Pottery From The Northern Pueblo Region
The majority of Native American pueblo pottery found in collections, shops, museums, and in potters’ studios, is decorated with beautiful designs, often consisting of geometric patterns, or representations of animals and birds, both real and mythical. (See above Hopi bowl.) However, the inhabitants of the Northern pueblos of Taos and Picuris and the surrounding area, have a different approach when it comes to decorating their creations.
The clay dug from the Northern pueblo hillsides has a unique feature: it is micaceous clay; that is to say it contains mica. And mica shines like gold. When a pot is fired, the mica in the clay produces its own beautiful decoration. It’s so very attractive, that the potters, and those who appreciate their work, find no need to embellish the pots with additional decoration.
Additionally, the fire and smoke involved in the process of finishing a pot can leave marks called fire clouds. Rather than seeing these marks as imperfections, we collectors and admirers of the pottery see them as attractive features.
This article spotlights four pots from my collection, all originating from the Northern pueblos, and all made from micaceous clay. All four are marked with fire clouds.
Pictured below is my favorite Northern pueblo pot from my small collection. I found it in a cool Seattle second-hand shop in 1998. I imagine it was made in the 1980’s-1990’s. The pot is approximately six inches tall, and it features a very artistically-executed, braided handle. — I would think that making a handle like that would be very difficult! — It was created by “Mary” (her last name is obscured), and it definitely comes from the Taos pueblo.
I gleaned the above information by simply examining the bottom of the pot, where Mary signed it. The majority of later (post-1920’s) pots were signed – especially pots made within the last thirty years. Potters came to realize that buyers preferred signed pots. I’ll buy a pot with or without a signature, if I like the pot. I collect these pots because of their beauty, and as a remembrance of the people who made them. A signature is just a bonus, in my eyes. The signature may consist of the potter’s name, or it may be the name of the pueblo from where the pot originated.
This pot, below, is a handled-bowl, measuring about 7” wide. I like its larger size, and its beautiful fire cloud. Of course, I like its “sparkly” finish, which, again, all of these pots boast. This pot is more utilitarian in design; however, I consider it to be a work of art; it was most likely intended to be just that. I can’t say with certainty where this fine, unsigned example was made. It’s not easy to tell whether a pot was made in Taos or Picuris, without a signature. Since there were a greater number of potters at Taos than Picuris, in the past, people would say that this pot was probably made in Taos. I’m not sure, so I won’t say. I date it to the 1980’s. All of these pots are in good condition, and do not show a lot of age. I’ve seen so many pots, both in person and in books; so I’m confident about at least naming the decade in which these pots were produced.
This pot, shown below, has unique, ear-like “handles”. I put handles in quotes, because this pot is not utilitarian. It was made to be art, plain and simple. The little ear-like handles have a decoration which was pressed into them before the pot was fired. I cannot recall how I came to acquire this pot. That tells me something: I rescued it. It’s not a remarkable object. But it is a Northern pueblo vase, made in Taos in the 1980’s or 1990’s. I imagine I found it at a bargain price, snatching it up in order to give it a good home.
The finest Native American pueblo pots are hand-coiled. Hand-coiling is the traditional method of pottery making. Coils are built by hand; clay is rubbed between the hands, or on a flat surface, until a “rope” (coil) is produced. A circular slab of clay is cut out, to serve as the object’s bottom. The coils are attached to, and built up from this. They are coiled into the shape of a pot. Next, the coils are smoothed out, using one’s thumb or a piece of wood. The result is a pot which features a smooth outside and inside. However, you can usually see or feel some evidence of coils; this is good, as you shall see.
Some pots are made in molds. These pots are called “green ware”. Producing a pot with green ware saves a lot of time. It allows a potter to make much more “product”. Some potters, in fact, buy green ware, and then do their own decorating. However, I would say that is not the case with micaceos clay pots, since they are, by nature, undecorated. But they can be made, more rapidly, in molds, and then fired.
The little pot shown above is an example of a molded wedding vase. I purchased it, new, at a shop in Taos, New Mexico in 1995, following a visit my wife and I made to the amazing Taos pueblo. We met several potters in their studios, on a sunny New Mexico afternoon. (I also enjoyed the best fry bread I have ever tasted, made especially for me by an older woman who lived at the pueblo. It was to die for!) When we visited, and perhaps to this day, the Taos pueblo had no electricity or running water; this was the choice of the people who dwelled there. They chose to live as close to the old ways as possible. I’m certain even the most mundane chores were made more difficult and time consuming; and still the potters set aside time to make their fabulous creations.
I was inspired to buy a pot at the pueblo; but I was unable to afford the prices the beautiful work commanded. However, we later stopped at a shop not far from the pueblo, where I found this little vase. I was so happy to be able to afford it, that I didn’t take the time to closely examine it. I would have seen how it was made in a mold. It’s still a pretty little pot that sports golden sparkles and its own little fire cloud. But a wise collector will look for a pot made in the traditional manner. I would rather pay more for one good pot than to have several cheaper, molded ones. I learned my lesson. I mainly keep this pot as an example of, sad to say, what to avoid! You can learn from my “on-the-hunt training”.
Many pueblo pots have been made for the tourist, or art market. But that is because people who appreciate things of beauty saw the attractiveness of the utilitarian pots the pueblo people made for use in their daily lives. And trading post proprietors saw the opportunity to make money selling pots to tourists, So they encouraged potters to produce items specifically for the tourist market. The pots in this story most likely fall into the category of those made for the tourist/art market. I fill my little senior citizen apartment with folk art from many cultures, and these four pots fit right in.
If you are unable to visit a Native American pueblo (go if you can!), but you want one of these pretty pots, you can of course find one on the internet. However, if you like to actually get out and shop, just keep your eyes peeled at garage sales, flea markets, antique malls and second-hand shops. If you see an unadorned, sparkly vase or bowl, take a look. You may have found a Northern pueblo pot. If you’re fortunate enough to have this happen, hey – give it a good home!
If you enjoyed this post, please see my Part 1, where I describe my pots which have more in common with the Hopi bowl at the top of this page: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/native-american-pueblo-pottery-from-my-collection-part-1/
Here is a YouTube video which demonstrates the basics of coiled-pot making: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SA-rGYh2UH0
There are many YouTube videos which show Native potters at work. The video I shared a link to does not; but it was the best example of coiled-pot making I found.