Introduction to Pueblo Pottery
The Pueblo Indians have been making pottery for about 2000 years. While early pottery was made primarily for their own use, most contemporary pottery is designed for artistic and decorative purposes.
Pueblo potters use mostly local clays for their work. The preparation of the clay from Mother Earth is a difficult and time consuming process as well as a spiritual experience. The local clay must be mixed with a second ingredient (temper) in order to give the clay strength. Tempers vary from Pueblo to Pueblo ranging from ground up basalt at Zia Pueblo to sand at Santa Clara Pueblo and pulverized broken pots at Acoma Pueblo. Sometimes clays are brought in from other areas for the slip coat, which is a water and clay solution. Native minerals and plants are used for designs on the pots.
After the drying process is completed, pots are sanded with coarse and then fine sandpaper to reduce the thickness of the walls and refine the surface. With a cloth, the potter then applies slip to the entire surface to the pot to smooth it and create a uniform color.
If the pot is to have a painted design, it is done at this point. If the pot is to have a polished surface, for (example pottery from Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos,) the potter now begins the difficult and exact task of polishing. Every inch of the surface must be rubbed over and over again with a smooth stone since black and red pottery develop their beauty from their polish which is obtained without a glaze.
Pueblo potters are unique in that they do not use a wheel to form pots. The usual technique is the coiled method in which the clay is rolled into long ropes, which are coiled on top of each other and pressed together. When the desired shape is formed, the pot smoothed and shaped by hand after which a tool is used to scrape away the excess clay. At this point, in most Pueblos, the pot is then set aside to dry. The exception is pottery done in the style usually associated with Santa Clara Pueblo, i.e., carved pottery. In this case the pot is allowed to dry slightly until it is in the so-called "leather" stage, which means the clay is firm but not dry. Then using various tools, the potter carves designs into the clay after which the pot is set aside to dry.
The pots are now ready for firing which is necessary to give the pottery strength. Many potters still build primitive kilns from corrugated tin, racks, tin cans or whatever they have found to be successful. A rudimentary box is built around the pots to be fired and then the box is surrounded with wood or dung, which is set afire. The pots may become so hot that they actually glow red. Typically a firing may last 30-60 minutes after which the pottery is allowed to cool slowly. The exception is black stone polished pottery. In this case the final step in the firing process is to smother the entire kiln with powdered manure. The sooty smoke penetrates the pores of the pottery and turns it black. From this lengthy and labor-intensive process comes beautiful and original works of art.
Modern Pueblo pottery is generally fired for beauty rather than endurance. Water will mar the surface and if allowed to stand in an unprotected vessel of this type, may actually crumble it.
Realizing all that is involved in creating a piece of pottery. May we suggest the following guidelines:
1. Examine the shape of the pot. Is it balanced and pleasing? Handmade pottery is not exactly even. However, it should be evenly thick or thin. Do the walls or base of the pot feel overly heavy or light?
2. Examine the finish of the pot. Is it well polished, shining smooth? Are there any tiny blisters or lumps visible on the surface? Is the rim smooth? Can you feel the coils on the inside?
3. Examine the design of the pot. Does the design fit and enhance the shape of the pot? Is it carefully applies? Is it artistic?
4. Ask for information. Ask who the artist is. Most potters today sign their works and it is good for your records to have their name and pueblo.
5. Is it handmade? Decorated greenware (ceramic porcelain) and whiteware (plaster of Paris type products) are not acceptable as traditional handmade Indian pottery. They are pot thrown on a potter’s wheel or molded (slip-cast). Lightness in weight, exactness in shape, a shiny glaze and a high thin ringing sound when thumped with your finger are features of these types of pottery. Handmade Indian pottery should have a clear ring when thumped gently with the finger.
The Indian Arts & Crafts Association presented this article in the interest of consumer awareness.
Following are some brief notes to help identify the various types of Pueblo Pottery:
Acoma. Light cream, almost white background. Designs red or orange often outlined in black. Has a slight ring when tapped slightly.
Hopi. Background light to deep reddish tan. Striking designs, flowing in character, reddish brown or black. Smooth eggshell finish.
San Juan. Red on tan polychrome marked by slight depressions, grooves or incising clear around the pot.
Jemez. Decorated after firing with intricate traditional patterns using commercial paints. Also make pottery in completely traditional ways with native materials and techniques.
Zia. Reddish brown on light tan. Often characterized by the "sky band", a wide diagonal band, sometimes in a zigzag effect. A highly stylized bird is frequently used in the decoration.
Santa Clara & San Ildefonso. Each makes black on black, also red on red. Sometimes the contrast is obtained by combining a matte with a glossy finish; sometimes the design is incised so the background stands out in relief. Decorations in contrasting colors are also used.
Taos & Picuris. Not much of either is made today. May be distinguished by a sheen due to mica in the clay.
Tesque. Surface rough, almost dusty looking. Decorated after firing with very bright colors, which will run if touched by a drop of water.
Zuni. Zuni pottery is distinguished by the use of water symbols- frogs, dragonflies and the like. Sometimes the frogs, etc, are sculptured and then applied to the pot. A deer with heart line is also often used.
Laguna, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Isleta & Sandia. Seldom seen except near these pueblos. Santo Domingo frequently shows a conventionalized flower, often in black and white, sometimes with other colors. Islets somewhat resembles Acoma in colors used but the designs are usually small spaced rather than flowing together.
Cochiti. Known for pottery, sculptures, figurines and storytellers. Also vessels with attached clay animals to the usual shapes.