The tradition of Zuni pottery-making is a rich one, having been practiced for more than a thousand years to produce both functional and ceremonial vessels. By the middle of the last century however, this art form was fairly dormant, having given way to jewelry-making, the main support of the Zuni economy. Over the last fifty years, pottery-making has been revived through ceramics classes at Zuni High School and some dedicated and gifted instructors such as Daisy Hooee Nampeyo, Jenny Laate and Josephine Nahohai. In the mid-1980’s, the Zuni Tribal Arts and Crafts Enterprise sent six Zuni potters to the Smithsonian to study older Zuni pottery. They found inspiration in viewing the old anew.
Traditional Zuni designs include water symbols such as tadpoles, frogs, dragonflies and the Zuni “rain bird,” as well as flower rosettes and deer with heartlines. Traditional forms include the stepped-edge cornmeal bowl (also known as cloud or prayer bowls), bird effigies and vessels in such forms. Sculptural appliqué is a common feature in traditional and contemporary work.
Today, we find the next generations of Zuni potters actively combining traditional and contemporary design and process. Many, such as the Kalestewas, Peynestsa and Nahohai family members still dig their own clay and gather organic materials to create natural paints. Some elect to minimize mishaps by using an electric kiln rather than outdoor pit-firing. Others, such as young multi-dimensional artist Alan Lasiloo, experiment with such variables as firing techniques and clay types to produce a unique appearance. No matter where these artists place themselves in the evolving tradition of Zuni pottery-making, or how many awards they may receive, they all consider it the greatest honor to be asked by a religious entity to make a ceremonial piece, and they are glad to see their pots carried on the heads of the famous Zuni Olla Maidens.