During a recent social call in a private residence in Albuquerque, I admired the homeowner’s display of Southwestern Indian folk art. Most notable was her traditional Acoma Pueblo pottery collection on the dining room credenza. Over the last thirty years she accumulated an admirable set of handmade pots with the characteristic polychromatic designs. While they are works of beauty, the origins of the forms were practical: for carrying and storing water, grain, seeds, prepared foods and other items. In case you are not familiar with this style of pottery and the area where the pieces are made, I have an introduction for readers below the photograph.
Here is an outline of the traditional process used to produce these works of art:
CLAY: From around the pueblo mesa, the material is collected for the clay from the hills. It is a slate-like stone that must be ground into powder and sifted, which is an arduous process. Shards of old pots get ground up to a powder and blended in with the new clay. This temper produces a strong clay that allows thin walls to be formed.
POT SHAPING: Using gourds as base forms, hand-coiled lengths of clay are built up inside until the vessel’s shape is formed. The pottery is dried out into greenware that is scraped with gourds and smoothed and polished with stones.
DECORATION: After the pot dries to a specific hardness, a kaolin clay slip is mixed and applied in several coats to provide a white background on the exterior of the pot. It is sanded down and smoothed again. Then the potter uses yucca brushes to paint intricate patterns in black and rust colored pigments. Designs include some animals, predominantly parrots, turtles and deer, abstract geometric shapes representing feathers, water and rain, plants and mountains, rainbows, lightning and thunderclouds.
FIRING: The final step is to fire the pots outdoors in hot pit fires, which strengthens the materials and bonds the glaze to the clay. Modern potters are using kilns more and more because high temperatures can be regulated and controlled and its easier for the artist to increase the production speed.
The origins of this pottery is the Acoma Pueblo, which claims to be the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States. It is 60 miles west of Albuquerque, NM, with its closest city being Grants. The pueblo is made up of several villages: Sky City (Old Acoma), Acomita, and Mcartys. The Acoma language falls into the Keresan language group. Acoma Pueblo inhabitants speak both Acoma and English with some Elders also speaking Spanish. The pueblo sits on a 357-foot mesa with only one way up to it. Year-round there are about 50 people who live on the mesa top. The rest of people live in the farming villages below. The tradition of pottery making is passed on from one generation to the next. As you can see, the pots are a tribute to the natural world from start to finish. The high quality, intricately designed Acoma pottery pieces, signed by established artists, will sell in museums, galleries, gift shops, boutiques and southwestern trading companies for starting prices of $250; the greater the detail, the higher the price tag.
The gentle shapes and graphical bold designs make stunning pieces to be treasured. I hope you enjoyed this tiny educational visit with me, as I chanced to see what one person has collected and prized during her life in New Mexico.