July 30, 2009

The Art of Tewa Pottery


As an undergraduate at Douglass College in New Jersey, I took a ceramics classes with Ka Kwong Hui, a professor who led me to his teacher in China some years later. Although two dimensional art was to become my mainstay, I developed a genuine admiration for ceramic art and have to this day continued to surround myself with examples of this craft.
Most students of ceramic start with hand-built pottery and eventually "graduate" to the wheel. I followed that routine as well even though my heart was more in coils, slabs and pinch pots. There was one famous builder of hand-built coiled potter that I admired and wished to know more about. The black pots of Maria Martinez stood austerely out from the pages of ceramicists past in our student textbooks. I puzzled over how she got them so perfectly symmetrical without a wheel and how that glossy black metallic sheen on them came about. I imagined myself coiling these lovely shapes and burnishing them to a high polish. What would it be like, I wondered, to make pots with Maria Martinez? I wished that I could.
Little could I know that three decades later I would make pots with the grandchild and great grandchild of Maria Martinez. The opportunity came to me as one of the perks of being a member of the teaching faculty in the Common Ground on the Hill Program at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. The course was indeed a dream come true. I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity about how those black shiny pots are made.
The course started out with a few rituals on human interconnectedness and reverence for the sky and earth. There was also a film shown about Maria Martinez and her family, some of which was told in the native Tewa Pueblo language. Kathy (Wanpov) and Gilbert Sanchez had us first make the clay by hand with 50% clay mined from New Mexico and 50% volcanic ash mixed slowly with water to a malleable consistency. The Sanchez’s were extraordinarily neat and clean about their work. We kneaded our little portions of red clay on pieces of used blue jeans that were cut into surprisingly uniform rectangles. The compulsive part of me was very happy about that. When we managed to form our clay into a uniform ball we slammed it gently and repeatedly onto the hard table surface to make certain it was compact. We were then told to pinch off about a quarter of the ball and form it into a small pinch pot in a clay form called a puki. The rest of the pot was built up in coils on top of that base.
The forming of this pot was full of unexpected surprises and discoveries. I had always thought of ceramic pots needing to be thin-walled even if hand built. But the Tewa tradition has a pot built up with rather thick walls due to the subsequent scraping and sanding down of the vessel. I found that I liked the smell of this earthy clay. The texture took some getting used to. It wasn’t as resilient as commercial earthenware clays and therefore was not adaptable to long stretching or pulling out of forms. We were told that the rigors of the burnishing and pit firing would cause thin extensions from forms to break off. So the limits of the medium to a large degree influenced the design - especially when it came to figures like the small animals the artists made which tended to be stream-lined and compact.
After the pot was finished there were several steps involved in revising and finishing the shape. The general shaping was done with either a commercial pottery tool or pieces of natural gourds. I used a natural gourd to shape the pot pictured on the right. After the clay set up to a stage I know as "leather hard" the post was scraped. The Sanchez’s used ordinary every day items for the scraping such as melon ball scoops for the interiors of pots and lids from metal tins for the outside. The Sanchez’s very meticulously gathered the scrapings from everyone’s pottery and preserved them in a plastic bag for future use. It made me feel that this was indeed clay worth its weight in gold..
We were encouraged to allow the clay to "speak to us" rather than try to dictate a shape to it. This was helpful because my first vessel, a pear shaped bottle with an oddly shaped stopper, evolved from my intention to make a bowl. After getting a better feel for the clay, however, I was able to reproduce the forms of my ideas. I did find myself wanting to make more and more things and noticed a little reluctance from our maestros to have us make too many items. Just one day later it became very clear as to why. The shaping and scraping went rather expeditiously but the next step was much more time-consuming. Each vessel had to be sanded down and then wet wiped smooth ( it was interesting to note that the clay dust from the sanding was discarded as potentially contaminated with grit from the sandpaper).
The next step in the Tewa pottery process was the addition of slip and the burnishing. The Sanchez’s had us apply the slip with a strip of cloth. I found this a little awkward and eventually had to use a brush on subsequent pieces. The pottery required three to four coats of red slip with an application of lard on top of the last coat. The lard was used to keep the slip moist enough to work but I accidentally found that one of the pots burnished to a high sheen without the addition of the lard - possibly because the more humid climate of the northeast kept the slip moist longer than arid New Mexico.
We burnished our pottery with smooth polished stones. The best stones to use were ones without pits. Flaws in the stones could scrape the delicate surface of the pottery. It was interesting to learn that some of the most coveted stones for burnishing for the Sanchez group of potters were gastroliths. These are stones that were swallowed by dinosaurs and slowly tumbled around in their guts to create a smooth polished surface. I recall seeing examples of these in the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and thinking how much I would like to have one to burnish my pottery with. I still have my eyes on the white one in the glass case on the second floor of the museum.
Burnishing pottery is a labor intensive process. I was up until about 11 PM for two consecutive nights polishing my little creations. But two other ambitious classmates and I made a party of it - one of them bringing ice cream sandwiches, cookies, and a plethora of candies. There is nothing like a sugar high and polishing pots to bring out a feeling of camaraderie and joy - even giddiness. Gilbert and Kathy Sanchez were very generous with their time in coming out to the studio late at night to join us some evenings. Suffice it is to say that a good time was had by all.
The last step before firing the pots was the addition of slip decoration. Slip decoration was added on top of a burnished pot to create lines and shapes that would remain dull in contrast to the high sheen. This was how Maria Martinez made those gorgeous black on black designs. Another surprise here was that the slip was applied with brushes made from yucca plants. Since the Sanchez’ wanted to give us the genuine Tewa pottery experience, we made our own yucca brushes. The strips of the yucca were soaked until the end was softened. The fibers of the plant were separated by chewing on the end of the yucca stick. These fibers were then trimmed to the desired shape. When it came time to apply my slip decoration, however, I forgot my yucca brush and used a Chinese paint brush instead. As a painter, it was tempting to paint a complicated design on the surface of a pot. But I held back from that, putting a simple design on just one item, ragging onto the bottle as an experiment, and leaving the rest with a plain shiny unadulterated surface. My simple unadorned pot in the upper right corner of this post is the result of this approach.
Next post: The pit firing

1 comment:

Patricia Perrine, PhD, RC said...

So THAT's how they get that wonderful finish and color. I've admired Tewa pottery for quite some time. It's a process I'd love to try sometime. BTW, I was taking ceramics over at Livingstone. Quite a bit looser than at Douglass! The mess would have made you crazy. I knew Bob Cook through my mom's work at Johnson Atelier. He qualified as a genuine character.