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Silver City Clay Festival puts an ancient art form in your hands

Scooped from the earth, clay is one of the most versatile substances. Its history in New Mexico goes back centuries, millenniums even.

Paying homage to clay and to those to carve it, craft, throw it and build with it is at the heart of the Silver City Clay Festival (, which continues today through July 30, said Jen Pack, festival coordinator.

“There are things for adults, for youths, stimulating academic inquiries, hands-on workshops,” Pack said. “It’s a really broad festival. There’s something for everybody. We tried to incorporate lots of free events.”

Learning to throw clay on a pottery wheel is a popular feature. (SOURCE: Silver City Clay Festival)

The festival is the brainchild of Lee Gruber, co-owner of Syzygy Tile (, a Silver City-based manufacturer of handmade clay tile.

In connection with one of the first arts and cultural districts established in the state under the umbrella of the MainStreet program, the city was asked to create a signature event, Gruber said.

“My husband and I, we’ve made our living with clay for the last 20-odd years,” she said. “So we thought we could have something called a clay festival. It’s a means not only to show the artistry of our state, but also to use it as sort of a connective tissue between the different regions of our state. Historically, the indigenous cultures used it to build their house and make the potteries that cook their food. It seemed like a really good metaphor for the state of New Mexico to really highlight clay.”

Live demonstrations of pottery work are among the highlights of the Silver City Clay Festival. (SOURCE: Silver City Clay Festival)

Although events will be going on all week, one of the exciting highlights will be a workshop taught by renowned Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo artist Clarence Cruz, Pack said.

“This workshop will focus on hand-building by the coil method using traditional micaceous clay to create functional ware,” she said. “Each student will receive 25 pounds of mica clay dug from the earth by the artist at his pueblo.”

Music and socializing are part of the Silver City Clay Festival. (SOURCE: Silver City Clay Festival)

The clay has flecks of sparkling, gold-like material, Pack said, adding that there will be a pit firing on Thursday, the final day of the workshop.

The festival, which started small six years ago, has been growing steadily, Gruber said.

“We had several thousand people here last year,” she said. “We don’t have a large place where we can the count the numbers who are coming through. But we try to count through the galleries and the lectures and the workshops and the children who take the different classes. We had about 2,500-2,600 last year, and I remember the first year we had about 800 or 900, so it has grown little by little.”

Children love to dig their hands into the clay. (SOURCE: Silver City Clay Festival)

What’s even more encouraging is to see more artists from across the state and even the country participate, Gruber said.

“We see artists from all over the country to enter the exhibitions and the market,” she said. “I look at it as an economic driver for a small community, but it’s wonderful to see the interest from Santa Fe and Taos and those coming up from Las Cruces. It’s great just to see the artists in this state starting to connect. It’s very encouraging.”

In connection with the festival, local participants of the “Clay Trail” ( – a four-county enterprise to promote clay artisans – will have an exhibit at the visitor center and will be selling in the market, said trail coordinator Kitty Stolzenbach.

And if someone prefers to see some of the area’s original clay users, the Gila Cliff Dwellings ( htm) are well-worth the effort of traveling the winding, mountainous, 44-mile, two-hour drive from Silver City.

Artists come in all ages. (SOURCE: Silver City Clay Festival)

Of course, the main attraction is the 800-year-old dwellings themselves, one of the best, well-preserved examples of Mogollon people’s dwellings, Hawthorne said.

“Because the dwellings are inside caves, they are much better-preserved than other Native American dwellings of the American Southwest,” said Hugh Hawthorne, park superintendent. “One of the big things that people really like is they can actually walk through the dwellings and get a close-up view.”

Guided and self-guided hikes are available, he said.

“The dwellings are in a really spectacular natural setting,” he said. “It’s like an oasis in the high desert. What people really like is the walk up, a mile round trip. You walk through a beautiful canyon with shade trees and running water, which surprises people.”