Nathan Youngblood | Learning from his Ancestors


Carved Cookie Jar, H 14. pottery, southwest art.
Carved Cookie Jar, H 14.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Nathan Youngblood rises every morning to breathtaking views of the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sandia Mountains to the south. The mountains change colors with the seasons, and the sunsets over them are magnificent all year long when seen from his home southwest of Santa Fe, NM. The accomplished potter says the scenery and sunsets feed his soul. Likewise, he says, “For art to be art, it has to feed the soul.”

Youngblood is ruminating about beauty and art from his studio, which is situated in the dry high-desert country where grassy plains lead to mountain foothills. Cabinets bursting with clay pots waiting to be burnished and fired surround him. He is just 40 miles from the Santa Clara pueblo home of his ancestors, who are famous for their fine pottery.

At 44, Youngblood himself is well known for the robust forms, deep carvings, and highly polished finishes of his works. His designs on vessels, jars, bowls, and plates tell a story, and he regularly draws on the traditional symbols of the Santa Clara people feathers, water serpents, and clouds. Certain themes emerge often in his work earth, wind, fire, and water.

Nathan Youngblood potter, southwest art.
Nathan Youngblood

Youngblood’s grandmother, legendary potter Margaret Tafoya, and her husband Alcario have been major influences on his art, Youngblood says. When he was 20 he moved in with his grandparents, who lived in the pueblo. His apprenticeship with the talented couple lasted for several years. From his grandfather he learned aspects of carving and designing; from his grandmother he learned about burnishing and firing pottery. “My grandmother and I would sit directly across from each other. I would mirror everything she was doing,” Youngblood says.

He adds proudly that his grandmother is 95, and she still makes pottery. In the 1920s Margaret Tafoya was one of the first participants in the Santa Fe Indian Market. For two years in a row she won Best of Division, Best of Class, and Best of Show awards there. She won the honors in 1978 for a large red storage jar with an impressed bear-paw design and in 1979 for a large black storage jar with the same decoration.

Youngblood employs the traditional bonfire firing method. photo, southwest art.
Youngblood employs the traditional bonfire firing method.

Today Youngblood incorporates the bear-paw design in his own work, especially on vessels used to carry water. The story behind the bear-paw symbol is part of Native American folklore, Youngblood says. The legend goes something like this: At the turn of the last millennium there was a great drought in the Southwest. The Hopi people sent a brave to find a water source. The brave thought if he could find an animal, the creature would lead him to water. After days he came across a bear and followed it to a hidden spring. He filled his canteen and returned to the village with the good news. “It’s believed that the bear saved the people, and the symbol of the bear paw is a sign of respect,” Youngblood says.

The legends and lessons Youngblood learned at his grandmother’s side are many and profound, he says. One valuable lesson she taught him was that potters must respect the clay, which sometimes has a mind of its own.

Carved egg, approximately H12. Assymetrical Vase, H15. pottery southwest art.
Carved egg, approximately H12. Assymetrical Vase, H15.

Youngblood relates a personal parable to illustrate the point. Years ago he made a large jar with a tall, thick neck. He carved a design on the surface and burnished it. After he finished the burnishing process he noticed a small crack in the lip, so he sanded off the cracked portion and burnished the piece again. The neck cracked again. After the piece cracked two more times and he sanded it, the neck disappeared. “The piece just wanted to be a bowl,” Youngblood says with a laugh. “That was one of the first lessons my grandmother taught me the clay is going to do what the clay wants to do.”

Over the years, the artist has discovered that each day unfolds differently and each pot is a learning experience. It’s wise, Youngblood says, not to carve plans in stone. There are times when he sets out to make a small bowl, but by the time he is finished the bowl has evolved into a big jar. Some weeks he plans to make six large pots, but he ends up with 12 medium-sized ones instead. “Where it goes, it goes,” he reasons philosophically.

Teardrop Plate, 151⁄2 x 131⁄2. pottery, southwest art.
Teardrop Plate, 151⁄2 x 131⁄2.

Both his mother and grandmother have tried to teach him patience, but Youngblood says it’s one of the most difficult lessons for him to learn. Experience has taught him that the best way to handle his impatience and desire for perfection is to work slowly. “I prefer to create fewer pieces, spend longer on each one, and be a perfectionist on each piece,” he says. “I may have only 40 or 50 pieces a year I consider good enough to sell.”

He has also learned through experience to adjust technical steps when they are not working. For example, early in his career he was firing several pots at a time. If he made a mistake with one pot, it destroyed the others in the process. “I finally realized that when you put 300 to 400 hours into each piece, you shouldn’t risk destroying all the pots by trying to save 20 minutes or an hour [in the firing process],” Youngblood says.

Today he fires one pot at a time in a traditional bonfire method: He places four empty soup cans in a square. Next he places a metal milk crate on top of the soup cans and puts a piece of pottery inside. He then covers the crate with a sheet of tin and builds a fire with cedar wood under the crate. Before lighting the fire he places more cedar on the tin lid. Once the flames begin to build, he places pine boards around the perimeter of the homemade oven. “If I lose a piece, at least it’s only one piece,” Youngblood says.

Youngblood first moved to New Mexico in 1968, when he was 14. When his father Walton, a career Army officer, was dispatched to Vietnam at the height of the war, his mother Mela returned to the Santa Clara pueblo to live near her family and raise her children. After the war ended and their father returned, Youngblood and his sister Nancy also a prominent potter today spent their early years on the move. The military family lived in cities across the country and abroad in the Netherlands.

Raised in the Southern Baptist religion, Youngblood believes spirituality is a key part of the creative act. Before each stage of the pottery-making process, he says a short prayer asking for guidance and for good things to happen. When he is feeling particularly stressed, as sometimes happens when he’s preparing for one of four gallery shows each year, Youngblood also finds solace in a certain picture. The picture, which hangs on his studio wall, shows a monk slumped over a table in total exhaustion. “It says something like, ‘Lord, grant me the strength to complete this self-imposed and totally unnecessary challenge,’” Youngblood says. Prayer and a sense of humor help him remain positive and persistent.

Occasionally, when he needs a break from his work, he turns to gardening, his second passion in life. Apple, pear, peach, apricot, and plum trees dot his property. He also grows vegetables and herbs: squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, chives, garlic, parsley, and basil. “I like to make and grow things. It’s a great pleasure to see something evolve and mature,” Youngblood says. His wife, Anne, grows a variety of flowers, but they are of less interest to him. “If I am going to put that much effort into growing something, I want to eat it,” Youngblood says.

Recently he has added a new form to his pottery portfolio an egg shape. Youngblood says his wife gave him a book about Faberge eggs several years ago as a Christmas present. He has a longstanding interest in the Russian eggs from a historical and a technical point of view. The book allowed him to study the egg at length and inspired him to begin creating egg-shaped forms.

Although a few Native American art aficionados were less than enamored with the nontraditional form, the piece was included in the Head, Heart, and Hands exhibit at the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery in Louisville in 1998. Youngblood is one of 32 Native American artists featured in the show, all of whom combine tradition with 20th-century art forms. The exhibit traveled to four galleries and museums this year and concludes at the American Craft Museum in New York, NY, from August 19 through October 10.

When asked if his future goals include rivaling his grandmother in the history books, Youngblood’s answer is an emphatic no. “My feeling about my grandmother as far as pottery goes is that she will always be the master and I will always be the student,” he says. Youngblood sums up his future goals with a mantra he lives by every day: Create every piece as if it is the last piece you will ever do. “Fifty to 100 years from now, when people look at my work, I want them to say, ‘This guy put everything he had into this piece,’” Youngblood says.

Photos courtesy the artist and Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM; King Galleries of Scottsdale, AZ; and Adobe East, Summit, NJ.

Featured in August 1999