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Hopi artist’s 1910 pot at museum

SANTA FE, N.M. — Facility had 47 pieces of her descendants’ work, but none from the famed potter

Nampeyo set the stage for the revival of Hopi pottery amid the striated fissures of the Grand Canyon.

The Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos has cemented the origins of that rebirth by acquiring a major piece by the great potter (1860-1942) dating to about 1910.

The flattened, pumpkin-colored bowl features the potter’s trademark color, shape and motifs such as the bear claw, spiral and signature Hopi geometric designs. Museum director Peter Seibert said the piece fills a critical hole in the museum’s collection. He declined to reveal the purchase price.

“We had 47 pieces of pottery by her descendants in our collection and not one piece by her,” he said Tuesday. “You can see her style filter through all her descendants.”

Seibert learned of the pot’s existence in a case of serendipity-turned-shopping. He stumbled into a Taos gallery owner who had just received the pot from a collector’s family. “We ran into each other and it was still in its original box,” Seibert said. “It had come from a family who had bought it from Nampeyo directly.”

The latter provenance is important because the artist rarely signed her work, he explained. To further complicate identification, some signatures on her pottery have been traced to family members and traders. In her later years, as she was going blind, Nampeyo formed the vessels and her daughters Fannie, Annie and Nellie, as well as her granddaughters Rachel and Daisy, and her clan niece Lena Charlie painted them, according to the University of Arizona website.

Nampeyo’s fame began with her introduction to prehistoric wares being excavated at the Sikyátki ruins on the First Mesa at the Hopi reservation in 1896. The site is named for a pueblo that existed between 1375 and 1625.

Archaeologists asked Nampeyo to reproduce some of the pottery discovered at Sikyátki. At first heavily influenced by these ancient designs, she soon branched out to invent her own styles and forms.

She expanded and elaborated on her culture’s traditional designs, Seibert said.

“She put a whole lot of new energy into pottery making.”

Soon the Smithsonian Institution and collectors sought her work. In 1904 and 1907, the Fred Harvey Co. invited Nampeyo to produce and sell her pottery at their Grand Canyon lodge. She traveled to Chicago in 1898 and 1910 to display her work.

Her life features many parallels to that of the great San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, who also revived her own cultural art form and created an artistic dynasty that survives today.

Seibert plans to display the pot in a “Masterpieces From Our Collection” exhibition opening Nov. 9, along with works by Maria. “We have a superb hide painting that has not been displayed in a long time,” he added, “and two santos that have not been seen in 20 years.”

Plains beadwork will round out the exhibit, he added.

The Nampeyo piece is also slated for a Fred Harvey exhibit opening at the museum in 2014.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Seibert said Nampeyo’s extensive travels surface in the amount of her work displayed in the museums and private collections in both Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well as the East Coast in general.

“You go into these institutions and you’ll see a Nampeyo pot and a Maria pot.”

Originally given the English name Iris as an infant, Nampeyo’s Tewa name means “snake that does not bite.”