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‘Clay was always fun’

Santa Clara Pueblo potter Madeline E. Naranjo

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

When Madeline E. Naranjo was growing up at Santa Clara Pueblo, she remembers her namesake grandmother handing her a lump of clay.

The young potter would form tiny pots, animal figures or beads.

It was an exercise that would prove prophetic. Naranjo would grow up to become a multiple award-winning artist for her deeply carved black vessels at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Naranjo is one of 450 artists who juried into this year’s virtual event at Organizers shuttered the traditional market that swarms the Santa Fe Plaza with shoppers and vendors because of the pandemic. Naranjo also has her own website at

The artist gathers the red clay she uses from within pueblo grounds, cleans it and mixes it with water to make it malleable.

Unlike most pueblo potters, she does not coil the clay into ropes, instead opting for the pinch method.

When she finishes the form, she begins meticulously carving designs into the pot’s surface using precision screwdrivers. Although she often adapts traditional motifs, such as the avanyu (water serpent) or parrots, she also captures scenes from pueblo life, buffalo, dragonflies and geometric abstractions.

“A Blessed Day” depicts the Santa Clara buffalo dance.

“The deer are called down from the mountains,” she said. “We get up early before the sun comes up. We stand on the edge of the hill. That image is the dance that we see. The sun was rising on the eastern horizon and the moon was setting on the western horizon; it was balanced.”

The avanyu reveals her traditional pueblo upbringing in a more streamlined, contemporary style. Older versions show lightning striking from the serpent’s mouth.

Some pueblo members see the avanyu symbol as representing a river. Naranjo believes it came from the sky.

“My theory is that it’s the clouds; the water serpent is a water symbol,” she said. “Clouds usually come in from the west and they will snake across the sky.”

“Earth, Water and Fire” shows her carving turtles into a pot, as well as the handles. Naranjo made it after she created a similar pot with deer figures.

“The carving of the pots —— they have a mind of their own,” she said. “If there is something Mother Clay does not want, she won’t have it.”

Turtles represent the good life and longevity, she added.

Her grandmother made pottery until she was 99 years old. Naranjo’s own journey to the clay was somewhat circuitous.

“Clay was always fun and it was always there,” Naranjo said. But “I had wanted to become a fashion designer. My parents were telling me it was not a secure profession.”

She attended New Mexico State University before deciding that college wasn’t for her. Naranjo worked in the Santa Clara Pueblo Tourism Department, then began potting again. It was the polishing that tripped her up.

“I wasn’t very good at it,” she conceded.

Then she met the potter Julie Gutierrez, who helped her refine the technique. Gutierrez told her she needed both patience and speed.

“The slip is damp, but if you’re not quick, it’s going to dry,” Naranjo said. “You just have to be patient and work through it.”

She made her first sale in Old Town Albuquerque in 1990 when a shop bought a group of her pottery. Then, a second Old Town store began carrying her work. She attended Indian Market with her grandmother and began making the pottery thinner.

“I was always trying to create a better product,” she said.

More recently, she made “My Little Flower Pot,” complete with scalloped edges and petals.

“I was trying to make a different shape and it kept flaring out,” she said. “Mother Clay is in charge. I thought, ‘I don’t like what I’m doing with this, it’s so weird.’ I told Mother Clay now I see what you wanted.”

Naranjo left her first Indian Markets ribbonless. Then she took third place and, eventually, second. In 2002, she finally won a blue ribbon for best in pottery. In 2018, she won the Serafina Tafoya Memorial Award. Tafoya was the mother of the legendary Santa Clara potter Margaret Tafoya.

“It let me know I was on the right path,” Naranjo said.

She felt sad about the cancellation of the traditional Indian Market, which represents about one-quarter of her annual income.

Still, her sales have been better at the virtual market than that of many other artists.

All but three of her pieces have sold.

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