How Pueblo Pottery is Made

Follow the step-by-step process of creating Native American pueblo pottery

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There are probably countless reasons why pueblo pottery is so appealing to the eye, so valuable. Chief among them, however, are the tremendous artistry and patient effort that go into making a piece—techniques that, in part, trace back to those used in creating the crude, undecorated pottery that appeared in the Rio Grande valley around 700 AD. Pottery then was utilitarian, providing for food storage and preparation, water transportation and the like. It was not until the late 1800s that Indians began producing pottery for tourists and collectors. And from the 1950s to the present there has been rapidly escalating appreciation of and encouragement given to continuing the traditions, elevating the craft, and developing innovative aesthetic expressions using age-old materials and techniques.

Fine craftsmanship at each stage

The construction of fine pottery is time-consuming and care is necessary at each step--each piece is unique and pitfalls abound. Let's look at the creation of a San Ildefonso black-on-black pot as an example.

Preparation

Fig. 1

First large lumps of dry clay are pried with pick or file from the quarry, taken home and laid out in the sun to dry for a couple of days. Evenly dried clay is put into a vessel with enough water to cover and soak it for two to four days. After several rinsings and then mixing, the solution is passed though a sieve to remove pebbles and other impurities, yielding a milkshake-like material. This is allowed to "set up"

for several days. Before the modeling can begin, a filler or tempering agent made of volcanic tuff, is laboriously mixed with the clay. This helps counteract shrinkage and facilitates drying, thus lessening the likelihood of cracking.

Modeling

Fig. 2

The potter takes a lump of clay about the size of a fist and pats it into the shape of a cone, forming the base. Using a shaping spoon or kajape usually made from a gourd, the potter scrapes and thins the clay. Continually turning and working with the wet kajape readies the base upon which rolls or coils of clay are then built up to roughly form the vessel.

Continual moistening, rubbing, and turning gradually smooths and thins the walls and refines the shape. After curing for a few days, additional scraping further thins and evens the walls.

Fig. 3

Finishing

Fig. 4

Additional drying—2 to 4 days depending on weather—readies the pot for sanding. After sanding with coarse and very fine sandpaper, the pot is smoothed again by rubbing it with a wet cloth, which redistributes surface particles to fill in scratches. Next a "slip" is applied to improve surface color and texture. The slip, a suspension of clay in water in the consistency of thin cream, is applied either by brush or small folded cloth.

After one or two applications of the slip, the potter begins the process of rubbing with a polishing stone, called burnishing. When fully burnished, a thin coat of hand-applied grease or oil, followed by more rubbing results in the highly reflective finish that some confuse with a modern-day chemical glaze.

Decorating

Using the same clay that formed the slip, the potter makes a thin suspension as a paint. With a simple brush, sometimes the leaf from a yucca plan chewed or frayed at the end, the design is painstakingly painted on (no erasure is possible without sanding away the error and again slipping and burnishing). In the case of this black-on-black San Ildefonso pot, the painted-on areas will be matte after firing and the rest of the surface will retain the shininess of burnishing. (Other forms of decoration include carving the clay with tools, impressing a design in the moist clay, or incising an intricate image).

Fig. 5

Firing

The final step, firing, is one of the most precarious. If the vessel is not properly dried, or if air pockets exist, those days of previous effort can be rendered useless by an explosion. Fortunately this doesn't usually happen. A kiln or oven is formed above a fire pit by assembling tin cans as supports, and using grates and sheets of tin to enclose the pottery. Combustible material is arranged under and around the kiln and set afire. For red pottery the fire is allowed to burn down completely before removing the vessels—usually about 30 minutes.

Fig. 6

For blackware, the materials and steps of preparing the clay, modeling, finishing and decorating are the same as for red pottery. But at the point of firing, a technique rediscovered by Maria and Julian Martinez is necessary. In this method, powdered cow dung is used to surround and cover a pot, thus blocking the entry of oxygen around the pot. The clay is impregnated with black soot and what could have been a red pot, becomes black.

What to look for

While you can collect pottery of many different shapes, kind of clay, and varieties of surface decoration, there are some characteristics that consistently make one piece more valuable than the next. The interior and exterior of the vessel should be symmetrical, smooth, and free from lumps or pits. A uniform rim, smoothly applied slip, even burnishing, and evenly spaced designs are also important. Design outline should be sharp and "painted" areas filled in with uniform brushstrokes. If you are considering carved pottery, look for uniform depth of the carving. Also, give the pot a careful feel—many thin-walled pots ring like bells when gently struck (if not, there may be a hidden crack).

Caring for your pottery

Store and display your pots carefully. Surfaces can be marred by contact with walls or other pots. Be aware of wide swings in temperature because thermal shock can lead to cracks. For hard-fired pottery, cleaning is as simple as a soft cloth and mixture of warm water with mild detergent and a trace of ammonia. For antique, unfired, fragile and particularly valuable pieces, consult a professional conservator. And, for future reference, tuck inside a written record of the artist, price, origin and place of purchase.

You should regard your pottery as anthropological treasures and treat them as such. But do enjoy them—live with them, show them off, and continue to read and learn about the traditions, the techniques, and the new directions being explored by contemporary potters.


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.

The illustrations for this article are from the Museum Collection at
Wright's Indian Art remote in Albuquerque. Photos by Studio Seven in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to the Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 2


Related Pages

Collecting Indian Pottery article
Glossary of Pueblo Pottery Terms article
Pottery: Enduring Styles of The Pueblos article

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


Collector’s Resources

Albuquerque

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 and Mercantile | 505-351-4566
GrimmerRoche rem 422 West San Francisco | 982-8669
Morning Star Gallery | 505-982-8187
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Sherwoods Spirit of America | 505-988-1776

Taos

Bryans Gallery 121 Kit Carson Road | 575-758-9407

RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED July 7, 2008

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