Illuminating Dispatches Newsletter

Illuminating Dispatches Newsletter - June 13th: Clay Week

In Celebration: Zuni Pottery, National Clay Week June 13th - 19th

A rich and complex history, the Zuni tradition of ceramics is one that has existed for millennia. Producing both functional and ceremonial vessels, Zuni potters traditionally dug their own clay and produced their own paints all from the local soil and plants, intrinsically tying the colors of their pots to their home. But by the middle of the last century, potting became a dormant art form, giving way to jewelry-making, which was the main support of the Zuni economy. Reviving the process has been a fifty-year journey, led by the Zuni High School’s ceramics classes and the dedicated instructors. Among these teachers encouraging students to resuscitate this dying art form were Daisy Hooee Nampeyo (Tewa-Hopi, d.), Jennie Laate (Acoma, d.) and Josephine Nahohai (Zuni, d.), all equally gifted ceramists in their own right. In the 1980s, a group of Zuni potters were sent to the Smithsonian by the Zuni Tribal Arts and Crafts Enterprise to study older Zuni pots, and they found much inspiration upon viewing the historical work of their ancestors. Once regarded as a folk art, or as utilitarian products, native pottery is now a pillar of the Native American fine art movement. 

Potters today still dig their own clay from the ancestral clay pits, and then prepare that raw material by hand so that it can go on to be formed. The process of preparing the clay is labor and time intensive, but connects the artists to the material all the way through the process of creating. Prayers and cornmeal are offered to the spirit of the clay when it is gathered, and the shaping of the pots and jars is similar to the carving of fetishes, giving form to the spirit of the earth within.

On Handbuilding:

While we often picture a potter hunched over a wheel when we think of ceramic work, handbuilding is still utilized as the main building technique by many, including many Pueblo potters. While slab building is a handbuilding technique, coil building and pinch pots are the types utilized most frequently by Zuni artists and both can require years of practice to perfect getting symmetrical and thin walls. Thick walls can lead to air being trapped in the clay and result in an explosion during firing, while walls that are too thin can collapse or crack during the drying process, the right thickness is a very delicate balance that also affects the weight of the pot after firing as well. Since many traditional shapes were and are utilitarian in nature, a heavy olla, or water jar, is inconvenient for its intended purpose.

The relationship between clay and the water content in the material isn’t just important during the forming and building stages but also in the beginning when the potters begin to process the raw clay to create a workable material. During this process it's important to end up with the right ratio of clay to water, since clay that is too dry will crumble and become unworkable. Another material that is added to the wet clay is the ground up shard of old pots, often those that did not survive their own firing. This helps to temper the clay, which prevents shrinkage and cracking during drying and firing of vessels.

Because handbuilding is a uniquely hands-on process, it's common to see finger and hand prints in the walls of finished pots, reminding us that these pieces were made by human artists and are each special.  

On Decoration:

There are many traditional designs featured in modern Zuni pottery, and even the precise geometric lines of the more abstract designs often have meaning behind them. The more literal images are often depictions of water symbols including animals like tadpoles, frogs, dragonflies, and the Zuni “rain bird” but flower rosettes and deer with heartlines (often known as “deer in his house”) are also common. The animals sometimes graduate beyond two-dimensional painting and are featured as sculptural applique, a feature seen in traditional and contemporary work. The stepped-edge cornmeal or cloud bowl, bird effigies, and the classic olla are all traditional forms, reproduced today alongside other forms, some of which are far more modern but harken back to those ancient forms.

The paint and slip used to create these designs are also created from different local minerals and plants, but all coming exclusively from the earth. Some of the clay used to create the different shades of slip and paint decorating the lovely forms are rare and must be collected from specific deposits, while others are as abundant as mud itself, and can be found as easily as looking down. While the sources of these pigments and the techniques used to create them and the form of the vessels they will decorate, each artist breathes new life into the art form, ensuring that it will continue to live on.

On Tradition and Innovation:

Today the next generations of Zuni potters can be seen actively combining traditional and contemporary designs into their work. But the form and decorations are not the only thing to have a mixture of eras, the process of making has also grown and changed over the years. Outdoor pit-firing is often still used but some may choose to minimize firing mishaps and use electric kilns instead. Yucca leaves are the traditional tool used to paint the intricate designs and is still used by many potters, while others prefer a modern paintbrush instead. Still others will combine the two, and use yucca for some parts of the design and brushes for the other. 

The tradition of Zuni pottery is an ever evolving art form, and no matter where the artists place themselves, no matter their awards and accolades, they all consider it the greatest honor to be asked by a religious entity to make a ceremonial piece, and are delighted to see their pots carried on the heads of the famous Zuni Olla Maidens.