Pottery: Enduring Styles of the Pueblos

There is a lot of individuality
in different Pueblo approaches to potterymaking.


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Pueblo pottery of the Southwest is among the purest of North American Indian art forms-that is to say, its execution and design have gone virtually unchanged for generations. Of course, innovations, technical advances, and minor deviations in style and design have always produced vessels outside the norm of the day. And today more than ever, artists are creating works that reflect an abundance of new and rich influences. But for the most part, Southwestern pottery has not been fundamentally altered by foreign or exterior elements.

Following is a brief overview of the various types of pottery being produced within the pueblos scattered throughout New Mexico.

Acoma, Cochiti, Laguna, Santo Domingo,
Santa Ana and Zia Pottery

These pueblos, the Keres-speaking villages, are known predominantly for their white or buff-slipped vessels with black and brick-colored motifs, usually with a reddish-brown base. Black and white fine-line pots, storytellers and animal figurines such as the cow, owl, deer, and bird are also made here.Other typical design elements include rain, lightning, clouds, humans, animals, cross-hatching, and geometrics. At Santo Domingo, large pots painted with flowers, leaves and animals are also popular, and many of the larger vessels often have lids or rims. Among the southern pueblos, there is an abundant use of the Zia bird, the Zuni deer with heartline, and the rainbow band. One may also discover an occasional plate, canteen, or flat tile-like piece, but the larger earth-toned pieces are by far the most popular.

Lucy Lewis

Image: © Lucy Lewis

Robert Tenorio

Image: © Robert Tenorio
Santo Domingo


Maria Martinez

Image: © Maria Martinez
San Ildefonso

Margaret Tafoya

Image: © Margaret Tafoya
Santa Clara

Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan,
Santa Clara and Tesuque Pottery

The Tewa-speaking pueblos, renowned for their award-winning potters, are best known for their black or red polished jars, vases, and bowls. Carved, etched, or painted black and red wares, still made by traditional methods, often take the forms of wedding vases, water and storage jars, friendship baskets, plates, bowls, mudhead clowns, animal figurines, candle holders, and even nativities. Popular designs among the Tewa include the bear paw, water serpent, kiva steps, clouds, feathers, and stylized parrots. Some San Juan potters make polished red and polychrome wares with incised lines and geometric patterns. Sgraffito (ornamentation etched after firing) miniatures are also commonly seen among Tewa artists, and a few potters work exclusively with micaceous clay, crafting large jars and pots and wide flattish bowls.


Isleta, Picuris and Taos Pottery

The Tiwa-speaking pueblos primarily produce micaceous wares with relief bands and designs, often with handles and lids. Large jars and pots are common, as are figurines depicting animals, people, nativities and storytellers. These artists also produce undecorated pottery, as well as pottery with a white slip, painted brown and orange designs, and even pastels.

Angie Yazzie

Image: © Angie Yazzie


Brenda Panana

Image: © Brenda Panana

Jemez Pottery

Jemez is the last remaining Towa-speaking village whose potters typically create buff or red-slipped wares with buff, white, red, or black designs. The most common design elements include clouds and lightning and geometric lines and symbols. Storytellers, clowns, and animal figurines are also produced at Jemez.


Hopi Pottery

Generally, Hopi pottery is characterized by its warm, amber-colored slip and polychrome designs, though it may also be seen with white- or buff-slipped bases and black and red designs. Also being produced is polished redware, either left plain or decorated with black or white painted designs. Traditional styles include tall, slender vases, wide, shallow bowls and small to medium round pots. Stylized birds, kiva steps, and rain symbols are among the most popular design motifs.

Grace Chapella

Image: © Grace Chapella


Zuni Pottery

Zuni potters produce a large body of bowls and jars with brownish-black and red designs on white or buff slip, plus a few wares with black-on-red decorations. Popular Zuni designs include the rain bird, plant and animal forms, crosshatching, and the deer with red heartline. Owl effigies are common, as is the practice of adding clay relief figures such as the water serpent and duck to the outer surfaces of the vessel.

Borrowing and Trading

The borrowing, trading and adopting of artistic techniques, styles and designs is nothing new to the tribes of North America. There has always been an interchange of artistic resources among indigenous peoples, and exterior influences often became incorporated into an otherwise "traditional," untainted art form.

Today there are more innovations in pottery than ever before. This strong and steady influx of new styles and designs is pushing pottery into previously unexplored territories. Forerunners on this generational journey include Robert Tenorio's (Santo Domingo) variations of the storage jar, Russell Sanchez's (San Ildefonso) bejeweled vessels, and the painted creations of Julian Martinez (San Ildefonso), who borrowed heavily from Hopi influences to adorn his wife Maria's famous plates and bowls. But the recent movement is unprecedented. Potters -especially the younger ones- are challenging the notion of traditionalism as never before.

Dozens of artists today are using the designs and techniques of other tribes. Cochiti potters are producing wares once more typical of the Tewa pueblos -such as wedding vases and jars- and decorating them with traditional Tewa and Hopi pictorials, serpents and feather designs, and stylized birds and wings. Laguna and Acoma potters are incorporating many of these motifs in their work as well, sometimes slipping their vessels with amber or white pigments much like those of Hopi artist.

The Tewa pueblos are producing many clay works containing outside tribal influences. Hopi designs have always been popular among Santa Clara potters, who also adapted several design techniques -including the black-on-black decorating styles- from their San Ildefonso neighbors. Tewa villages farther south are home to several potters whose work suggests a Tiwa influence, specifically from the micaceous vessels common to Picuris & Isleta.


Entering the 21st century, pottery is changing even more markedly. Artists are not only looking to other tribes for design resources, they are looking everywhere. Within their own traditions, they are incorporating designs such as dancers and kachina-like figures that have never been used before. Some potters are adding elements of newly adopted faiths, while others even depict motorcycles, acrobats, giraffes, trout, dinosaurs, spiders, and irises on otherwise traditional forms. Diego Romero (Cochiti) paints his vessels with freeway scenes, overpasses, cars, traffic signs, even dialogue. And the young Folwells of Santa Clara have been creating works with Osage and Northwest Coast designs on brownish-black, burnished surfaces with somewhat abstracted shapes.

Miniatures, by no means a traditional category of pottery, are quite popular throughout many of the pueblos and are produced in nearly every shape and color.

These changes and adaptations in pottery design may have been long in arriving or may have gone overlooked. But in recent years, the changes are more evident. Today, it is clear that despite the ongoing "purity" of Southwestern pottery, prolific and talented artists are breaking all the rules. The crowded tables atop which these vessels sit on the eve of Indian Market judging is testimony to this fact- and to the ever-changing currents that give new vitality to this ancient and beautiful art form.

Thanks to RoseMary Diaz(Santa Clara Pueblo) is a writer, teacher and photographer living in Santa Fe. This article was first seen in the 1997 Indian Market Official Program produced by Indian Artist Magazine.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13

Related Pages

Collecting Indian Pottery article
Glossary of Indian Arts Terms article
Glossary of Pueblo Pottery Terms article
How Pueblo Pottery is Made 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 site

Collector’s Resources


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


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