SANTA FE, N.M. — Holding a rivet as sharp as a needle, Jennifer Moquino works a black pottery shard, incising a clown fish onto the gleaming surface.
The shard came from one of the only shattered pots to emerge from a firing in five years, she said. The 1/4-inch fish resembled something from the 2004 movie “Finding Nemo.”
Moquino and her husband, Mike, demonstrated the molding, shaping and finely incised sgraffito pottery in the Case Trading Post of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian to a crowd of about 20 on Saturday.
The Santa Clara Pueblo couple have revived the intricate etched style that originated with Joseph Lonewolf’s 1970s work and revitalized it with their own take on wildlife and landscapes not restricted to New Mexico.
The two artists described the meticulous process of gathering the clay near Santa Clara Pueblo, then shaping, polishing and firing their work into shiny black, red and brown animals and pottery. Jennifer heads the decorating process, while Mike hand-builds most of the pots.
He begins by molding, slapping and shaping the clay like bread dough to pop any air bubbles remaining in the medium. To create a signature small pot, he merely sticks his finger inside a ball of clay then stretches and works it into a vessel.
“It all starts with getting the clay,” he said, adding that pueblo members have been harvesting the material from a narrow vein used by generations of their forebears. “When it’s coming out of the ground, it has a high moisture content,” he continued. “It looks like milk chocolate. That’s how you know you’ve got the good stuff. It’s got to be really super-fine clay for the work that we do.”
That work encompasses the brown otter sitting before Jennifer, awaiting the completion of its decorative coat of fish and eagle feathers using pigment paints the couple find tucked in cliffs and hollows and near riverbeds near Abiquiu.
Jennifer’s is an ever-expanding palette of animal life, ranging from schools of fish (with a leaping dolphin forming the pot lid) to a herd of stampeding Appaloosas racing across the plains.
She says nature remains her greatest influence.
“We are always outdoors,” she explained. “We’d go fishing and hiking and take the dogs for a walk.”
“She uses a lot of pictures that I take of animals,” Mike added, scrolling through an iPad to reveal images of squirrels in trees and a hawk flapping its wings as its handler presents it at a fair.
Jennifer polishes her pieces to a mirror-sheen using the finest sandpaper before she starts carving fine lines into imagery.
“I have to get rid of all the scratch lines,” she said.
“Some of the slips we have made are happy little accidents,” Mike said.
He once molded and squeezed and shaped a ball that refused to become a pot.
“You were mad at it,” Jennifer said.
“That piece of clay didn’t want to take any shape,” her husband added.
Finally, in frustration, Mike slammed the material down onto the tabletop. It shaped itself into the edges of a box.
He started making boxes.
Jennifer begins her designs using a white china pencil that erases easily. Her rivet tool fills in the spidery details in an intricate dance of fancy and embroidery lifted from both traditional pueblo designs and photographic depictions of nature.
The traditional pueblo avanyu (water serpent) that appears in their work regularly is rich in double meaning. One legend says it saved the village of Santa Clara from a flood, explaining its usual placement near rain clouds.
Another says the avanyu circles the earth to keep the water from flooding the land, which explains why the tongue and tail overlap.
She lifts a rock of color from a baby food jar, then slices and crushes the pigment with an X-Acto knife before mixing it with water. She digs the green pigment from Colorado fossil beds. She applies the paint using a commercial paintbrush or a traditional yucca stick.
Depending on the complexity of the design, a single pot may take up to two months to complete.
Mike fires the work using a mixture of cedar chips and newspaper. He sits the pots inside a ventilated tin box to coax the smoke inside. For a black pot, he smothers the fire in powdered horse manure at the end. The fire is hot and fast; it takes 15 minutes to produce a red pot — seven for black. The work can explode if the fire becomes too hot.
Sometimes, their work draws experts from specific scientific fields. An entymologist might be drawn to Jennifer’s current piece — a round pot quilted in species of beetles from across the globe, including those pesky stag beetles found in New Mexico back yards.
Her list of zoological imagery is seemingly endless. She’s depicted antelope, bears, vultures, eagles, deer, butterflies, dragonflies, coyotes and wolves, to name just a few of her Southwestern herd. One underwater scene depicted sharks, clown fish, a coral reef and an octopus lounging in the sand with a dolphin leaping from an asymmetrical lid. Oceanographers appreciate the photographic precision of her detail, Mike said.
“We aren’t afraid to try something outside the box,” he added.
The couple has won numerous awards and been featured in various books for their artistry. They participated in their first Santa Fe Indian Market in 1998; they sold out within two hours. In 2011, they won both Best of Division and Best of Class.
Today, they sell their work at just three markets: Santa Fe’s summer and winter Indian markets and at the Heard Museum market.
The pair have been making pottery together since before their 2000 marriage, Mike said. Working that closely has its own rewards, he added.
“We can’t really get mad at each other because then we wouldn’t work.”