Traditional Pottery Making

The traditional practice of making Puebloan pottery has a lot in common with Zen and Sufi practice: the "doing" of something in a constant state of "prayerfulness/mindfulness" can lead to transcendent experience. And like Zen and Sufi mystics, the greatest pottery practitioners have many students. There is also something similar in the form of "transmission" - where the evolved and distilled learning of the teacher is passed directly to the student. Perhaps I should call this "attunement" instead as the learning is passed on through long-term direct hand-in-hand contact, teacher to students. And in the end, the mission is very similar among Zen, Sufism and Puebloan pottery: Offer your prayerful hands to the dirt and assist it in becoming something extraordinary.

The Clay

Preparing the clay is an art of its own. In traditional Native American pottery making, the clay is usually gathered from a time-honored place on pueblo land. It is hand dug from the ground in pits and small mines and comes as hard packed dry mud or soft stone. In many pueblos the source of the clay is a secret. A potter collects the clay by walking to a mine or pit and digging out and carrying back what he or she needs. Traditionally there are prayers offered for the gathering of the clay. Once the clay gets home it must be broken up and ground into a fine powder. Then it is soaked in water to remove impurities. At the same time, old pottery shards are collected, soaked, and ground into powder to act as a tempering agent for the fresh ground clay. For ceremonial vessels these shards are remnants of the Anasazi ancestors of the past. For other pots more recent shards from broken pots are used. After the ground clay and tempering agent are combined, the mixture soaks for about a week.


Depending on the size and design wanted, pots are formed using different techniques. Smaller pieces are generally molded in the hands. Larger pieces are built up by pressing together hand-rolled flat coils. Traditionally, the pottery of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara is thick walled. The Hopi make pottery with a thinner wall. The Acoma are famous for very thin walled pottery. The larger the pot and the thinner the wall, the more difficult it is for the piece to keep its form and the more danger there is from a miniscule impurity causing the pot to explode during firing. InAcoma and Hopi pottery, it is not uncommon to see a tiny impurity in the clay cause a small pock, or ping, in an outer wall years after it is finished. The better the clay is processed, the less the chance of pinging. Once a pot has been molded into the desired shape it is put aside to dry. Cracks will open in the clay wall and these will be filled in with more clay. Once the piece is dry and hard enough, it is ready to be polished.


The dried pot is first scraped smooth with a piece of gourd or a stick of wood and then smoothed with water. Then the pot will be polished with a wet pebble called a polishing stone. Most potters keep a variety of good polishing stones of varying shapes and sizes to use in their art. The stone is kept wet and is moved quickly over the surface of the pot which becomes foamy in the process. After polishing, a slip of fine, watery clay is applied with a rag and then polished again with the wet stone. The slip and polish process is repeated over and over until the slip has built up to the right depth. The pot is then set aside again to dry.


Depending on the intention of the artist, some pieces are complete after the polishing process. Undecorated vessels are often beautiful works of art by themselves and to add a painted or incised design would only detract from that intrinsic beauty. Most potters also say that the spirit of the pot reveals itself during the process. If it is meant to be undecorated, the pot will convey that. If it is meant to have designs, the piece will guide that process as well.

Incised or impression designs are most often found in Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pottery. Those potters often use traditional designs such as the feather or the avanyu (the water spirit). When making an incised design, the artist needs to ensure the cuts are not too shallow (which creates a superficial look) or too deep (which can pierce the inside wall or create a shatter hazard during firing). Sgraffito is another technique in which a sharp tool is used to scratch a design into a pot. Whatever the design, it must be carefully planned and executed.

Most designs will encircle the circumference of the pot and poor planning or a slip of the tool will ruin the entire piece: mistakes are not easily fixed. Painting is still most often done using a brush made of a strip of yucca chewed slightly on the end. Paints are usually made from a combination of ground stone minerals and some type of vegetable matter. At Santa Clara and San Ildefonso the potters often paint with clay. Most paint recipes are traditional and have been used in the particular Pueblo for hundreds of generations. A very few paint recipes are new innovations discovered by an individual artist. Tradition, though, rules most designs, even those of the more contemporary and adventurous artists of today.

Lucy Lewis, inspired by designs she found on Anasazi pot shards, created today's Acoma "fine line" painting. The black on black technique made famous by Maria Martinez was also revived from ancient pieces of pottery, the lost technique rediscovered by Maria and her husband Julian through a long process of trial and error.

To the pueblo potter, shapes and symbols all have a deeper meaning. Sometimes those meanings have a long term consistency that any member of the tribe would recognize, but sometimes the symbolism is meaningful only to the artist. That so many age-old traditional symbols survive in modern pieces after thousands of years says something about the artists of today. What was important to an artist's mother, and her mother's mother, has a value and significance that can sometimes be traced back for centuries.


Once a piece has been completed, it is ready to be fired. Prayers have been said to gather the clay and to form it. Now prayers are said to complete it in the firing process. Usually several pieces are fired at one time. The weather must be good, the ground must be warm and the pots themselves can't be too cool or they will shatter in the heat. Finished pieces are usually laid on a metal sheet or on a layer of broken shards, reminders of past failed attempts. More shards are laid around and on top of the finished pots. Sometimes another layer of finished pottery is added and covered with more shards. The mound is then covered with dried cow or sheep dung and wood tinder is set fire along the bottom to start the blaze. Air has to circulate between the pottery. The heat of the fire is regulated by the amount of fuel added, air available, and the size of the pottery mound. Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pottery is fired at a lower temperature, Hopi pottery a bit hotter and Acoma pottery hottest of all. An ill-timed wind during the fire can cause smoke smudges. A bit of burning cow chip falling onto a piece can blacken the design. And even when all the variables come together perfectly, a missed impurity or unknown stress in the clay can still crack or shatter a vessel. A larger or particularly fine piece lost in the firing is a heart-breaking loss of many, many hours of work, and it happens often.

The firing is part of what gives each pot its uniqueness. The cloudiness and subtle changes of color famous in Hopi pottery occurs in the firing. The stark, sometimes mirror-black color of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pottery is achieved by smothering the fire with powdered dung and causing a chemical reaction in the reduction of oxygen that essentially causes the carbon left in the atmosphere to infuse the clay. Later, a potter can reheat sections of the piece with a directed flame and reoxygenate the clay, turning the color to a sienna or a red. The hard, thin walls of the Acoma vessels and the final clarity of the painted design occur in the firing process. A crack can occur in a fine-walled pot and be virtually undetectable by the eye. A good test is to give the edge a firm, sharp tap. A fine walled jar with no hidden cracks will ring like crystal. Firing completes the process. Then it is up to the potter to decide if the vessel is for personal, tribal or commercial purpose...