'Grounded in Clay' looks at the pottery of 21 tribal communities

‘Grounded in Clay’ looks at the pottery of 21 tribal communities

Acoma four-color polychrome storage jar, ca. 1880, clay and paint, 15½x17½ inches. (Vilcek Foundation/Peter Gabriel)

Pueblo pottery forms a chamber of echoing voices.

“Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery” showcases those stories in an exhibition of more than 100 works in clay at Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

Originating in the cradle of the Indigenous Southwest, the show is a rare exhibition curated by the Native American communities it represents. Organized by Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research and the New York-based Vilcek Foundation, it gives voice to more than 60 individual members of 21 tribal communities. These members chose and wrote about artistically or culturally unique pots spanning 1,000 years.

The show marks the institution’s first-ever exhibition.

The exhibit also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the creation of SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center’s pottery collection in 1922. Aware of the disastrous consequences of Manifest Destiny, a group of Santa Feans formed its Pueblo Pottery Fund because they wanted to “save pueblo pottery” as the Spanish flu decimated the pueblos.

“Grounded in Clay” shifts traditional curatorial models by combining individual voices from the Native communities where the pots were made.

“The pueblos are not a monolith,” said Elysia Poon, Indian Arts Research Director. “Within each community, there are both individual and shared experiences. In many cases, the curators picked pots that weren’t even from their own community. It resulted in a much more complex and rich mixture than we imagined. There is no single curatorial voice.”

One curator chose a circa 1890 Zuni stew bowl because of its geometric design featuring lightning strikes to bring blessings to crops. Another chose a 1972 Joseph Lonewolf (Santa Clara Pueblo) seed jar with contemporary designs for its innovation.

MIAC curator Tony Chavarria wrote of a circa 1900-era stone-polished blackware olla from his home at Santa Clara Pueblo. Its shape sparked a memory of his grandmother’s favorite vintage dress:

“I see the flared collar and high neck in this jar,” he wrote. “I see my grandma in the beauty from the earth.”

Frances Mirabal Chavarria taught her children how to make pottery.

” ‘One day, you might need to make a living from it,’ she said, as she talked about how we and clay are both of the earth,” Chavarria said.

San Ildefonso/Cochiti pueblo member Evone “Snowflake” Martinez chose a circa 1915 canteen by Maria (Poveka) and Julian Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo).

“Shapes of mountains, deserts, spirit lakes and springs can be seen on some pieces and their stories can be read in others,” she wrote. “I wonder what memories are embedded in their clay’s spirit, and it is then that I find myself drawn to a small tan vessel painted with red and black designs of clouds, kiva steps and a thunderbird.”

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo chose a circa 1920-30 Acoma water jar orbited by Zuni “fat tail” birds. The potter painted the “fat tails” in orange or in a deep red pigment that is hard to find today. The jar reminded him of his grandmother, who was of the Zuni Eagle Clan and a known master potter. Those families settled on the western side of the mesa top, a location given to them by the Antelope Clan. The women used the jar to collect rainwater from natural cisterns.

“This jar also reminds me that my grandmother always said a good water jar should be somewhat bulbous at its center and have a neck that reduces splashing and controls the movement of the water – a scarce resource,” Vallo wrote.

Clay artist Kathleen Wall (Walatowa/Jemez) chose her aunt’s circa 1982 nativity set as a reconciliation of the religious persecution of the past.

“Although pueblo religion and culture have a long history of concessions and acceptance in order to appease the Catholic religion over the centuries, this has transformed into a beautiful syncretism and celebration of faith for New Mexico pueblo people,” she wrote.

Dating from precontact to the present day, the featured pots connect and contrast the lives of people living in pueblo communities spanning from New Mexico’s 19 Rio Grande Pueblos to the West Texas community of Ysleta del Sur to the Hopi of Arizona. Curators of various ages, backgrounds and professions chose and wrote about one or more works.

The exhibition will move to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Vilcek Foundation in 2023, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2024 and to the St. Louis Art Museum in 2025.

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