Pueblo Pottery Meaning and Symbolism
The most celebrated and recognized art form of New Mexico’s 19 Pueblo communities didn’t begin as an art form at all. Pottery was created by ancestral Puebloan people out of necessity and over many generations. And now, Pueblo pottery has become known and cherished throughout 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 crafted by hand. Pueblo potters have passed on time-honored traditions to the next generation who preserve and add modern twists creating an art form that has spanned centuries and is treasured for its rich symbolism. At the Indian Pueblo Store, we strive to be a resource for collectors seeking to deepen both knowledge and connection to pieces in their collections.
There are many forms and shapes the clay takes in an artist’s hands, here are the most recognizable:
Clay Pots and Vases: Made completely by hand, this shape is the traditional form and served a utilitarian purpose for ancestral Pueblo people. Today, pueblo potters do not use a wheel – pots are constructed using the traditional horizontal coil method or by freely forming the shape. Each pot or vase is finished with the style of its Pueblo – from the glitter of micaceous clay to expertly etched or finely painted lines — Pueblo artists are known for their unique signature elements.
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Figurines: Pueblo people of the Southwest have been making clay pottery figures since ancient times. Figurine creation was discouraged by Christian missionaries, preventing the art form from being widely practiced throughout the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries. Figurative pottery was revived in the 20th century and clay figurines have since become one of the most popular and widely collected Native American art forms.
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Seed Pots: Traditionally made as a storage vessel, this shape is completely enclosed except for a small opening in which seeds were placed for safe keeping. Today, Seed Pots are treasured for the delicate craftsmanship used by the artist to enclose the pot, in addition to the intricate designs placed throughout the piece.
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Storytellers: Storytellers are a type of clay figure unique to the Southwest. Developed by Helen Cordero of Cochiti Pueblo in 1963, storytellers traditionally depict a male elder telling stories to children, all with open mouths. Cordero was inspired by the traditional “Singing Mother” figure often represented in clay, and by her grandfather, a legendary Cochiti storyteller. In Pueblo culture, stories are passed down orally from generation to generation, and the storyteller figure represents the importance of the storytelling tradition. Today, artists in nearly all 19 Pueblos create storytellers in their own distinctive way—creating beautiful and cherished pieces that honor the storied tradition.
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Pueblo Pottery Symbols
In addition to the various types of pottery styles, pueblo pottery pieces are rich with symbolism and meaning.
The Avanyu (Ah-van-u): A water serpent Pueblo people consider to be the guardian of water. Depicted as a horned serpent with lightning emerging from its mouth, it is believed the Avanyu formed the Rio Grande river and its tributaries. The Avanyu body typically looks like a rippling stream, and the lightning coming from its mouth signifies thunderstorms that bring rain. A common design in the pottery of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos, the Avanyu represents the importance of water to Pueblo people.
The Rain Parrot: A popular design motif in Pueblo pottery, particularly that of Acoma Pueblo, representing the Pueblo people’s reverence for rain and water. According to Acoma legend, birds led people to water, and Pueblo people see them as special creatures who can connect with the spirit world. Rain parrots are generally represented as a triangular beak with swirling tail feathers, though stylized and contemporary versions are also common.
Straight Symmetrical Lines: In the desert southwest rain is a blessing which provides moisture and life to crops and animals. The symbol for rain is often seen alongside other elements of nature to symbolize the many cycles of life.
Feather Motifs: Often painted or etched into Pueblo pottery, feather symbolism represents the importance of prayer in our daily lives and the importance of being thankful for the blessings received in our own lives.
Today, Native American pottery continues to be an exciting and dynamic medium, 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 valuable works of fine art to be enjoyed for generations to come.
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