The women who molded Acoma Pueblo water jars invested them with more than clay. They believed the vessels were sacred and blessed, a gift across time from Mother Earth.
Sometimes wielding a single fiber of yucca leaf to create the intricate geometry of a fine line bowl, they turned functional ware into art.
Authors Dwight P. Lanmon and Francis H. Harlow have penned “The Pottery of Acoma Pueblo” (2013, Museum of New Mexico Press) to trace that history across 700 years. Lanmon will be at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian at 1 p.m. Sunday to discuss and sign books. He will also speak and sign at the Sky City Cultural Center during an Acoma Pueblo celebration at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The two writers, both research associates at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, have produced past volumes on “The Pottery of Santa Ana Pueblo” (2005), “The Pottery of Zuni Pueblo” (2008) and “The Pottery of Zia Pueblo” (2003).
More scholarly than conversational, their new book concentrates on Acoma pottery’s traditional period (c. 1300-1890) and transitional period (c. 1880-1930), with a summary of contemporary standouts. More than 800 photographs of both potters and pottery anchor the book. The authors spent hours examining the pottery and pottery shards at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and interviewed dozens of Acoma potters and pueblo pottery experts.
Acoma potters have used their creations as both functional and ceremonial vessels since 800-900, the book states. They believed their pots harbored intrinsic, life-giving powers and took on the attributes of whatever they held. These artists invested the lengthy process of gathering the clay and pigments and coiling, molding, painting and firing their work with old prayers and songs. At the end of burial rites, someone would break a bowl of water over the deceased’s grave, a tradition that continues today.
At first, Acoma potters made grey pottery with black designs created from vegetal and mineral paints. Experts have excavated fragments of these on Acoma Mesa, dating to between the late 1100s and 1200s. In about 1300, artists began using paint containing lead ore to fire into a lustrous black, brown or green color. During firing, the lead ore melted and interacted with the clay to form a shiny glaze. No one knows how Acoma potters learned how to work with this material, which most likely came from mines located east of the pueblo.
The artists decorated these early pots with images of birds and feathers, the spiritual tattoos of their beliefs.
“They’re respecting the God of birds,” Harlow said, “when they go up into the sky and talk to God about the weather.”
Birds appear on pueblo pottery, starting with the drawings on Mimbres vessels made around 1100. Parrots winged regularly around Acoma pots and continue to be a signature motif.
Scientists have discovered cavities for raising macaws inside the walls at Chaco Canyon.
“They wanted these brilliant feathers,” co-author Dwight Lanmon said in a telephone interview from Phoenix, “so there was early trading with Mexico. They still use them in their dances.”
Today, most Acoma potters insist all of their imagery is purely decorative.
The 1880s arrival of the railroad brought the first waves of a tourist explosion. Traders bought hundreds of pots to sell on the East Coast.
“A lot of them are in the Smithsonian,” Harlow said. “At that time, they found they could produce pottery for sale with a number of decorations.”
Many artists painted their work in elaborate, all-encompassing geometric designs. Ruffled rims, raised shoulder corrugations, tall-necked jars and pitchers appeared.
Famed for her complex interlocking designs, Lucy Lewis was the first Acoma potter to emerge as a star. Her bowls can be found in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Marie Chino created very elaborately decorated ware, often using a series of interlocking, graduating key figures.
More contemporary potters keep pushing both the shapes and the painting well beyond the traditional.
A 1995 pyramid-shaped seed jar by Charmae (Shields) Natseway defies the conventional bowl or jar. Each face wears a design; checkerboards hopscotch across the base up to stylized human and animal figures. Natseway often bases her work on ancient Mimbres vessels.
Barbara and Joseph Cerno man the corner of San Francisco Street and Lincoln Avenue at every Santa Fe Indian Market. They create the largest traditionally made pottery at the pueblo. Joseph decorated a 2003 pot with whimsical depictions of two Santa Fe Railroad trains. The buildings in the background reflect Anglo, not pueblo, architecture.
Robert Patricio’s orange polychrome jar took three top awards at the 2010 Santa Fe Indian Market. Although Patricio had been making pottery since the age of 9, that year marked his first at Indian Market. At 14 inches in diameter, its design is now called kiva steps, although Acoma residents enter their kivas using ladders, not masonry.
“The painting on it is just dramatic,” Lanmon said. “I think he’s one of the futures of Acoma pottery.”
Some Acoma potters fret that the pueblo’s youth don’t want to take the time to learn how to make the pottery of their heritage, Lanmon said.
“It takes a lot of failures,” he said. “It’s still hard work to learn. One of the reasons for doing a book like this is to try to stimulate young people to appreciate the heritage and to stimulate them to inherit it. I’m sure some potters would say, ‘If it isn’t selling, why should I bother?’ ”
Today, most Acoma potters prefer kilns to traditional outdoor firing because they gain better control of the heat, he said. Others resort to manufactured unfired greenware and avoid the clay processing altogether.
“Number one, it’s cheaper —— say, $100 for a large jar,” Lanmon said. “If you go to an Acoma feast day, the potters are very forthcoming. What they’re obviously doing is reacting to the public demand.”
Lanmon has been collecting traditional Acoma pottery for 30 years.
“It’s a graphic strength that I enjoy,” he said. “The variety of designs is so enormous and it shows such ingenuity.”
The book says Acoma now boasts more potters than any other pueblo in either New Mexico or Arizona.