How Pueblo Pottery is Made
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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 , classical radio in Albuquerque.
The illustrations for this article are from
the Museum Collection at
Indian Art in
Albuquerque. Photos by Studio Seven in Albuquerque.
Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to the Albuquerque Metro
Area - Volume 2
RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT
July 7, 2008