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Potters' Craft Molded By Southwest's Past

October 24, 1986|RICK VANDERKNYFF

For Native American potters Mela Youngblood and her son Nathan, working with traditional methods is a source of pride. But there also are drawbacks, as underscored when a surprise snowstorm delayed preparations for the pair's current exhibit at Galeria Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano.

The potters, who work at New Mexico's Santa Clara Pueblo near Santa Fe, were hit by the storm less than a week before the show's opening. Because they fire their works in bonfires built directly on the ground rather than in kilns, the Youngbloods were unable to finish their pots.

So they waited several days until the ground was dry enough and then fired their works late at night by the glow of a pickup's headlights. The works were shipped to the gallery the next day, and the artists flew to Orange County soon after to attend an opening reception. (The exhibit runs through next Friday.)

"It's hard work, the way we do it," Mela admitted in an interview at the gallery. Of about 100 full-time potters at the pueblo, most have turned to commercial clays and kiln-firing for reasons of ease and efficiency. But the Youngbloods and a handful of other artisans continue in the traditional ways established by generations of pueblo potters: They collect and mix their own clay and sand, use traditional designs and fire their works on the open ground.

Including the digging, it takes about 40 hours to prepare a cubic foot of clay for use, Nathan said. Then comes the actual shaping of the vessel, by a coil method, and its decoration. The best-known Santa Clara pottery is black or red, and is often distinguished by intricate carvings. The process is laborious, Nathan said, and success is far from guaranteed.

"After all that work, a pot might crack or blow up (in firing), so you've got all that time in there and nothing to show for it," he said. "We only get about three out of 10 that are good enough to sell."

So why stick with the traditional method? "It's the way we learned," Mela said. "I don't like giving up something that I grew up with. Somebody has to keep on with what was ours."

"It's not just making pottery and making a living," Nathan said. "It's a privilege and a responsibility with us. It's an honest gift--a gift that we believe you could lose if you misuse it or abuse it. It's the old way, and it's the way the clay is supposed to be handled, so that's what we do."

"Besides," Mela added, "my mom would disown us if we switched" to contemporary methods.

Mela's mother is Margaret Tafoya, one of the Southwest's best-known and most-honored potters and matriarch of a potting dynasty. Of 10 children, eight (including Mela) are full-time potters, and a number of grandchildren also have taken up the craft.

Mela was a young girl when she learned pottery from her mother. After she married, she traveled for 17 years with her military husband before returning in 1968 to Santa Clara, where she began producing pottery full time. Mela, 55, sells primarily at the pueblo and through the annual Santa Fe Indian Market.

Nathan dabbled in pottery as a teen-ager, and after a short stint in college moved in with his grandmother to learn from her. Now 32, he is a full-time potter with his own home near Santa Fe, although he does much of his work at his mother's home in Santa Clara. (Mela's other child, Nancy, is also a potter, specializing in miniature works less than three inches high.)

Nathan sells through galleries in Santa Fe, Chicago, New York and Scottsdale, Ariz., and through the Indian Market. For collectors, works produced by traditionalists like the Youngbloods are in higher demand than works produced by the more prolific contemporary potters, whose work is generally less detailed. Works by Mela and Nathan can command prices of more than $1,500, and both artists say they easily sell all they can produce.

Their output can be relatively low. Mela began working last Christmas and was able to produce only eight salable pieces for the latest Santa Fe Indian Market last August. A few years ago, 13 pieces Nathan was preparing for the market were destroyed during firing, and he had only one piece to show.

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