What's New in the World's Oldest Profession?

 

 

“A philosopher, seeking among the products of human industry the one which would best enable him to follow, through the course of ages, the progress of intelligence, and give him the approximate measure of the artistic tendencies of man, would select incontestably the works of the potter.”

Albert Jacquemart - History of the Ceramic Art, 1873

 

Driving to Taos in the late morning of New Year’s Eve, as I thought about the close of a decade, Taos Mountain loomed large in the distance. In my imagination it said, “I’ve been here a long, long time, and I’m weightier than time itself.” Because the Taos Pueblo Indians have held Taos Mountain sacred for centuries, it has escaped many of the effects of development and time.

No one can ignore this presence of history in New Mexico. A hike through the caves of Bandelier or to the peaks above Truchas reveals that others, long ago, were here before us. Their potsherds, decorated with delicate geometric patterns, are clear reminders linking past and present, carrying a message that there was a lot happening here before you were born. And one of those things was an active pottery tradition which, although changed many times over, is still alive today.

With abundant local materials and straightforward production practices, handmade pottery now finds itself at the forefront of the ‘buy local’ movement. Cups and bowls made today, in accordance with thousands of years of tried-and-true techniques, fit seamlessly with today’s microwave lifestyle, without contributing to landfills or contaminating our bloodstreams with toxins. While unprecedented shifts in the labor market have caused countless workers to be replaced by cost-effective machines or cheap labor abroad, the individual potter has relevance in today’s society. The skilled hand of the potter, as anachronistic as it seems, will never be replaceable, because a well-made cup is never just a cup. And so as the pace of our lives speeds up to the nth degree, professional potters still do what we’ve always done: make one piece at a time, infusing each piece with a presence and meaning that is lacking in most consumer items.

The best clay work of today is thus no less a measure of progress than was that of centuries prior. New ideas and new interpretations of old ideas are coming to fruition as Santa Fe—the nation’s oldest state capital—celebrates her 400th anniversary. The influence of legendary artists of the past like Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo, and Lucy Lewis of Acoma, is omnipresent, always rich and never old, and along with the indigenous pottery traditions, other newer voices have entered the mix.

This balance between old and new gives the clay scene a vibrancy and depth that is hard to find elsewhere. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture waits quietly on Museum Hill just southeast of Santa Fe with some of the finest Native American pottery in the western hemisphere. North of Taos, the Millicent Rogers Museum houses historic pots that are so exquisite as to be mind-boggling. Meanwhile, with the art scene springing to life in the railyard district, the contemporary gallery at Santa Fe Clay finds itself in the heart of things, having maintained its 10,000 square-foot facility there since 1974. Owner Avra Leodas is best known for keeping her finger on the pulse of contemporary ceramics, handpicking top-notch artists for national invitational exhibits, and hosting workshops led by respected teachers throughout the year.

Ruth Duckworth (1919-2009)
Untitled #897506
 2006
Porcelain 20.75" x 4.5"

Many significant figures in the contemporary clay world—whether they call themselves artists, potters, ceramists or sculptors, whether they fire with cow dung, electricity, gas or wood—live here. Ken Price, represented by New York’s Matthew Marks and in Los Angeles by LA Louver, will be the subject of a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012. Another resident, Daisy Youngblood, represented by McKee Gallery in New York, is the recipient of a 2003 MacArthur Award. In turn, many of the nation’s most recognized artists are represented here, including Jun Kaneko (Gebert Contemporary), and the late Ruth Duckworth, who recently passed away at the age of 90. Duckworth’s exquisite sculptural forms will be highlighted in a retrospective at Bellas Artes Gallery throughout the summer of 2010.

The fusion of new and old is also manifest in the work of artists who are taking their traditions to new heights, interpreting them in bold new ways. Chiaroscuro Gallery, with the work of Nora Naranjo-Morse and the collaborations of Lisa Holt and Harlan Reano, offers notable examples. Robert Nichols Gallery represents the work of Diego Romero, whose clever designs on earthenware offer an insightful take on contemporary life while harkening back to the techniques of his Cochiti Pueblo roots.

Jane Sauer Gallery, Patina Gallery and Blue Rain Gallery focus on fine craft, offering refreshing perspectives on contemporary clay. Jane Sauer shows the ceramic sculpture of Adrian Arleo, whose figurative sculpture incorporates unglazed beehive-textured clay covered with an aromatic combination of damar varnish and beeswax. At Patina, the colorful and subtly textured earthenware vessels of Nicholas Bernard reflect the past and the future. Blue Rain is home to the work of Tammy Garcia, who adapts and abstracts traditional motifs to redefine Native American pottery.

Another of the world’s most respected ceramic traditions is that of Japan, where ceramics have long enjoyed unparalleled prestige—largely due to centuries of appreciation by tea ceremony enthusiasts. An unsuspecting visitor might never guess that New Mexico is home to an active and dedicated tea group (www.chadonewmexico.org) affiliated with the Urasenke tradition of tea in Japan.

A favorite among tea enthusiasts is the artist-owned Rift Gallery. Located along the Rio Grande between Española and Taos, on the geological feature known as the Rio Grande Rift, Rift Gallery blends big city sophistication with small town meet-the-artists charm. Like Rift, Weyrich Gallery in Albuquerque specializes in wood-fired ceramics and hosts various tea classes and events.

Touching Stone Gallery in Santa Fe specializes in Japanese sculptural ceramics and celebrates their 10th anniversary in 2010, showcasing the work of artists who, in several instances, have never shown before an American audience. Touching Stone’s exhibits are posted online, and generate interest nationwide, though nothing equals actually visiting this intimate gallery in a refurbished 250-year-old adobe house.

The website of the statewide member organization, New Mexico Potters and Clay Artists (www.nmpotters.org), features a ‘virtual studio tour’ section spotlighting members, with information and photographs. A related site, www.contemporaryclayfair.com, provides information about the popular Santa Fe Contemporary Clay Fair, which showcases thirty selected artists each spring and fall.

For generations, writers and painters have described the lure of New Mexico’s landscape and culture. Artists working in clay also interpret this landscape and the tremendous vastness of these skies through our chosen media: the earth underfoot. New Mexico thus continues to be home to ceramics with an energy and expressiveness not bound to any one era, which—like Taos Mountain—possess a timelessness difficult to verbalize.


Betsy Williams is a professional ceramist. She and stone sculptor Mark Saxe own Rift Gallery.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 24


Related Pages

Glossary of Ceramic and Clay Terms article

Oriental Ceramics in New Mexico article

Pottery: Enduring Styles of the Pueblos article


How Pueblo Pottery is Made article

Fine Craft in New Mexico article

Studio Craft Comes of Age article


Collector’s Resources

Albuquerque

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
Heidi Loewen Porcelain Studio & School | 505-988-2225
Meyer East Gallery | 505-983-1657
Tom Ross Gallery | 505-984-8434
Tansey Contemporary rem 652 Canyon Road | 505-995-8513
Nausika Richardson rem County Road 0064 #30, Dixon | 505-579-4612
Blue Dome Gallery At Bear Mountain Lodge | 575-538-2538

Taos

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

RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED June 21, 2011

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