Introduction to Hopi Pottery

Perhaps some of the most skilled Hopi artisans create a style of pottery called Hano polychrome or Sikyatki Revival. This pottery stands out amongst all of the pueblo and non-pueblo pottery makers as exceptional. The white wash with poly-chrome painting is some of the most recognizable art in the world.

Brilliant black on orange, black on yellow, and / or red images, shapes, or hieroglyphs painted on pots, bowls, plates, and even ladles, once you see Hopi pottery it will become almost instantaneously recognizable. In fact, as you become more experienced, it is fairly easy to identify the maker and clan by the designs and colors.

The art is generally taught within families. For instance, the Navasie family's style is very distinct. Starting with Paqua Naha, through Joy Navasie, Paqua Naha's influence is easily seen in the work of her children and grandchildren.

The creating of Hopi pottery is not easy. Most traditional potters go through a process that may take upwards of 40 hours. Starting with the digging of the clay, the coiling, polishing, and finally painting, only then is the pot fired. Unfortunately, a large percentage of pots are lost during the firing. As such, it is possible (and not unheard of) for a potter to work on 10 pots (400 hours) only to have two or three 'explode' during firing. The potter has worked four hundred hours for seven pots.

Long collected internationally, Hopi pottery making is a dying art that is in more demand. As such, prices have been steadily rising. Especially as the masters exit the industry because of age.

Here are some tips on collecting Hopi pottery:

The Artist

Some artists, through virtue of the market, are more collectible. Whether it is because of artistic accomplishment or what they started, the more collectible the artist the more collectors are seeking the pieces. If they have garnered awards for the achievements, you can expect pieces of that period to sell for more. An artist may have similar pieces of different periods sell at varying prices because of popularity, awards, scarcity, or 'phase'.

Modern Hopi pottery can be traced back to Nampeyo. However, there are numerous styles that specific clans have adopted. In fact, it is easy to identify a piece by clan/family with a little experience. Whether it is a Navasie, Setalla, or Naha (all part of the Frog Woman/Feather Woman extended clan), with a little studying you will be able to quickly identify a piece's maker.

Some of the more collectible artists (1995) include, Paqua Naha (1st Frog Woman), Joy Navasie (2nd Frog Woman), Helen Naha (Feather Woman), Dolly Joe, Da Tse, Fannie Polacca-Nampeyo, Tom Polacca, Jacob Koopee, and many, many more.

Condition

Generally speaking, pottery in better condition sells for more. Not always the major determinant of value, as it is hard to find older pieces that have survived years of touching, falling, or even use.

Size

Pottery on a grander scale requires more time. There is more surface to paint, more clay to gather, and a real expert to work with the negative space. Larger pottery requires the experience of a master potter and generally are sold at premiums. It is a lot tougher to design a piece that has balance and symmetry when working on a larger piece.

Design

Hopi Pottery Hopi Carved Pottery

The designs change based upon time. Some artists are capable of adapting and creating new styles while others tend to one specific design. Nonetheless, the more complicated the design and how the design 'fills' the 'canvass' is important. Balance in colors, symmetry in design, and overall integration with the shape of the piece are all important and will affect value.

Brief History of Hopi Pottery

Hopi pottery, historically, has morphed as most art forms do. With significant differences over time it is fairly easy to identify Hopi pottery by period. Similar to most Native American tribes, pottery has evolved from a purely functional piece of pottery to a highly formed and stylized piece of art.

Surrounded by the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the Hopi reservation is home to two clans, Hopi and Tewa. Though it is actually a conglomerate of tribes from the Southwest, it has become one tribe of various clans brought together, mainly due to the conquistadors and the U.S. government.

The pottery today is the culmination of various clans all contributing designs and/or methods from their ancestors. Traditional Hopi pottery is generally divided into three phases:

Phase I, 800 - 1300 A.D.

This was a purely functional phase that was brought about by a shift from a migratory people to a cultivation society. The Hopi migrated less as the began to cultivate the three sisters (corn, squash, and beans). Whereas before they used baskets woven of vegetal matter for its light weight and durability, the permanence afforded the Hopi ancestors the luxury of heavier and more durable containers made of pottery. Anasazi pottery is characterized by rough vessels with rudimentary designs (perhaps to indicate family/use?). Though there was monochrome (black on white, yellow, or orange slip) decoration occurring, it was not until the 1400's that polychrome became prevalent.

Phase II, 1400-1600 A.D.

The Sikyatki period, with its polychrome decoration on white slip, was the height of the art. Interrupted by the Pueblo revolts and inquisitions of the 1600's, it would be two hundred years before the beautiful designs and colors of this period would be seen again.

Phase III, The Revival 1870 - Now

In the late 1800's, when there was a great interest in studying indigenous ways, Alexander Stephen recorded some of the earliest information about Hopi pottery. However is was Jesse Walter Fewkes that unearthed beautiful Sikyatki polychrome pots and shards that started the 'revival.' It is said that the beautiful, ancient pottery inspired Nampeyo to bring back the style that is so popular today.

The functional aspect of the vessel evolved to become of commercial interest. The exchange and barter system that trading posts (Keams Trading Post amongst the first) brought to the region created a market for indigenous art. Sold mainly to tourists who found an interest in the "Wild West" and "Indian" ways created a means of economic sustenance and trade token for necessities like blankets, food, and even decorations like parrot feathers. Nampeyo and other Hopi artists of that period would look to inspiration in pottery shards and pots and create magnificent vessels painted by hand. Of course, these tourist pieces are worth thousands today.

First Mesa is still considered the epicenter of modern Hopi pottery.

Creating Hopi Pottery

Creating Hopi pottery is a time consuming and risky venture. Especially today, as the migration patterns change and the Hopi youth leave the reservation to pursue a career or employment elsewhere. The reality is that there are fewer artists creating fewer vessels, an international market with greater access because of the internet, and constant pressure on artists to pursue other means of employment. This all culminates in higher prices. What are the risks? As you read through this portion of the site detailing how Hopi pottery is made remember that at any point the vessel could be dropped, the painting can be tainted, or, last but not least, during the firing an explosion could wipe out your work.

Gathering the clay

Hopi families gather their clay from the ground. Usually from sources highly coveted and guarded, the clay is dug from the earth. The clay is cleaned of impurities (one blade of grass or other impurity could cause an explosion during the firing phase), mixed with shards of older pottery to give it the 'bonding', and finally mixed with water to create clay.

Forming the vessel

Whether a cup, a bowl, or a vase, the vessels all start at the bottom. Using a tabipi (sometimes called a puki), the artist does not use a potter's wheel. Instead, the clay is rolled into long strings of clay and 'coiled' up to create the vessel's shape. Obviously the narrower the coils, the thinner the pottery. With large vessels this is very difficult as the clay is heavy. As the clay is coiled up the bottom must be able to support the heavy top. A scraping tool is used to smooth out the coils until they become one solid wall.

Smoothing and drying

the vessel is smoothed and polished. It is then left to dry (usually 3-7 days) and harden for the next phase. A white wash is applied to the piece.

Painting

Using yucca leaves and pigments from plants (mustard) and minerals (iron) the potter applies designs and/or patterns to the vessel. This may be the point of separation for masters from the rest. The ability to 'see' how a pattern will develop and look (they rarely use outlines or stencils) before color is applied is perhaps only exceeded by the use of space of Chinese artists. Creating a balanced and symmetrical pattern by hand is extremely difficult and engaging.

Polishing

Using a tool (typically of stone) that has sometimes been handed down through the generations, the artist creates a highly polished sheen to the vessel.

Firing

After investing all of their time and resources, the day of firing arrives. Perhaps the most dreaded day, the pottery will be fired at very high temperatures to harden. Typically, cow or sheep dung is used (very porous and highly combustible) to create temperatures sufficient enough to harden the pottery. Old cracked pottery is used to insulate the piece from direct flame and also used to segment one piece from the other (in case one breaks, it's pieces do not fly off and break another piece). The risks include smudges (where smoke comes into contact with the piece) and breakage. Days when there is little wind, typically in the morning, are especially waited upon.

Needless to say, the Hopi potters earn their money.

Original author unknown, this copy is originally from a now defunct website, hopipottery.net, which we loved for its simplicity. Enjoy.