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New Mexico's Pueblo Potters Make Collectible Art With Feats of Clay

September 23, 1990|JENNIFER MERIN

SANTA FE, N.M. — Travelers to New Mexico may delight in the fact that there are nearly 1,000 collectible pueblo Indian potters working in New Mexico's 19 pueblos, or tribal settlements.

Since pieces range in price and quality, there is pottery for all budgets and most tastes.

Once used as practical storage vessels, pueblo Indian pottery has become a highly respected art form, helped partly by tourism. The change began 50 years ago when tourists bought the pottery as souvenirs.

Modern pottery is made in shapes and decorative styles similar to that uncovered by archeologists at New Mexico's ancient Anasazi Indian ruins during the 1920s and '30s.

While each potter has a distinct style, most follow basic designs associated with their pueblos. The most prized pottery is from Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Acoma, Isleta, Jemez, Tesuque, Zia, Taos and Picuris (or San Lorenzo) pueblos.

The work of select families, especially the late Maria and Julian Martinez of San Ildefonso pueblo and Margaret Tafoya of Santa Clara pueblo, signaled a renaissance in pueblo pottery and gave it investment value. Signed pieces can sell for thousands of dollars.

Contemporary pueblo pottery is intended for decoration. Most of it will not hold water unless a protective coat of shellac is applied inside. Some may be wiped carefully with a damp cloth. Tesuque pottery is the exception. It must be kept completely dry or the paint will bleed.

Styles differ, but all pueblos utilize the same centuries-old "pinch" technique in which the potter finds, collects and prepares local clay.

While kneading and pounding the clay to remove impurities and air pockets, the potter adds a stabilizing element, such as volcanic ash, to prevent cracking. The potter builds the sides of the pot by adding coil after coil of clay, and joining the coils together by pinching. Making sides symmetrical and of equal thickness requires much skill.

After the pots dry, surfaces are sanded to make them smooth for painting. Pots that have been fired to produce a shiny, monochromatic surface are covered with layers of a very watery clay called "slip." When the slip dries, pots are hand-polished with smooth stones until the surfaces have a glass-like shine. If the surface is to have both shiny and matte areas, a layer of slip is then added to create the matte designs. Or, polychromatic pieces are painted with their elaborate designs.

Traditionally, pots were fired in outdoor kilns built for each firing. But some potters now use commercially built kilns, which offer better control over the process.

Modernized firing has not changed the basic quality of hand- constructed pots. But buyers beware: Some pieces are being mass produced from undecorated slip-cast, or ceramic, pots made in molds, which are then painted in the traditional way. Some of the designs are beautiful, but prices should be less than half of the hand-constructed pots.

It isn't always easy to tell the difference. Look for irregularities that characterize hand-constructed pots and buy from experienced, reputable dealers. Ask the potter's background and request certifications of authenticity.

Styles vary and include:

Santa Clara (made about 30 miles north of Santa Fe) and San Ildefonso pots (about 20 miles north of Santa Fe), which are decorated with geometric patterns in black on black or red on red. Contrast is often obtained by combining a matte and glossy finish, or by incising designs so backgrounds stand out in relief. Sometimes, black on black and red on red areas are on the same pot. Santa Clara is also famous for double-spouted wedding pitchers.

In a related style, the pots of San Juan (about 10 miles north of Santa Clara) are made of polychromatic red or tan, with linear patterns incised in slight depressions.

By contrast, pottery from Acoma (the mesa-top pueblo about 70 miles west of Albuquerque) uses cream-colored backgrounds with bold geometric designs of burnt umber or ocher outlined with black.

The Isleta pueblo (about 15 miles south of Albuquerque) produces a limited amount of pottery that resembles Acoma in shape and color, but with designs that are smaller and spaced apart.

Pottery from Jemez (about 50 miles southwest of Los Alamos) also has a beige background, but it is covered with designs drawn in commercial black paint after firing. Traditional patterns are extremely intricate, often with thin lines creating a design that seems to ripple across the surface of the pot.

Decorated with water paints in primary colors, pottery from Tesuque (about 10 miles north of Santa Fe) has a rough, almost dusty-looking surface that cannot be touched with water. Pottery from Zia (about 20 miles south of Jemez pueblo) uses reddish decoration on a light tan background and is often characterized by a broad zigzagging line and highly stylized birds.

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