Pueblo pottery

Our recent trip to Santa Fe provided opportunity to explore the pottery produced by Native Americans in the Pueblos of New Mexico. We are grateful to Andrew Fisher, owner of Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in downtown Santa Fe, for her expert insight into the history and practices associated with Pueblo pottery.

pueblo_04Pueblo pottery is handmade by local Native Americans, almost exclusively women, who continue to follow traditional making practices that have been used for centuries. Made by the people whose culture they represent, Pueblo pottery is decorated with traditional designs and for the most part, is still ground-fired using local wood. The pottery is all hand made and not thrown on a wheel which, given the quality and precision of the finished pieces, is a testament to the high-level of skill of the makers. It does not use glaze rather the shine is the result of polishing a clay slip with a river stone or hide. It is only fired once so all decoration is undertaken before firing.

As the pottery is made only by women, the skills are passed down through the family by the older women to their daughters, yet men can be involved in the digging and cleaning of the clay thus it is often a husband and wife ‘combo’ who work together to produce the pottery. Given the different soil composition in the Pueblos, the pottery can be attributed to a specific Pueblo, and in some instances a particular family, and display particular characteristics that distinguish between Pueblos and makers.

pueblo_02The making process is relatively low-tech but has been refined over centuries. The clay dug from the ground and, as there is other material in the clay, it is dried then pounded by hand until its practically dust. It is sifted then soaked so anything that has been missed will sink to the bottom (if its heavy such as stones) or float to the top (if its light such as grasses, weeds or seeds). The top is skimmed off while the bottom is continually removed, and what remains is hopefully a pure product.

pueblo_03The Pueblo pots are created with coiled ‘worms’ of clay which are rolled out and stacked on top of each other. Some makers smooth them at this point, while other people pinch the clay to make the walls a little thinner. The thickness of the pieces are not solely dependent on the skill of the person but how the decoration is going to be applied or what the intended use will be.

After drying, a slip made from watery clay is usually painted on the outside, and with a very smooth river stone or a piece of hide, it is burnished. They will repeat this process - slip, burnish, slip, burnish, etc. to achieve the desired level of smoothness. Given the diversity of materials available, some Pueblos use a white slip made from kaolin (picked out of the cliff with a penknife) which is ground up and added to water. Pueblos have developed distinctive styles differentiating their work from others. Once decorated the pottery is ground-fired using local wood to complete the process.

pueblo_01The creation of Pueblo pottery is multifaceted. You have to be an engineer, you have to be a chemist, you have to be a botanist, you have to me a mathematician, and importantly and you have to have artistic talent to create this highly desirable traditional and authentic pottery.

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