Pottery Techniques/Styles from Across the Pueblos
The most celebrated and recognized art form of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico is pottery. Pueblo pottery is known around the world for its remarkable beauty and craftsmanship. It has been made in much the same way for over a thousand years, with every step of creation completed by hand.
And like each unique Native artisan who creates pottery, there are many types of styles and techniques you’ll find when searching for a handcrafted Native American piece of work. While many types of pottery are well-known for the Pueblo they came from, they aren’t the only Pueblo that may create in that style.
Pueblo potters do not use a wheel, but construct pots using the traditional horizontal coil method or freely forming the shape. After the pot is formed, the artist polishes the piece with a natural polishing stone, such as a river stone, then paints it with a vegetal, mineral or commercial slip. Finally, the pot is fired in an outdoor fire or kiln using manure or wood as fuel. Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Jemez and Acoma Pueblos have distinctive pottery styles that are especially prized by collectors, but accomplished potters are working in all Pueblos. Today, Pueblo pottery is an exciting and dynamic form, with many artists pairing traditional techniques with innovative and stylized designs. Those potters who continue to create pots using traditional methods possess an extraordinary level of skill, and their pots are highly valuable works of fine art that will be enjoyed for generations to come.
Santa Clara Pueblo, a Tewa-speaking Pueblo located along the Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico, has one of the most dynamic and innovative pottery-making communities in the world. Today, the Pueblo’s best known pottery style is polished blackware with precisely carved sgraffito designs. Blackware can be traced back to the 12th century and was revived in the early 20th century by potters from San Ildefonso Pueblo. Though their style is similar to San Ildefonso’s, Santa Clara potters set themselves apart by carving designs into the clay rather than painting them on the surface. This type of low relief carving, called sgraffito, was a major shift in style that had a lasting effect on modern Pueblo pottery. Blackware remains popular, but there are many Santa Clara artists who have developed their own signature styles. Known for their creativity, these potters experiment with non-traditional, asymmetrical vessel shapes and contemporary design motifs. No matter their style, Pueblo potters from Santa Clara have an unbelievable mastery of their craft, making their handmade pots among the most valuable in the world.
Etched Bald Eagle Seed Pot - Handmade seed pot by Santa Clara potter Kevin Naranjo. With a highly polished surface, each side offers a unique and stylized design created in relief through sgraffito etching, with a beautiful golden hue produced through torch firing.
San Ildefonso Pueblo is best known for its black-on-black style of pottery made famous by legendary potter Maria Martinez. Along with her husband Julian, Maria pioneered this style that combines matte and polished black surfaces around 1920, drawing upon pottery artifacts being excavated at the time from ancient Pueblo sites. They shared their techniques with the rest of San Ildefonso, which energized the economic and cultural life of this small Pueblo. Today, San Ildefonso black-on-black vessels are extremely valuable and one of the most recognized forms of Pueblo pottery in the world. In the 20th century, San Ildefonso potters became known for their originality, innovating new designs and shapes. Along with Santa Clara, they were among the first potters to carve designs into the clay rather than painting upon the surface, a huge shift in style that had a tremendous impact on the Pueblo pottery world. In addition to blackware, contemporary San Ildefonso artists also create beautiful redware and polychrome style pottery. Though San Ildefonso is a small Pueblo, their potters have had an enormous impact on the development of modern Pueblo pottery, and their work continues to be highly valued and collected today.
Black on Black Vase - Vase was handmade by award-winning San Ildefonso potter Erik Fender. The innovative color palette of soft-grey matte slip against a highly polished black background creates beautiful geometric designs in relief, which contrast with the textured neck.
The traditional style of Ohkay Owingeh pottery is a polished red and black pottery similar to Santa Clara. By the late 19th century, traditional pottery-making in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo had nearly died out. In the 1930s, a group of potters led by Regina Cata revived an historic style of pottery from the 15th century based on artifacts uncovered at a nearby ancestral site called Potsuwi’i. This revival style was called Potsuwi’i Incised Ware, and vessels in this style have a highly polished red slip base and rim and a central portion of unpolished tan clay that is carved with geometric designs, typically a pattern of fine parallel lines. This style is unique to Ohkay Owingeh and today is considered the Pueblo’s traditional pottery form. Today, many potters have developed variations on the Potsuwi’Ii style, by using new color palettes or carving sgraffito designs, such as the avanyu, feathers, and scalloped patterns. Micaceous clay pottery similar to that of Taos and Picuris Pueblos has also been revived.
Micaceous Bowl - Handcrafted by celebrated Ohkay Owingeh artist Clarence Cruz using traditional clay and firing methods. Created with micaceous clay.
Acoma Pueblo has a tradition of pottery that stretches back centuries. Today, it is most known for a matte polychrome style of pottery featuring orange and black designs on a white background or black fine-line designs on a white background. This traditional style is widely sought after by Native art collectors and, in addition to its distinctive color scheme, can be identified by fluted rims, very thin walls, and complex geometric designs. Acoma artists are known for the fineness of their pottery painting, often incorporating hatching patterns that symbolize rain as well as rain parrot designs, an animal that in Acoma legend led people to water. Lightning, clouds, rainbow bands, and other elements of weather and nature are also popular designs. One of the most iconic and valuable pottery styles, Acoma pots represent a storied history of beauty and craftsmanship.
Geometric Seed Pot - Seed pot handcrafted by Acoma Pueblo potter Rebecca Lucario with intricate geometric patterns all painted freehand.
Today there are very few artists creating traditional pottery in Isleta Pueblo, and Isleta pottery is one of the most difficult to find of all types of Pueblo pottery. Very little is known about the history of pottery production in Isleta Pueblo. Historically, Isleta artisans made heavy redware similar to Ohkay Owingeh but eventually moved to polychrome, a style introduced by Laguna Pueblo potters who came to Isleta in the late 19th century. Traditional pottery-making nearly died out in the 20th century but was revitalized in the 1980s by Stella Teller and her family, known for their exquisite handmade figurines and storytellers. Caroline Carpio is another prominent potter who has won acclaim for her elegant contemporary fine art pottery. With so few Isleta artists creating pottery using natural clay and traditional methods, any piece is a rare and valuable work of art.
EXPLORE MORE PUEBLO POTTERY
Carved Plate - Isleta Pueblo artist Tony Sangre shares his unique blend of traditional pottery and his modern design aesthetic in this decorative plate. Created using commercial clay, this plate features beautifully hand-carved geometric pattern around the rim with a larger circular design at center. Inspired by traditional Pueblo embroidery created by his mother.
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