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May 17 - July 12, 2008 at American Museum of Ceramic Art, Pomona;
May 31 - July 26, 2008 at Armstrong's Gallery, Pomona

by Jeanne Willette

Elvira Bugarini, "Vessel,"
earthenware clay, 4” x 4”;  

Laura Bugarini, "Vessel with Lid,"
2008, earthenware clay, 10” x 7”

Nicholas Quezada, Vessel,"
earthenware clay.

Virginia & Salvador Baca,
"Vessel," earthenware clay.

Nicholas Ortiz, "Jack Rabbit
Effigy," earthenware clay.

Located within a block of each other, the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMoCA) and Armstrong’s Gallery, which specializes in ceramic art, each present wide ranging surveys of the Southwestern tradition of clay. The Native American heritage of clay was long neglected due to the efforts of whites to bring the indigenous population into the mainstream (Anglo) culture. The renaissance of Native American pottery at the beginning of the twentieth century is usually attributed to anthropologists and traders, who had different reasons for seeing a revival of the craft—respectively, to preserve a vanishing culture and to sell the romance and mystique of the “Indian” to tourists. Working from ancient pottery shards, Native American women were able to resurrect long-forgotten designs, dating back to the ancient Anasazi. AMoCA is showing two hundred examples of clay works from the pre-Columbian era to present day. Armstrong’s is exhibiting pottery from Mata Ortiz, an entire town in Mexico that has earned a widely recognized reputation for its devotion to the revival of ancient techniques and designs.

Few towns in the area are better suited for such exhibitions than Pomona, for it is at Pomona College that some of the most important collections of Native American art are preserved. These collections were assembled by collectors, who considered the objects to be examples of archaeological or anthropological interest--not art--and, for years, pots and baskets were stored out of sight under the stage of the Bridges Auditorium. Thanks in part to the Civil Rights Movement and the rising cultural consciousness of La Raza, “primitive art” became “fine art” and these collections began to see the light of day. Oddly, some of the Pomona examples were repainted; whether for preservation or sales purposes is not clear. Furniture artist Sam Maloof has also loaned examples from his own extensive collection of tradeware from the 1940s.

“Pueblo Clay: America’s First Pottery” is noteworthy not just for the sheer number of artists represented, but also for the story it tells. Beginning with pre-Columbian examples from the Mogollon period, the show demonstrates the importance of trading posts, often near railroad stations, to the preservation and revival of pottery. The anonymous makers did not sign this “tradeware” until the post-war, post-Civil Rights era, at which time “art stars” began to emerge in the pueblos. Significantly, generations of families have devoted themselves to the production of museum quality work. The matriarchal Martinez, Nampayo, and Lewis clans are well represented in this exhibition.

Maria Martinez brought fame to the San Ildefonso Pueblo through her distinctive black pottery, with its matte-gloss designs. Rachael Nampayo and Lucy Lewis based their decorative techniques on ancient Mimbres pottery graphics. All the objects are made with the most basic elements of creation: the coil technique and the earthen colors of red, ochre, sienna, white, and black. Nothing is wheel-thrown or fired in a modern kiln. The children and grandchildren of these famous women remain on the pueblos, preserving not just the techniques of firing and decoration but also the romance of digging one’s own clay and fashioning art from the earth. The purity of this process adds to the mystique of each pot.

Continuing the concept of preserving the story of a culture, Armstrong’s Gallery has an equally remarkable story to tell via pottery from Mata Ortiz, a town in the high desert of Mexico. Off the beaten path and dying, the town was nearly emptied when Juan Quezada arrived and discovered a long-dormant local pottery tradition. Working from shards and begging for instruction from the remaining inhabitants, Quezada taught himself to make pottery from the region’s three different clays, white, black, and red. Using slip instead of glazes, he pit-fired the pots, which are painted with human-hair brushes in tight geometric designs.

Today, Mata Ortiz has become a destination site for artists and collectors, and is now home to over one hundred artists, many of whom, like those of the nine Southwestern pueblos, are part of successive generations of artists. The universe of Native American ceramics is a place where innovation and originality are less important than demonstrating cultural identity. Each pot, whether a deeply carved black Santa Clara vessel or a densely lined jar from Mata Ortiz, makes a statement: this is who we were; this is where we came from; and this is who we are now--Native Americans from a borderless Southwestern territory, called “Atzlan.”

San Ildefonso Pueblo, black
pottery, earthenware clay works:
Adam & Santana Martinez, plate.
From the Sam & Alfreda
Maloof Foundation collection.
Martha Appleaf Carmelita,tall necked vase.
From the George & Kit Wilson collection.
Tonita Roybal (1842-1945), short vase.
From the Kit & George Wilson collection.

Hopi Pueblo, earthenware clay.
Gift to AMOCA from the
Frieda Bradsher Collection

Lucy Lewis, Acoma Pueblo
earthenware clay.
From a private collection

Mary Small, Jemez Pueblo
earthenware clay.
From the Davis Collection.