Monday, May 12, 2008

Acoma Pueblo: Above it all.

The Pueblo of Acoma has a long and illustrious history in New Mexico. It is said to the longest continuously inhabit village in North America, with its founding dating back 1200 years. Part of its survival and prosperity can be traced to its physical location on a mesa high above the New Mexico desert. For decades it was resistant to inroads by Spanish colonials. Eventually, however, the Spanish infiltrated the village, converted the inhabitants to Catholicism and, in 1641, built the San Estaban Mission Church.

(Right above: an Ansel Adams photograph of the
San Estaban Mission Church)

Some of this history has been chronicled in an article in the current, May 2008 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Another cornerstone of its success has been the incredible talent of the Pueblo’s pottery makers.

(Left: an Edward Curtis photo of Acoma women carrying pots )

Among the most prominent contemporary pottery artists at Acoma Pueblo are Sharon Lewis, Diane Lewis, Carolyn Lewis Concho, Rebecca Lucario, Judy Lewis and Marilyn Henderson. These “sisters in the clay” are not related to the legendary Lucy Lewis. But they have created their own reputation based on their own beautiful work.

They often create small pots known as seedpots. They are recognizable by the small hole that traditionally was used to insert seeds and shake them out at planting time. The small hole was a feature designed keep out hungry rodents and insects.

The earliest versions of the seed pot were plain and utilitarian.

Over time, the designs became more detailed. Exterior painting began to become polychromatic, with details of various creatures that are important to life among the Acoma people. Three dimensional elements are added to bring even more appeal to these charming pots. With new aesthetic features, these decorative pots have seen their seed holes become smaller, just large enough to allow the inside of the pot to breathe during firing.

These sweet, whimsical creations, often carry price tags that cause new collectors to hesitate. How can such a small pot cost so much?

Let’s start with the raw material. It is dug from special clay deposits miles from the pueblo village. They are only accessible by foot, requiring long and tiring journeys before any refinement of the clay begins.

The clay comes from remote locations that are miles from the Acoma Pueblo village. Potters can only get to them by walking long distances over difficult terrain. When harvested, the clay is in chunks that are hard as slate. The chunks must be broken up by hand. Sometimes the clay is dry. Other times it is damp and requires drying for several days before it is sifted and winnowed to filter out unwanted elements. The clay is then crushed and ground fine with a smooth stone. Then temper, in the form of finely ground potsherds from old broken pots, is added to the clay. The temper binds the clay to give it the strength and pliability required for trouble-free firing. This results in pottery walls that are very thin, yet quite strong.

The next step is the process by which the dry clay becomes workable so that it can form a pot. The dry, tempered clay and water are mixed slowly with more temper added until the potter’s experience tells her it has the right texture and consistency to be made into a pot.

A pot begins by placing the clay in a half-gourd, a shallow basket or another bowl to support the base as coils of clay are added around the upper edges. This work requires delays to let each coil “set” enough to support the next coil. Eventually the shape is defined and the scraping of the surface begins. A gourd is used to scrape the walls smooth. This scraping takes place in stages, allowing for drying to take place, until it is as thin as the potter wants. Finally, it is burnished with a smooth “sanding” stone.

Even with the brilliant white clay that Acoma potters start with, a slip of fine white kaolin clay is applied over the pot’s surface. This achieves a bright white finish. It creates an ideal surface for the fine designs the potter will apply. After several coats of slip have been applied and allowed to dry between applications, the surface is again polished with smooth stone.

The paints that Acoma artists use are, in fact, new clays combined with vegetable binders and mineral pigments. These plants and pigments are an integral part of the vibrancy and beauty of Acoma pottery. Experienced potters determine when the combined pigment, binder and water are of the proper consistency. If it is too thin, the paint may flake when the pot is fired. If it is too thin, it may fade.

Traditional painting is done with a sliver of yucca that has been chewed to a single strand. The finely detailed painting is even more impressive when considered in this context.

The final step is the firing. In the early days, the pots were fired in open outdoor fires. Changes in weather and temperature would cause frequent breakage, after hours of work had been invested in the unfired pot. The more delicate the form, the more vulnerable the pot.

As a result, sometime in the 1970s, Acoma pottery became to be fired in electric kilns. The more consistent, higher temperatures provided by a kiln, allow thin-walled Acoma pottery to emerge in beauty and strength. This also has encouraged the kind of whimsical touches that now appear in the charming seed pots created by the Lewis “sisters”.

(At left: a typical Carolyn Concho seed pot.
Note the 3-dimensional lady bug being serenaded
by a painted kokopelli.)

Special Note: There seem to be some Acoma people who have succumbed to the temptation of using pre-formed, molded pottery, or “greenware” as a cost saving measure. We do NOT knowingly carry greenware pottery in our online gallery at If you encounter Acoma pottery that is priced surprisingly low, ask the seller if it is greenware. You may be perfectly happy with buying it, but please be aware of what you are buying.

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