Portfolio | Pottery: Tradition and Innovation

LuAnn Tafoya, red carved flat bowl [2000], 51⁄2 x 12., pottery, southwest art.
LuAnn Tafoya, red carved flat bowl [2000], 51⁄2 x 12.

By Marsha McEuen

Traditional pottery

LuAnn Tafoya

Clay is a gift from the earth. It is the product of eons, ground by slowly shifting mountains, colored with minerals leached from rock by endless seasons of rainfall, and sifted in rushing streams. Mixed by nature to a precise formula, it is an abundant substance for those who know where to look. From ancient times, Indian people of the Southwest dug the clay and
shaped it into vessels to serve their needs. Perhaps mindful of the gift, they also made these objects beautiful.

LuAnn Tafoya’s clay comes from a spot her family knows in the mountains of Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico. She works with it on a canvas tarp spread on her kitchen floor. She has already spent many hours screening twigs and stones from the clay, drying it in her oven so it will not have lumps, and washing it clean. Now she will mix it with sand using her hands and feet. Without sand, the clay will be structurally weak. There are no precise measurements—she knows when it is right.

LuAnn Tafoya, pottery, southwest art.
LuAnn Tafoya

Tafoya, a small, quiet woman, makes pottery that is strikingly large and bold. One of her classically simple storage jars, for example, measures to the middle of her thigh. “It just wants to make itself,” she says. “Sometimes I think I’ll make a small one, but it’ll just take itself up.” In fact, the scale in which she works is so difficult that almost no one does it anymore. It is physically hard work, demanding that she stand almost the entire time. And the problems of achieving exact symmetry, evenly thick walls, and perfect polish using no tool more sophisticated than an ordinary Lazy Susan become exponentially more challenging as size increases.

It was from her mother, the legendary potter Margaret Tafoya, that LuAnn learned. “My mother did things the traditional way and so did my grandmother,” she says. “If you keep up the traditional forms there’s a life to it.” This means she will build a pot as it has been done for centuries, coil by coil, using no potter’s wheel or mechanical device. She will polish it with thousands of strokes of a smooth stone. Uneven polishing can leave imperfections so tiny the eye cannot distinguish them, but they will mar the shiny finish. The color comes from the clay itself. Fired outdoors, it will be red unless the flames are smothered with manure. Then, magically, the clay turns the deepest of blacks.

Traditional does not mean boring. Although there are shapes and motifs that have been handed down for generations, endless variety and interpretations are possible. Tafoya may carve some designs that appear raised from the surface of the pot and etch others. She can polish some areas and leave others matte. “I like to make different shapes of pots,” she says. Vases, jars, bowls, and even a pottery canteen decorate her living room.

Tafoya has won a basketful of rainbow-hued ribbons for the pottery she takes to Indian Market and other shows. But that is a small part of her reward. “You have to put your heart in the pot for it to come out good,” she says. “Then when a person buys it there’s a feeling in it. They say, ‘We see that pot that you made and it makes our day.’’’

Preston Duwyenie, Black micaceous platter with silver ingots from Shifting Sand series [2000], dia. 20., pottery, southwest art.
Preston Duwyenie, Black micaceous platter with silver ingots from Shifting Sand series [2000], dia. 20.

Contemporary pottery

Preston Duwyenie

Preston Duwyenie molds the memories of his childhood into clay. He is from Hopi in Arizona, although he lives at Santa Clara now. As a youngster, the outdoors was his playground. “It’s kind of rare when it rains out at Hopi,” he explains. “But when it does there are lots of areas where clay is abundantly available. We had this favorite shallow pond that we gathered clay from to create things.” The figures he made with this clay portrayed Hopi village life and ceremonies.

Duwyenie also grew up carving wooden kachinas, but when he went to school at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, he was reunited with clay. He learned not only the traditional Indian ways of making pottery but also Japanese and more experimental techniques.

Today, his work is a blend of the old and the new. Deeply rooted in his culture, Duwyenie uses whatever tools he needs for its expression. He digs his clay and builds the sculptural forms of his pots by hand. “I’ve used a wheel,” he says, “but the tradition of coiling is what I enjoy. It’s a more intimate relationship with the clay.”

Preston and Debra, photograph, pottery, southwest art.
Preston and Debra

The piece he has just finished is glowing white with undulating forms that seem to move across the surface. “There’s a lot of sand at Hopi,” he says. “When I was growing up, I played with it. I could feel the warmth of it on a hot summer day and the coolness in the wintertime. Sometimes it’s very soft, and sometimes when it rains in winter it becomes real rocklike.”

Set into the shoulder of the pot is a thin rectangular slice of silver with a wave pattern on its surface. Duwyenie cast the metal, molding it against a piece of cuttlefish bone, and inlaid it into the clay. “I use the silver to convey the preciousness of water in the desert environment,” he says. “So the clay represents the sand dunes at Hopi, but the silver is the water. Both the water and the sand develop ripples when the breath of God blows across them.”

His wife Debra draws from the same themes of nature to create tiny treasures in pottery. Her miniatures, incised with a world of hummingbirds and flowers or dancing corn stalks smiled upon by a benevolent sun, are the perfect counterpoint to Preston’s more stark forms. They have always worked closely, bound by philosophy and shared goals. Now they are working together. “Preston makes the pots and the lids,” Debra says. “I do the polish and design on the lids.” Their first collaboration cracked in the firing. It sits in a place of honor. “I think it was meant to stay with us,” says Debra, “to inspire us to do more.”

The making of pottery in many ways mirrors modern Pueblo life. Some potters keep to the traditional path, while others live in both worlds. Somewhere at Santa Clara Pueblo the chubby hands of a grandchild pat out the shape of an animal or a small bowl. The next generation of artists waits to follow the hundreds that have gone before them. Their work is as timeless as the clay.

Preston Duwyenie is represented by Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM; Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, Santa Fe, NM; Gallery 10, Santa Fe, NM, and Scottsdale, AZ; Case Trading Post, Wheelwright Museum, Santa Fe, NM; King Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; and Adobe East Gallery, Delray Beach, FL, and Summit, NJ. LuAnn Tafoya is represented by King Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in “Portfolio” August 2000