspired by old sci-fi B-movie posters, I started to think you could twist around The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman so that it looks like the women who come to Indian Market armed with money, jewelry, walkie-talkies, and proverbial machetes. The concept was wonderful and playful, but finishing it was a challenge. We were driving from Tucson to Indian Market in Santa Fe. I was working on it in the car and still painting when we showed up 15 minutes before judging closed. I was just so involved in it, and I could have spent another month on it. I was honored that it won the Tammy Garcia Spirit Award.