Ernie Bulow - Researching art of the Southwest Archives


It is unfortunate that the “New Agers” have pre-empted the phrase “Mother Earth” because Native Americans used it to explain to the outside world the relationship they felt toward the living soil that gave birth to virtually everything of value in their world. No Indian enterprise is closer to the germinative spirit than the making of Native American Southwest pottery, created from the earth itself.

The art of pottery is very ancient in the history of mankind, but a rather late development in the technology of the Southwest. Some date ceramics in the Four Corners to “year one”, but the general consensus dates pottery making to 500 or 600 of the current calendar. It marks the dividing line between late Basketmaker and early Pueblo groups.

From the beginning Native American Southwest pottery had much more than utilitarian meaning for the Pueblo people. Bowls, jugs and pots were so wonderful and life-changing that they immediately entered the worlds of religion, trade and status as well as art. The complex technology itself became a commodity of some value as potters traded their secrets of success. There are plenty of good descriptions of pottery making, but a brief outline will be helpful.

The first requirement is an extremely fine-grained material containing high levels of silica and aluminum. But clay alone tends to crack either in the drying process, or the firing. A “temper” usually must be added to the mix. Temper is a non-permeable element like sand, or crushed rock, or ground up pottery pieces.

There are two techniques commonly used in the Southwest to build the piece into a suitable form. The simplest method is to take a lump of wet clay, form it with the fingers into a small bowl or mug or roll it out like biscuit dough. The main limitation of this “pinch” technique is size. It is hard to make anything much larger than the human fist.

The coil method has almost no limitation when controlled by a master potter. There are Pueblo storage jars large enough to hide a good-sized child. The maker rolls out a bottom piece a little larger than the container or “puki” it will be started in. Puki is a Hopi word for a basket, bowl, or other rounded support used to build the pot. The puki can be turned as the coils of clay are added.

To create the coils a snake of clay is rolled out just the diameter of the bowl. The rope of clay is overlapped on the previous layer, pinched to adhere, then smoothed inside and out with fingers, a wooden paddle, a rounded piece of gourd, or a piece of pottery. The vessel can’t be built either too fast or too slow. A large bowl of damp clay will simply collapse of its own weight. If the rounds of clay are applied to an olla that is too dry, the new layer won’t stick.

One important technical innovation was the discover of “slip”, a different color of clay, usually better quality than the body, applied in a thin layer over the piece. When fired, the slip would come out a different color. Paint, from minerals and native plants, was added with a traditional yucca leaf brush, still used by most potters today.

Traditional firing was done outdoors when the wind wasn’t blowing. Originally wood was used for fuel, after domestic animals were available, dried manure was found to create a high temperature fire. Sheep waste, compacted and dried in a corral, is quite suitable. Coal is found all over the southwest and the ancient Hopis, at least, used it for firing pottery.

Broken pieces of old bowls were placed around the new pieces to protect them from ash and hot spots in the kiln. For a reduction fire (almost no oxygen) more pottery sherds were used. Some potters would cover the whole thing with a washtub or sheets of roofing tin. Powdered manure, added toward the end of the process, would cause a “smudge” that turned the piece black, popular at Santa Clara and San Ildefonso.

Very few pieces of pottery are still fired outdoors, but Indian pottery is still hand built and hand painted.

There is a basic contradiction underlying any discussion of pottery design, prehistoric or modern. On the one hand, Pueblo artists tend to be very conservative, and the group aesthetic will usually dominate any personal creative urges. On the other hand, the history of ceramics in the Southwest is a stairway from one innovation to another. Also, there are two major design elements in the world of ceramics—vessel shape and painted design.

History of Native American Southwest Pottery

All during the classic Anasazi period, the basic design element was painted black on white. It is amazing how many varieties such a simple formula will support. The creative urge was a restless, living thing. A cup was a better drinking form than a flat bowl, and a handle was a useful addition to the basic cup. But at Mesa Verde, the creation of cups became a mind-boggling circus of innovation.

The basic mug was deformed, with bulges at the bottom, stretched to the dimensions of a pitcher, and embellished with a variety of handles. Painting became more and more elaborate, contradicting the simplicity of a monochromatic palette. An artist can create a whole sunset with only black and white to work with.

The basic olla (water jug) shape was also pushed to the limit. Elongated necks, narrow mouths, flattened, widened bodies, multiple slips, dimples for lifting rather than attached handles that could break off. Pots with lugs to fasten a leather or rope handle have been found. Pots with multi-lobed bottoms and pitchers with double spouts occur. Adding color was almost superfluous.

Native American Southwest Pottery Bertha Tom - Navajo Potter

The most amazing—and mysterious—development in prehistoric pottery was the wonderful, enigmatic painting found on Mimbres pottery from the area of southwestern New Mexico. Perhaps a single genius was behind the whole movement, but we’ll never know that for sure. The Mimbres potters suddenly started turning out painted bowls with figures and animals instead of geometrics. These bowls are virtually a pictorial history of the culture.

There are scene of religious observance, warfare, agriculture, domesticated turkeys, parrots from Mexico, childbirth and hundred of other subjects. Beyond the scenes of domestic and religious life, there are animals, monsters, spirits, and scenes that are almost certainly illustrations of mythology and supernatural belief. There are many examples of animals created by grafting parts of several creatures into a single fantasy. Most of these bowls had small “kill holes” punched in the bottom, and were found in graves.

Several writers, scholars and Native philosophers have been sure they had the key to these curious images. Hopi artist Fred Kabotie devoted a great deal of study to Mimbres designs and came to the conclusion they had many counterparts in Hopi mythology and religion. Mimbres sites were devastated by pot hunters early in the last century.

Mimbres pottery may be the most mysterious and evocative, but many other culture groups turned out distinctive and staggeringly beautiful ceramic ware. While effigy pots are more common among the Casa Grande ruins of Mexico and the Hohokam sites in southern Arizona, images of animals are most intriguing. Pots in the shape of ducks, turtles and frogs are most common, perhaps because these animals are associated with water.

The dictionary doesn’t make much distinction between the words effigy and figural, but in the Native American Southwest pottery world effigy is most often applied to animals forms, figural to representations of human beings—both date back to the earliest days of fired clay objects. These largely non-functional ceramics have been a mainstay of modern Pueblo pottery.

After the Civil War various metal, glass and china containers were available and relatively cheap. They were also much more durable than hand built bowls and jars. Bronze pails were a staple of early trade, and even issued to Indians by the U S government along with hoes. At that point the pottery tradition was doomed as a necessary and functional part of Native American life. Except for the fact that pottery had always had religious functions. No Zuni house is without its offering bowl, where cornmeal mixes with fragments of turquoise is kept for offering to the spirits and blessing the katsinas.

Ernie Bulow

Author - Ernie Bulow Author - Ernie Bulow

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