Collecting Indian Pottery

Collecting Pueblo pottery doesn't have to be intimidating.
Here's some help from an expert.

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Helen Gutierrez Pot

Helen Gutierrez (1935-1993) Photograph courtesy of
Robert Nichols Gallery remote
in Santa Fe

One of the most striking characteristics of Pueblo Indian pottery is its variety. Variations of texture, color, form and style of decoration seem to be almost endless. This diversity is one of the qualities of Pueblo Indian pottery that tends to appeal to collectors. By including only the work of one group of families, or one family, or simply the work of an individual—even a small collection can have amazing variety.

The rich differences that attract more seasoned collectors of pottery can be overwhelming to someone looking at Indian pottery for the first time. As a result, many who are drawn to pottery tend to seek the guidance of others before making their first purchases.

By understanding reasons for the variety in pottery, a person may be better able to understand that there is no easy formula to selecting one piece over another--and it is perfectly all right simply to buy what you like rather than relying on the opinions of others.

Several factors contribute to the diversity of Pueblo Indian pottery. These can be lumped into three basic categories: materials, traditions, and innovations.


The makers of traditional pottery tend to use materials local to their own Pueblo (village). Acoma is known for its white clay and slip; Zia is recognized for red clay; Hopi for yellow ware; etc. The use of local materials greatly increases the amount of time required to make a pot. The Pueblo potter does not go to the store to buy prepared clay, tempering material, glaze, or paint. The potter, often with a friend or relative, must go to the source to dig the clay from the ground. Time is also spent gathering the tempering, slip, and paint materials. Even fuel for the fire must be gathered and dried. Impurities are removed by hand before the clay can be ground on a metate (stone). Paints are also prepared by hand by grinding rocks or clays that produce different colors or boiling plants to produce black carbon paint.


Pueblo traditions also contribute to the variety. While each village has its own tradition concerning what a pot should look like, the pottery from pueblos that use essentially the same materials and techniques can look quite different. Potters from San Ildefonso usually use matte paint on a highly polished background, while Santa Clara potters often carve a design into the surface of the pot, giving a bas relief effect. Cochiti and Santo Domingo potters use a black carbon paint which requires a special slip material that prevents the use of fine lines in the decoration. Furthermore, Santo Domingo potters are not permitted to use certain designs with religious meanings on their pottery, while Cochiti potters have fewer restrictions.

Varying traditions also occur within different families of a pueblo. Angela Baca from Santa Clara is known for her melon pots (bowls with vertical ribs resembling melons); her children continue the tradition, although their forms differ from their mother's. Carving is a technique developed at Santa Clara that requires relatively thick vessel walls; sculpted designs are produced by carefully carving selected parts of the wall of the pot. Each Santa Clara family that uses the carving technique has its own style.


The final factor that contributes to the variety of Pueblo Indian pottery is individual innovation. It is this factor that makes contemporary pottery such an exciting artform. Artists in virtually every one of the pottery-making Pueblos are reinterpreting traditional forms, creating new styles, or even reviving old ones. Ivan Lewis at Cochiti is reviving a figural tradition of the 19th century, while his wife Rita adds her own interpretation to the 20th Century storyteller. (The storyteller is a seated adult figure with two or more children. The adult's mouth is usually open, telling a story.) Robert Tenorio, his sisters, and their families are reviving lost techniques of Santo Domingo pottery. Greg Garcia brings a modern interpretation to the turn-of-the-century water jar from Santa Clara, the Pueblo of his mother's family; and Dominquita Naranjo of San Juan brings another level of interpretation to a 30s revival of a 16th century incising technique. The work of some potters is strongly influenced by more than one culture. For example, Ida Sahmie is a Navajo who learned pottery-making from her Hopi/Tewa mother-in-law, Priscilla Namingha. Her pottery usually includes Navajo designs such as yei-bi-chai dancers. Nathan Begaye's Hopi/Navajo heritage is reflected in his contemporary pottery which includes the use of stylized eagle and sun motifs.

Once some of the reasons for the extensive variety of southwestern Indian pottery are understood, acquiring a collection or a single pot will be less intimidating . . . and the pottery can be enjoyed for that very quality of diversity. You will also feel more comfortable in making your own decisions as to what to buy—and what not to buy. Finally, be aware that if you rely too much on the advice of someone else—whether an expert, the friend of a friend, or a hired consultant—you may miss out on one of the greatest joys of collecting: passion. And that passion should be involved even if the collection will never consist of more that one or three pieces.

Our thanks to Robert F Nichols, authority and collector of Indian pueblo pottery and owner of Robert Nichols Gallery remote in Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 6

Related Pages

Glossary of Pueblo Pottery Terms article
How Pueblo Pottery is Made article
Pottery: Enduring Styles of the Pueblos article
Who are the Pueblo Indians? A Primer article

A good resource for conservation and restoration of Pueblo pottery:
Material Insight: Pueblo Pottery Restoration remote

Collector’s Resources

Looking at Appraisal altgif Feature article by Philip Bareiss |


Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054
House of the Shalako rem By Appointment in Peralta | 505-242-4579
Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Santa Fe

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery | 505.986.1234
Chimayo Trading & Mercantile | 505-351-4566
Steve Elmore Indian Art | 505-995-9677
GrimmerRoche rem 422 West San Francisco | 982-8669
Keshi - The Zuni Connection | 505-989-8728
Morning Star Gallery | 505.982.8187
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Wadle Galleries Ltd pic 128 West Palace Ave | 505-983-9219


Bryans Gallery 121 Kit Carson Road | 575-758-9407
Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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