Al Qöyawayma

Balancing two worlds

By Lynn Pyne Davis

Al Qöyawayma remembers taking his aunt, Polingaysi Elizabeth Qöyawayma, on a trip to Oklahoma City in the late 1970s. Flying home on a passenger jet at sunset, she gazed in amazement at the tops of the clouds—the realm of the katsinas. It was a foreign experience for someone who had spent a lifetime without modern conveniences on the remote Hopi reservation in northern Arizona. “I was born in the stone age, at a time when we didn’t have electric lights or stoves or even metal pots,” she told her nephew. “I never dreamed I’d be eating dinner at 35,000 feet, skipping across the tops of the clouds.”

As a young man, Qöyawayma (pronounced ko-YAH wy-mah) spent considerable time visiting his aunt’s home, learning the traditional ways of working with clay and listening to stories that had been handed down for generations. Polingaysi advocated education as a strategy for survival in the 20th century. In her book, No Turning Back, she wrote: “I tell the young people this: Evaluate the best there is in your own culture and hang onto it, for it will be foremost in our life; but do not fail to take the best from other cultures to blend with what you already have. Don’t set limitations on yourself. If you want more and still more education, reach out for it without fear. You have in you the qualities of persistence and endurance. Use them.”

Qöyawayma followed that advice, earning advanced degrees in mechanical and control systems engineering. He worked on the development of inertial guidance systems and star trackers and then joined a major energy utility, where he formed and headed its environmental department. He also co-founded and became the first chairman of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which now has more than 300 student and professional chapters nationwide and funds scholarships for indigenous peoples. Qöyawayma’s insatiable intellectual curiosity has led him to explore the fields of arch-aeology, linguistics, ethnology, architecture, geophysics, astron-omy, nuclear physics, and other sciences—all as they relate to his interest in the origins, migrations, and cultures of Native peoples of the Americas and the Pacific Basin.


Thus did it come about that the quiet-spoken Hopi potter-sculptor who lives in Prescott, AZ, accumulated a long list of accom-plishments. Qöyawayma received a presidential appointment to be vice-chairman of the board of trustees of the Institute of American Indian Arts; he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado at Boulder for helping increase opportunities for Native Americans; and he was named alumnus of the year in 1989 by California Polytechnic State Uni-versity at San Luis Obispo, which later became the first site of his monumental sculpture. He was also awarded a Fulbright fellowship to help the Maori in the South Pacific re-establish their ancient ceramic tradition. Finally, Qöyawayma is an investigator working in collaboration with Smithsonian Institute researchers on Sikyatki ceramics.

By any measure, Qöyaway-ma has achieved exceptional success in the modern world. His widely varied accomplishments, however, account for only part of his complexity as a human being and an artist. Through the years, he has also remained firmly connected to his Hopi heritage. He tries continually and consciously to stay in touch with the ancient ways and sustain the clarity and purity he initially experienced as a youth visiting the reservation. He is a man who inhabits two worlds, the ancient and the very new.Sometimes the two worlds touch, as when a scientific discovery bears an uncanny resemblance to the myths or oral history handed down through Native tribes. For instance, distinctive architectural features and symbols found in the Yucatan region of southern Mexico appear to confirm the Hopi migration stories. Likewise, the scientific puzzle, “How did they quick-freeze a mastodon?” has some plausible answers in other Native American oral histories.

wedding vase

Such connections are a source of never-ending fascination for Qöyawayma, who left the engineering profession some years ago to become a full-time artist, working primarily in ceramics. “I have had the advantage of an education and have gained a knowledge of the technical world, yet I have found the challenge of the clay equal to any experience in that world,” Qöyawayma says.

Today he also writes poetry and does some tabletop and large-scale bronze sculpture. “By grace my Creator gives me everlasting hope. My clay gives me an artist’s life,” he says in his artist’s statement. “The spirit of my work reflects the soft hues, shadows, and forms of the high desert. The life of my work has its roots in a timeless culture, the mystery of our origins, and the links to Mesoamerica and beyond.”Undeniably, Qöyawayma’s art is inseparable from his cultural history as a Hopi of the Coyote Clan and a direct descendant of the peoples of Sikyatki, and he perceives similar echoes from the past resonating through the art of all Native peoples. Native American artists from ancient times have interpreted the world through inner spiritual eyes and have provided a nonverbal record of history. “It’s im-perfect in that each of us can only feel our piece of the proverbial elephant,” he says, “but sometimes it comes together. We share that common bond.”

At the same time, Qöyawayma’s art gives expression to his personal innovations, intellectual ideas, and contemporary aesthetic sensibilities. He reinterprets the symbols and shapes encountered in his intellectual pursuits, intuitively shaping them into the clay with a minimalist’s eye for simplicity and precision of line, form, and color. The result is a sensuous fluidity of form with a silken surface that viewers feel compelled to touch.

Inspiration for Qöya-wayma’s Awatovi Dream came from mural paintings inside kivas at Awatovi, an ancient Hopi village. The murals depict Sikyatki bowls filled with flowers. Awatovi Dream is a lidded pot in the egg-like shape of a bouquet. It has flower shapes (with cross-like petals) incised on the surface and forming a handle on the lid. To hint at the migratory connections between the Hopi people and the Mayan people of southern Mexico and Central America, he found Teotihuacan stamps in Mexico of a jaguar and bird-like symbols, which he pressed into the clay. Adding to the story are other archaeological symbols such as a hand (shown in relief using a sculptural repousse technique) and a spiral, “tee-door,” and joined double spirals (analemmas).

One of the more sensuous and unadorned forms is Path of Life, a low-shouldered, 18-inch-diameter pot with a spiral rim that symbolizes the path of life. Incised into the rim is an archaeological “tee-door,” symbolizing the entrance and exit to important events in people’s lives.Qöyawayma’s aunt Polingaysi taught him to have a sense of the clay and the philosophy of working with clay. She told him, “If I can see the beauty in my hand, if it touches my inner heart and I can mold it into harmonious beauty, then I have met the challenge.”

Qöyawayma had to learn how to replicate the lowshouldered shapes of the pots of his Sikyatki ancestors on his own. The wide, low, saucerlike shape of the Sikyatki ceramics intrigued him, but his first attempts to produce such shapes resulted in a series of disappointing collapses and cracks. He searched entire libraries for books on clay, seeking its secrets. He gained entree to major museums to pore over their ancient Sikyatki pottery and pot shards with a magnifying glass. He took advantage of knowledge gained from an advanced archaeological ceramics class at Arizona State University. His first revelation lay in the discovery that all of the Sikyatki pots had similar angles and geometric relationships, and his own pots were exceeding the tolerances of the clay. The second revelation lay in the fact that, rather than scraping the horizontal coils, the Sikyatki potters apparently had pulled the clay vertically, like taffy.


Armed with that knowledge, Qöyawayma worked another few years to perfect the composition of his clay. The result was to mix ingredients such as ground (new) pot shards and volcanic material into clay that he digs on the Hopi reservation. The mixture has the consistency of taffy but is strong and has low shrinkage.Qöyawayma also formulates his own slips, which entails never-ending experimentation to produce just the right colors, stick, and shine. He polishes the pots’ surfaces with natural stones. Sikyatki Polychrome reveals the artist’s newest direction, which is technically complex and involves polychrome painting on his pots to produce continuous gradations of color, rather than distinct, blocked areas of color used in traditional pottery.

Another current series depicts ancient architectural ruins such as Pueblo Bonito, based on Chaco Canyon, NM, and Caracol, from Chichén Itzá, a post-Classic Mayan (Toltec) site on the Yucatan peninsula of southern Mexico. Subtle architectural features may be seen in other pieces such as Voyager, which depicts rectangular col-onnades with Hopi/Mesoamerican symbols and doorways found at Mayan sites in the Yucatan and in the American Southwest. Viewed from the side, Voyager has the asymmetrical shape of a Maori sailing vessel, which hints at the possibility of
a prehistoric sea migration from Polynesia to the Americas, as suggested in ancient stories.

“The potter breathes life into the lump of clay, and the clay says, ‘Make me beautiful, make me what I am supposed to be.’ And so as the potter, I talk to the clay at every step. The clay becomes a living being when I put it in my hand,” Qöyawayma writes in his poem, “This Clay Sings,” describing the birth, trial by fire, and ancient song of the clay. He concludes: “During the creative process, I am privileged to be present, watching as the unseen hands and the gift of the Creator’s energy flows into my work. For this I am deeply thankful.”

Featured in August 2002