Jody Folwell | A Timeless Act

Folwell preparing her clay. photo, southwest art.
Folwell preparing her clay

By Diza Sauers

“The sun rises with the pot calling my name. We must hurry and run across the sage hills to find our collective thoughts. As I listen to the songs of Mother Earth whisper gently about the generations of clay people, timeless shapes, colors, and designs start to form.” —Jody Folwell

Born in Santa Clara Pueblo in 1942, Jody Folwell remains one of the best known of the avant-garde potters. Her work has won numerous major awards and been acquired by nationally known museums as well as important private collectors. Yet despite her legendary reputation in the world of pottery, Folwell is approachable and friendly. She warmly welcomes a guest to her sunny studio and begins her daily work, the task of bringing a pot to life.

“Clay speaks and slowly claims its form,” she says calmly. “The clay people are always guiding me. I am the vessel. With clay I am neither in the past nor the present. Making pots is a timeless act, and when I am at work, I travel to a timeless place.”

The pot Folwell is currently working on started its life more than two years ago, when she and her family dug the clay on the Santa Clara reservation. The chunks of clay were then placed on large tables to dry in the sun. After seven months of curing, Folwell put the dry clay into five-gallon containers and poured hot water over it to melt it down. This turns the clay into a pasty, slurry-like substance.

Adding a coil to the pot. photo, southwest art.
Adding a coil to the pot

Next Folwell forced the slurry through sieves of various sizes to remove debris. For example, a 60-mesh screen allows some grit to remain in the clay—it is used for larger pots whose walls require more substance. A finer 80-mesh screen is used for smaller pots, allowing for a more refined texture.

After the debris has been removed, the clay is ready to be mixed with an equal amount of volcanic ash that has been gathered from the Pojoaque pueblo. Folwell kneads the clay and ash together with her feet. “Making clay involves all parts of me,” she says. As she rhythmically dances to the tune of the clay’s song, she prepares the material for the next stage of forming and structuring. “My daughter, Polly Rose, once said that pottery is form and structure. Everything else is secondary. This is the thought that stays with me,” Folwell says.

Smoothing the inside. photo, southwest art.
Smoothing the inside

Then the clay must age for several months. She adds a bit of potato peel wrapped in rags to the mixture to assist in the aging process. “I used to put the mixed clay on the cement floor in large canvases to help with the aging,” Folwell explains. “That would take six months or more, and I decided there had to be a better way. After reading a book about 12th- and 13th century Japanese potters, I learned that they used this method. The potato peel starts bacterial growth that melds the ash and clay.”

Today, sitting in Folwell’s studio, the clay has aged into a lovely, supple substance that gives way beneath the potter’s skilled and patient hands. As she kneads it to the right consistency, she ascends into the world of form and design. Her experimental work has long placed her in a different realm from traditional potters. Her asymmetrical and non-traditional shapes have given rise to a new school of thought for young potters.

Sanding the pot. photo, southwest art.
Sanding the pot

Placing her puki, or base mold, before her, Folwell begins to form the clay base for the pot. After scraping and cleaning the inside of the base, the first coil is meticulously placed, starting the life of the pot. Coil after coil, its shape emerges. From the narrow base a 30-degree angle forms. Slowly, the pot rises into a strong, handsome shoulder. From the shoulder it slopes upward to form a small lip, and the pot takes flight into a classic Pueblo shape.

Over the next few days as the pot dries, Folwell turns it daily and weighs possible designs and color schemes.  An idea came while she was jogging with her dogs, she says. In the early morning sun, the dappled sage rose up in the distance, commanding a moment’s reflection. “I stood there watching the shifting brown sand dissolve and blend with the sage, and the way those two colors sang and danced together told me the right color combination. It was right there before me,” she says.

Delighted with her moment of inspiration, Folwell nonetheless waits until the pot is leather-hard; then she begins to consider how to accommodate the pot’s emerging design. Using an X-acto knife, she deeply carves the pot into three separate panels. “By cutting into the pot I’m beginning to see how the colors are going to claim the surface,” she says, using a slow and even stroke. Then she leaves the pot to finish drying and begin to take on a life of its own.

Applying the slip. photo, southwest art.
Applying the slip

Feeling the cool dryness of the pot a few days later alerts Folwell that it is time to sand, to reshape and design the pot. A 50-grit sandpaper is used to cut into the skin of the pot. Slowly, a new, cleaner shape emerges; then a slightly finer sandpaper is used to round off the edges. Shuffling through the different grades, Folwell settles on 60-grit. “This will be perfect for a red polish surface,” she says, which during the firing process will yield a shade of brown similar to the sand that inspired her. “It will provide a slightly scratched surface that will let the red clay slip adhere to the pot.” Gently blowing the dust away, Folwell is finally pleased with the finished product. “Now we’re ready for the most difficult stage of all,” she says quietly. “Polishing.”

Polishing the pot. photo, southwest art.
Polishing the pot

The conditions for polishing must be right. The air must be cool and still. Consequently, in the New Mexico climate, the task of polishing must start at dawn, when the world is calm and cool. First, a creamy red clay slip (a mixture of clay and water) is painted onto a section of the pot. While the clay slip is wet, Folwell polishes the vase with a stone that has been passed down through generations of Naranjo and Folwell family potters. This process—applying a coat of slip and then pushing it gently into the pot with the stone—is repeated until eight coats have been applied to the surface. Then a coat of grease is applied. As she steadily works the grease into the pot with rhythmic strokes, the final brilliant sheen emerges.

Slowly the color and design appear as Folwell adds a soft, “thumb-polished” green slip that contrasts with the high red stone polish. Santo Domingo white slip fills in another panel and is polished to a fine sheen. As she works the stone she explains, “Even at this stage I’m constantly thinking about what will come next. Already the colors and shapes are telling me how to fire the pot, since that will determine the final colors we find.”

Firing is an art in itself, and firing traditions are passed down for generations. Each family in Santa Clara observes their own certain rules. During the past 25 years, Folwell has experimented with different materials and techniques to get a wide range of colors from the traditional clay slip and firing.

Firing the pot in a metal container. photo, southwest art.
Firing the pot in a metal container

The firing process must take place early in the morning, when not too much moisture is present either on the ground or in the air. The vase is placed in a metal container. Folwell carefully stacks white cedar logs and cow manure up and around the container. Enough wood must be used to reach the required temperature of 950 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, as the blaze begins to die back, she observes the color changes in the vase. As the color gradually shifts from red and green and white to a charcoal gray, a few more slats of cedar are added to raise the temperature. The vase is fired when the inside of the tin container and the vase both glow a brilliant orange. “If you listen closely,” Folwell says, “A song can be heard rising from the container. It tells me, ‘I am ready to take flight.’”

At the right moment, the vase is pulled out and placed in another container with smoking horse manure. As the clay cools, it inhales the smoke and slowly changes color. The vase takes on a honey brown color, with a smoky sage green stripe running along the middle section of the pot and swirling all the way up to the lip.

Carving the design. photo, southwest art.
Carving the design

It is with a great deal of excitement that we return a week later to see what the pot has become. During this visit Folwell places the vase in front of her, carefully considering possibilities for its finishing touches. “An adventure is created with every pot,” she says. “They are all different from the other. There are no repetitions. Each pot tells its owns story.”

As she turns the vase, she shows us how the design has already changed. “After the firing I found that the white section didn’t hold balance with the red and the green so I sanded it off,” she explains. “Underneath I found this lovely soft charcoal gray color running through the surface. The green and the misty gray are solemn and work together. The balance is now even, and the cool colors remind me of the monolithic qualities of the Ramses ruins in Egypt.”

Jody Folwell s finished pot. photo, southwest art.
Jody Folwell’s finished pot

Folwell studies the vase again, the honey-brown section now drawing her attention. “This color is soft and gentle; it will require a light design that moves,” she says. “Possibly birds in flight, those beautiful old Japanese pen-and-ink drawings, the way those delicate, quick strokes create flight.”

This quickly becomes an exciting thought, and Folwell disappears into the intricate work of scratching fine lines into the pot’s surface. As the afternoon sun fades, she works steadily. Beneath her hands, long-necked cranes rise up out of the reeds and stretch their wings. Outside, the dusk settles in earnest. In the reverent silence of her studio, it is not such a stretch of the imagination to feel the clay people joining us silently, wandering into the form and design of the pot, claiming these elegant, long-necked birds as their own.

“What a story for the day,” Folwell finally says quietly. Between us, on her lap, the newly arrived pot rests, the cranes just lifting into flight, vanishing in the early twilight air.

Folwell’s work can be seen at Indian Market August 18-19 at booth #951LIN. A private viewing of her work can be seen at the Folwell Home Show on August 17 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Española Convento Church in Santa Clara Pueblo. For additional information, call 505.747.4734.

Featured in “Works in Progress” August 2001