Native Arts | Katheleen Nez


By Dottie Indyke

In 1954, Katheleen Nezwas born to Navajo parents in Tuba City, AZ. As an infant, she was adopted by a white couple and raised in Los Angeles in a neighborhood where blacks, Latinos, and Asians freely mingled. Given her background, Nez didn’t have ancestral customs to rely on—thus, her personal and artistic traditions evolved as products of her own invention.

Indeed, one of the defining aspects of Nez’s functional stoneware is its multiculturalism. Her platters, bowls, vases, and teapots are as much influenced by the ceramic techniques of England and Japan as by the symmetrical, geometric design motifs of the ancient Anasazi people of the American Southwest and the whimsical animals depicted by Mexico’s Mimbres culture. One of Nez’s tall, slender vases, painted with dragonflies, is distinctly Asian; a potbellied vessel is evidently Pueblo-inspired.

This eclecticism began while she was a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Although she started out majoring in printmaking, once Nez discovered ceramics she barely left the pottery studio. Under the tutelage of teacher Ralph Pardington, she fired the kilns and threw dinnerware and other functional pieces on a wheel. “The other students would mimic the shapes and designs of their ancestor’s stoneware,” Nez recalls. “But I didn’t have that inspiration.”

A persistent experimenter, Nez sometimes emulates the effect of wood firing in a gas kiln. She has shifted from pots with designs only on the rim to completely painted surfaces. Many of her pieces are made with a simple feldspar glaze called “shino” that originated in Japan and has caught on in the United States.

“The way shino is fired has a lot to do with the results,” Nez says. “Somehow carbon gets trapped under the surface of the glaze and creates little gray clouds. With shino, you get a range of warm colors, from oranges to reds and browns.”

Nez’s work is all wheel-thrown—coiling has never appealed to her, and early on she discovered her talent for using a wheel. Her pieces are shaped, trimmed, and dried, then fired at relatively low temperatures. Each is painted by hand, covered with a wax resist, and then glazed and fired at 2,300 degrees to ensure its usability.

Making each piece functional is integral to Nez’s goals but also painstaking. Her elegant teapots, for instance, must be assembled in pieces, with the body, the spout, and the lid shaped separately, then put together like an item of clothing. She designs the lids to be heavy so they don’t fall out when tea is poured, the spouts with sharp edges to prevent drips, and handles made of bamboo so they’re cool to the touch.

The care she takes to create form for function is one of the reasons why Nez was invited to participate in the recent group show Objects for Use at the American Craft Museum in New York City. One of only three works by Native artists in the exhibit, Nez’s entry was a casserole dish with six bowls and a ladle.

“I made several forms to test my ideas,” Nez says. “I had to see how the lid fit, how easy it was to grab the handle of the dish with an oven mitt, how the dish would be used. All of the bowls were different shapes with different feet and different designs.”

Each piece in the set was painted with Anasazi-inspired geometric designs, which Nez acknowledges attract her not so much because of their historical significance as their inherent mathematical nature. Studying the freehand painting on her vessels, one discovers that the entire design stems from a single circumference line.

Asked what she thinks distinguishes her work, Nez names the blending of prehistoric designs and studio pottery to create something new. “I didn’t participate in Native culture, but my childhood is no less valid than the childhood of someone growing up on the reservation,” she muses. “And I probably would have taken a whole different direction had I done so. My upbringing encouraged me to revel in my individuality and made me more willing to take chances.

“I don’t even care to think ‘what if.’ This is what happened. Maybe that’s the thing that excites me about ceramics. It’s the element of the unknown.

Featured in September 2002