Denise Chavarria and the Santa Clara Craft
In the Singing Water Village near Two Waters Meet, Denise Chavarria has been working the clay since an early age, inspired by her mother, Stella Chavarria, and her grandmother, Teresita Naranjo.
“I feel like all of the hard work I’ve put into my pottery has paid off,” Denise says of being selected as one of the potters for Shumakolowa Native Arts’ Pueblo Pottery Mug series. “I always thank my grandma because she was a big inspiration, and maybe from up above she was there to give me this chance to do something like this.”
Thinking about one of her designs now being available worldwide, Denise says, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I’m very proud of, and I’ll always be proud of.”
Denise’s original mug design, which was replicated for release as the third mug from series two of the Pueblo Pottery Mugs, is the first to feature relief carving. She hand-coiled the clay in the traditional method, then carefully carved in the shapes and symbols before firing. The previous designs were all painted, or natural micaceous clay.
Adorning Denise’s mug are images prevalent in Santa Clara pottery, handed down through generations. The Avanyu water serpent, kiva steps, kiva opening, whirlwinds, rain clouds, and lightning are found in the pottery of her grandmother, where she often finds inspiration.
Denise crafted the original mug from clay gathered from a hillside in Santa Clara, the same spot where her mom, grandmother, and those before them came to receive this gift from the Earth. This special location has alternating layers of sand and clay, so some trips to gather clay are more work than others, especially if rain has made the road difficult to travel.
Creating the mug pottery to exact specifications was difficult, especially with the varying shrinkage rates of different batches of clay. “It was challenging because I’ve never done a piece of pottery in that type of a cup shape,” Denise says. “I think it took me three tries before I got it right.”
Although Denise has been making clay since she was little, it’s not an everyday occurrence. “I work full time, but I still take the time to do pottery on the weekends, or when we’re off for vacation or holidays, because I love it. It’s something that I enjoy doing, and I’m going to continue as long as I can.”
The continuance aspect recently found new meaning when Denise’s childhood came back in search of her. “I remember my sister (potter Loretta “Sunday” Chavarria) and I used to make little potteries for tourists – animal figurines, canoes, and hornos – and then we put them in a little basket and the tourists used to come to the plaza at Santa Clara,” she recalls fondly. “When they came we would go over there with our little baskets and we’d put out our ware along with other Pueblo women and kids.”
All those years ago, one piece, a canoe, was sold to a fur and hide merchant in Albuquerque, R.L. Fox, who owned a business of the same name. “Three or four years ago the current owner called me and says, ‘I have a surprise for you,’ and he gave me that piece, which he found in a box of pottery.”
Time and again over the last few decades, Denise has nurtured her relationship with the clay. “It’s hard work, but you have to be dedicated, and not be lazy – you can’t be lazy – because if you are, Mother Clay knows you are,” she chuckles, “and forget it – she’s not going to let you work with her.”
We asked Denise if there was anything she wanted the world to know about pottery-making and her mug. “It’s not a hobby – it’s something that I love to do. And the people who purchase that mug, I hope they feel the love that’s coming out of it. As much love as I put into making that piece, that’s what I hope they feel.”
Learn more about Denise and explore her artwork on her FEATURED ARTIST PAGE >
Additional background on the Pueblo pottery design mugs:
In January 2015, five Pueblo potters, Erik Fender (San Ildefonso), Elizabeth Medina (Zia), Frederica Antonio (Acoma), Patricia Lowden (Acoma), and Robin Teller (Isleta), were commissioned by Shumakolowa Native Arts to create traditional Pueblo pottery in the form of a contemporary coffee mug, which could be replicated.
The popularity of the mugs prompted the commission of a second series of Pueblo Pottery Mugs, this time with designs by Martha Romero (Nambé), Carlos Laate (Zuni), Denise Chavarria (Santa Clara), Helen Bird (Santo Domingo), and a collaboration from Lisa Holt (Cochiti) and Harlan Reano (Santo Domingo).
Series two debuted with Martha Romero’s design just before Christmas 2017, with the others being released at intervals through mid-February 2018. Series three debuts in October 2018 with mugs from Juanita Fragua (Jemez), Clarence Cruz (Ohkay Owingeh), Natalie Sandia (Jemez), Myron Sarracino (Laguna), and Hubert Candelario (San Felipe). The goal is to eventually have potters from each of New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos produce a mug design representing their Pueblo.
The originals for series one through three are on display at Shumakolowa, located inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. All of the participating artists receive royalties for each mug sold, with proceeds also supporting the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico.