Blueprint of a Vessel

Functional and non-functional vessels
that a collector might encounter around New Mexico

Scroll down

A vessel holds liquid, grains, blessings. It is woven from twigs or grasses; it is crafted in clay, glass, wood, metal, paper. From the time that early human beings began gathering food and fuel, vessels were constructed as tools. And now, the contemporary world is filled with vessels . . . from non-utilitarian art pieces to plastic milk jugs. Our vessels reveal a great deal about our society and our values. When looking at a vessel form, contemporary or ancient, consider its function. Is it, or was it, utilitarian, ceremonial, aesthetic? By inventing your own dialogue with an ancient or a contemporary vessel, you may come closer to understanding the creator: a basketmaker, a pueblo craftsman, an ancient Mayan artist, a contemporary glassblower, metal spinner, ceramist or woodcarver.


John Kania
Collector and dealer, Santa Fe, NM

Basketry vessels woven from natural plant materials were an integral part of Native American societies and indeed, ancient societies from around the world. Basketry is believed to be one of the first complex art forms known to mankind. Through the millennia, basketry eventually gave birth to two other great art traditions: textiles and ceramics.

Although most Native Americans used basketry vessels to one degree or another, it was in the cultures of California and the Great Basin where basketry permeated every aspect of life from birth to death. As an art form exclusive to women, basketmaking could determine the very course of a woman's life since, as a great weaver she could marry high in rank bringing prestige and wealth to family and kin.

Basket forms

Basket forms
Kania-Ferrin Gallery pic
Santa Fe

Basketry vessels served the functions of daily life such as food gathering, processing, cooking and serving and also fulfilled many social, political and religious requirements. Vessels in cone shapes were for gathering seeds, nuts and for transporting necessities to the village; circular and softly ovoid forms were for parching, sifting and winnowing food stuffs; small shallow bowls were used for scooping and serving food; globular and pail-shaped forms served to cook foods in an exotic technique known as stone boiling. (Stone boiling consisted of adding red hot rocks to water-filled baskets. Eventually a boiling cauldron was created and foods were added.)

Basketry vessels served many other needs from hats and clothing, from traps and boats to one's very home or bed. The treasured "bottleneck," considered to be a masterpiece of art in its own right, was often a container for rattlesnakes or "treasures." Oval or boat-shaped forms were sometimes used by shaman as vessels to contain "magic." Shouldered and globular forms served as gifts, invitations or to seal political alliances and reciprocity. And finally, in the Native American Indian cultures the basketry cradle marked birth as surely as the elaborate vessels piled on funeral pyres marked one's departure.


John G. Garrett
Artist/craftsman, Albuquerque, NM

Garrett Pinwheel

John G. Garrett pic "Pinwheel"
Engraved copper, wire, beads, rivets / 13" Ht

When I was a child I had a box in which I kept a collection of things I had found in the desert surrounding my home: rocks, pieces of old glass, coyote skulls, bones, seed pods and rusty pieces of metal. I attempt to bring the same mystery, wonder and pleasure to my current baskets that I had experienced as a child with that box and its contents. I build from the traditional functions associated with baskets (work, accumulation and storage, nurturing, ceremonial usage and status) to make pieces which address these functions/issues in contemporary life. What once may have been held by the basket has now become the material with which the basket is made. I enjoy the freedom of being able to apply a wide range of materials to the making of my containers.

My early baskets were made from brightly painted vinyl and plastic strips and slats, sequins and beads, reflecting the flash and consumption of Los Angeles where I lived. In an ironic turnaround, I often use materials (paper, plastic, metal) which have replaced the traditional basket as containers. My "Beverage Bark" baskets are made from aluminum drink cans riveted together.

Most of my recent baskets are constructed from copper strips and copper sheets whose patinaed surfaces are like New Mexico landscapes. Sections of the baskets' surfaces are engraved with personal reminiscences and fictions, adding another layer of meaning and time to the work.

Finally, it is because of the great diversity of meanings, from the social and cultural to the personal and intimate, which can be built into baskets that I enjoy making them.


Angie Harbin
Fiber artist, Albuquerque, NM

The first vessels used were human hands. Then those hands manipulated materials such as leaves, grasses, gourds, stone, wood and clay into containers that were necessary for the advancement of mankind. Originally utilitarian, vessels soon became a means of communication as well. The act of creating vessels became, and continues to be, an important part of the chronicle of man. It isn't unreasonable to expect that a vessel should perform a function; yet the function may be to contain nothing other than the expression of its maker.

With the machine age came the disposable container . . . and the human hand and soul had been taken out of the process of making the common vessel/container. In response, artists and craftsmen have enthusiastically molded, woven, hammered, blown and carved . . . never abandoning the vessel as a vital art form. The vessels created today are built on the foundations of cultures past. By adapting early techniques and experimenting with materials and tools, artists continue to push the boundaries of their craft. The diversity of their approaches has resulted in vessels that truly are containers of the artist's talent and individuality.

Harbin basket

Angie Harbin
"Kissed by the Sun"
Cotton, Paper, Tamarisk
20" Ht

My work may cause some to wonder how it can be called basketry. While I employ traditional techniques, my baskets may have unusual forms and may not even have openings. The basic act of transforming materials into objects is my voice. I enjoy constructing vessels ranging from the spiritual, with tribal expressions, to the fluidity of random construction. When working with various materials, I soon discover which will allow control and which choose to speak for themselves. I strive to create vessels with heightened significance and sculptural pieces that stimulate the imagination. It is an overwhelming desire to experiment with materials and images that sustains my curiosity and growth as a contemporary basket maker.


Ancient basketry eventually led to vessels of clay. Clay vessels and shards that date to 100 AD have been found in the southwest and identified from the Early Pithouse period or the Mogollon I period. This time frame coincides with the Basketmaker and Basketmaker I periods. The pieces can be divided into two general categories: coarse-tempered utility ware and finer-textured service ware. The earliest pieces discovered are generally plain grey-bodied, though later pots reveal ornamental details applied to functional vessels. The coiled pots and shards are often patterned with indentations or painted geometric designs and later figurative designs.

The plastic quality of clay provides unlimited creative possibilities in vessel design; and yet, certain recognizable traditions are identified and categorized by their similarities in technique and design. Archaeologists have used this information to trace the technological advances of the southwest's early people. The Mimbres bowls, identified by their figurative designs of animals and birds, have been uncovered in graves where a bowl would be placed over the head of the deceased. Archaeologists believe that a hole was punched in the pot to allow the person's spirit to ascend. The holes rarely interfere with the decorative surface design. This example demonstrates the multi-level function of the vessel: it provided its owner with the means to gather water or to store grain, it provided a canvas for artistic expression and it served a ceremonial function. Today, it provides a physical record of an ancient culture.

It is likely that the pueblo pottery tradition stems from these ancient people. Originally, storage vessels provided a key to survival, storing foodstuffs during droughts and long winter months. Today, the production of beautiful functional and non-utilitarian vessels, with respect for ancient traditions, provides many pueblo people with the means of economic and spiritual survival in contemporary society.

Seed Jars

Acoma seed jar

Rebecca Lewis Lucario
Acoma Seed Jar

There are many forms and functions in pueblo pottery. Seed jars were designed with tiny openings to protect seeds from rodents and other damage during the winter. Early Mimbres examples date from 400 AD. Often jar openings were capped with corn cobs or sealed with slip. During the spring planting, the farmers carried the seed jars into the fields and shook out the seeds; or in the case of slip sealed jars, broke the vessels to distribute the seeds. These early examples were not highly ornate, like the contemporary seed pot shown at left.

These seed jars no longer serve the economic purpose of effective seed storage; rather, the seed jar symbolizes pueblo tribal heritage. According to Ruth Reidy, owner of Penfield Gallery of Indian Arts in Albuquerque, the last ten years have seen increased collector interest in the seed pots with their functional symbolism.

This interest has been met by a variety of designs and treatments of the pottery surface. The jar is constructed as two coiled hemispheres sealed together with slip. There is no line on the pot, no way to detect where the two halves come together. According to Reidy, one would have to break the pot to see the inner seam. The size, shape and placement of the seed holes are determined by the potter. Without the hole, the pot would likely explode during the firing. The potters of Acoma Pueblo are renowned for their distinctive fine-line painted seed jars. Traditionally, the Acoma potters rub the pots with white slip and paint black geometric designs with a yucca brush.

The great popularity of the pottery has encouraged Acoma artisans to revive prehistoric pottery styles, such as the Mimbres figurative design, and to experiment with polychrome.


In contemporary America, it is surely the drinking glass, the flower vase, the Ball canning jar that exemplify the epitome of vessels made of glass. Like clay vessels, glass vessels reflect our cultural traditions through their ornamentation, form and function. The past three to four decades have seen a rebirth of glass as an "art material." Today we are seeing tremendous exploration in the realm of glass, as artists and craftsmen push themselves and experiment with the potential of glass. As a medium for artistic expression, glass is used as a construction material, it is used as a surface to paint and to engrave, it is cut and blown, it is cast, it is fused and slumped. The best possible introduction to, and education about, the making of glass vessels occurs around the glassblower's furnace. There is nothing quite like the sight of molten glass at the end of a blowing tube being shaped into a vessel by the breath and skilled hands of a glassblower. In Santa Fe, there are two very special places which allow visitors to feel the heat of the furnace and watch the formation of glass vessels. In Santa Fe, Peter Vanderlaan's Glory Hole Glassworks is a glass gallery and a glassblowing establishment. The glassblowers work in an open building right behind the gallery which is on South Guadalupe by the railroad tracks and Tomasita's Restaurant. Also, in Tesuque just five miles north of Santa Fe, is the Tesuque Glassworks, founded by glass artist Charlie Miner. Each offers a unique combination of entertainment and art!

Other Vessels — Other Materials — Different Values

As a modern society, we create vessels for storage. Most often these disposable vessels are manufactured to hold a gallon of milk or a supply of breakfast cereal. Our technology has done away with the need for the ceramic olla to store a family's harvest of corn. Nonetheless, contemporary artists continue to produce unique vessels for functional purposes.

Often, today's artists are caught between the desire to express themselves creatively and the need to make a living. Functional "production" ware forms the backbone of the business of most artist/craftsmen who make a living from their work. Nancy Berg, Albuquerque ceramist, creates both production vessels for daily use as well as one-of-a-kind and limited-edition art pieces. She uses production work to do problem solving. Skills, honed through repetition, allow the creative ideas to be brought to fruition. According to Berg, high quality production vessels and other tableware, made efficiently with a caring, artistic hand and eye, provide the bridge that meets the needs of the artist to make a living and of the individual to own handmade objects that sweeten life.

While throughout history vessels have served utilitarian purposes of storage, most traditions also pay close attention to the aesthetic of design, form fitting the function. Whether the surface of the vessel is ornamented simply or elaborately, it reflects the values of the culture that has created it. It has economic value as a tool to improve the quality of life--the vessel that holds a large volume of water decreases the number of trips to the river. But it must also maintain an aesthetic standard that reinforces certain cultural beliefs, such as the universal order carved and painted on a Northwest Coast cedar chest.

A vessel's ceremonial function often adds to its cultural worth. The chalice pays honor to the deity, the royal silver pays honor to the king and queen, the fetish bowl promises a successful hunt. Choice of materials reflect the culture's concept of wealth, often the most precious, most difficult to obtain resources are employed. Contemporary vessels often challenge our assumptions about utilitarian value, material value and spiritual worth. Perhaps one function of these "non-functional" vessels is to call into question our modern predisposition to create vessels for mass consumption and easy disposal.

Finally, your home is really the ultimate vessel . . . a place of function and of beauty that protects and stores your family and your possessions; a vessel whose interior and exterior surfaces reflect your personal interests, values and culture.

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide Calendar - Volume 3, Number 2

Related Pages

The Art of Craft article
Collecting & Change in Native Basketry article
Collecting Indian Pottery article
Fine Craft in New Mexico article

Glossary of Ceramic and Clay Terms article
How Pueblo Pottery is Made
Oriental Ceramics in New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources


Weems Galleries | 505-293-6133
Weyrich Gallery | 505-883-7410
Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Elsewhere in New Mexico

Corrales Bosque Gallery | 505-898-7203

Santa Fe

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery | 505.986.1234
Bellas Artes | 505.983.2745
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Liquid Light Glass 926 Baca St #3 | 505-820-2222
Heidi Loewen Porcelain Studio & School | 505-988-2225
Morning Star Gallery | 505.982.8187
Tesuque Glassworks pic Bishop's Lodge Road | 505-988-2165
Nausika Richardson rem County Road 0064 #30, Dixon | 505-579-4612


Act I Gallery & Sculpture Garden | 575-758-7831


©2014 | F + W Media
URL: • Contact The Collector's Guide