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‘Guardian’ of the clay: Pueblo potter teaches traditional art to UNM students

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Clarence Cruz still remembers the clap of women’s hands molding clay as it echoed throughout the adobe walls of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

“I thought they were making tortillas,” Cruz said. “They were making the base for the pots.”

Now a University of New Mexico assistant professor of art, Cruz bears the humble serenity of a deeply spiritual man as he leads students through the multiple tasks of creating pueblo pottery. He also teaches at Santa Fe Community College.

Cruz grew up at the pueblo watching his sister, his aunts and his neighbors gather the clay, clean it and transform it into vessels for ceremonial, practical and income-generating use. Soon, he was asking to learn their techniques.

“It was calming and soothing, and forgetting everything around you,” he said. “It was almost like therapy. And visions —— designs and shapes. They always talked to the clay. And ‘Don’t be mad; the clay won’t be workable, like kids.’

“It just picked me up. It was like the clay accepting me. I wasn’t pushing myself onto it. It was like being lifted up and cradled.”

Two micaceous pots sit on a work table in Cruz’s light-drenched classroom, faintly glittering specks of mica revealing their makeup. One features a spout projecting from the top. Cruz got the idea for the form after seeing a vessel dating to A.D. 1200 in the museum at Pecos National Historic Park.

“She (the potter) pushed the inside out to create a tiny spout,” he said. “She left her fingerprint. I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s a pitcher.’ ”

Cruz earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts with a minor in museum studies at UNM. He began teaching in 1989 at the behest of Mary Lewis Garcia, daughter of the legendary Acoma Pueblo pottery matriarch Lucy Lewis.

Garcia had suffered a stroke and could no longer teach. Another professor told Cruz to visit her.

“She said, ‘Only you can do it,’ ” Cruz said. “I said, ‘These are big shoes to fill.’ ”

He accepted the mantle of clay to keep the tradition of pueblo pottery alive.

The work of making pueblo pottery is meticulous and slow. It all starts with gathering the clay. Cruz has taken his students to sites in El Rito, Peñasco, Pecos and Madrid, as well as Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service locations.

“I like to teach them to respect the material,” he said. “You state your intentions to the material. We give an offering like cornmeal for a blessing. When you make that first contact, you become the guardian of that earth.”

Cruz quietly wanders around the long art tables of the ceramics studio, sometimes stopping to offer encouragement; other times, tips.

Twenty-one-year-old art major Kim Walker had taken wheel-thrown pottery before signing up for Cruz’s class.

“I’m not good at the wheel,” she said. “I like hand-building. The cool part is how connected you feel with the clay because you dug it.”

The digging begins with a pick; when the students are done, they push back the earth to fill the hole.

“We have to dress that wound by bringing it back in,” Cruz said.

When they return to the studio, the students divide the clay into buckets half-filled with water and let it sit for a week. They then break it down with their hands, massaging it to a silky consistency. They run it through a sieve or nylon painters’ bags to sift out the debris of twigs and rocks.

They knead the clay like bread dough, a process called wedging, to squeeze out air pockets.

“We blow into the clay to put in our spirit,” Cruz said.

After flattening a base, or puki, the students coil the clay into circular ropes, pinching and winding it around to the desired form. Polishing tools can include a gourd, a stone or flexible clay ribs.

The vessel dries for two or three days before firing. Then the students sand, water-wash and coat the piece in red slip before polishing it with lard or vegetable oil. Cruz takes the pieces to the Poeh Cultural Center, north of Santa Fe, for a traditional pit firing.

Psychology major Sandra Knudsen, 56, has taken the class four times.

“You have to have something to distract you from the grueling classes,” she said. “It’s therapy for me. It’s very hands-on; it comes from the earth.”

Knudsen was completing a bowl with a heart-lined bear appliquéd to its surface.

“Even when I graduate, I’ll come back and do independent study,” she said. “I’m grounded by it, with all the chaos in the world. And Clarence is my friend for life. I’ll always be working with the clay as long as he’s around.”

In October, Cruz traveled to Yale University’s Peabody Museum for a demonstration and talk. In 2012, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Allan Houser Legacy Award.

The potters told him never to put himself before the clay.

“Allow the clay to take you first to make sure she wants to be,” he said.

“It brings you to a peaceful area,” he continued. “She’s the womb from where she came from. It’s a pot that holds the breath.”