Russell Sanchez | Translating Tradition

By Gussie Fauntleroy

(l to r) Clay pot with bear lid, 8 x 6. Clay black pot, 3 3/4 x 3. Clay vase, 8 1/4 x 6 1/2.New Mexico’s Russell Sanchez blends old traditions and new ideas

It’s easy to see why Russell Sanchez has been called an innovator and even a modernist for continually exploring new directions in his work. But that’s not how the award-winning San Ildefonso Pueblo potter sees it. “I’m a traditionalist all the way through,” he asserts, his brown eyes steady, his manner quiet but warm. “Innovation is part of our tradition. You use the same materials and tools that you have, and the same design elements, and the Clay Mother will come through you for what she wants you to do,” he explains. “Instead of doing the same cloud pattern or serpent pattern, you take that and make it your own. So, in fact, everything I’m doing is old, but new.”

When Sanchez gathers natural clay in interesting colors, when he forms an unusual shape or adds a narrow band of copper leaf to a pot, when he inlays a row of tiny heishi (fine turquoise beads), he is doing just what he was taught to do as a boy. He says of his great-aunt Rose Gonzales, “Rose and the other potters told me, ‘You can be inspired by what other people do, but make it your own. Let it come from you.’” The artist recalls boyhood days in northern New Mexico when he would sit for hours and watch the older San Ildefonso potters work.

Now 43, with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and dressed in plaid shorts and polo shirt, Sanchez lives a contemporary lifestyle in other ways as well. An avid hiker, rafter, and kayaker, he’s traveled to Africa and navigated untamed South American rivers. He always returns home to take part in his pueblo’s ceremonial life, though, and what he brings back from far-flung places includes nature-inspired design ideas and even bags of clay.

Growing up at San Ildefonso Pueblo—which is north of Santa Fe, borders the cottonwood-lined Rio Grande River, and includes a striking solitary mountain called Black Mesa, a sacred landform for the tribe—Sanchez remembers being always outdoors. He would ride his bike to the base of Black Mesa and climb to the top, or climb trees, or get caught in an arroyo in a flash flood. But he also spent time helping his great-aunt Rose and other potters gather clay from their favorite spots.

Rose was known for reviving the art of deep carving on San Ildefonso pottery in the 1940s and ’50s. In the way of the older potters, she provided no formal training but patiently answered young Russell’s endless stream of questions as she worked. She gave him clay to roll into coils to form into his own small pots. She showed him how to fire the pots outdoors and encouraged him, when he was about 10, to set the results out on a table in the pueblo’s plaza to sell. All 16 pots were bought, so Sanchez went home with $72 that day. “That stuck in my head,” he smiles. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

Clay plate with turquoise, 11 x 1 1/4.Even as a boy, Sanchez was eager to experiment with clay, to honor what he’d learned while starting to try things his own way. Among the older potters he admired were Popovi Da, son of the legendary Maria Martinez, as well as Popovi Da’s son, Tony Da. Like much of the work of these great potters, the earliest vessels Sanchez made were “black on black,” created by covering the pot with dung during firing and then smothering the fire at a certain point. He soon moved into red and tan pots, which are produced without dung. He began deep carving, and also followed the example of Tony Da by adding sgraffito, or finely incised designs, on the surface of polished pots.

Another vital perspective on art, and life, came from potter Dora Tse Pe. “I picked up being a perfectionist from Dora,” Sanchez says. “I don’t let a pot go until I think it’s ready. I’ve had pots sitting there for months that I don’t think are ready, and then an idea will come, from anywhere, anytime, and it’s like, OK, that’s what this pot needs. That’s what they tell you at home [on the pueblo]: When the time is ready, it will happen. That’s when you finish up and let it go.”

This uncompromising approach means galleries and collectors must be as patient as the artist is. “He really lives with his art as it’s being created, because the pieces speak to him,” says Jill Giller, owner of Native American Collections, Inc. in Denver, CO. “If he sees anything in a pot that doesn’t feel really right, he will not hesitate to strip it down and start over, even if it means months of work undone. So we have to honor that and respect that, and wait it out with him.”

Clearly, many believe it’s worth the wait. Sanchez’s widely collected work has earned first-place ribbons at Santa Fe Indian Market every time he’s entered it in competition since 1977, when he was just 14. Along with a drawer full of blue ribbons, there have been many best-of-class and best-of-division awards. At the 2006 Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, the artist again earned best of class, this time for a black-and-red wedding vase with a band of copper leaf and heishi. His pottery is also in the collections of major museums, among them the Heard, Smithsonian, Denver Art Museum, Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles, and Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe.

No matter how skillful he has become, Sanchez has never been content to endlessly repeat a design or form. “I like to switch things around all the time so I won’t get bored,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll do things in a series, like canteens, but now lately I’ve jumped to the terrace shape.” His terraced jar features a gently stepped lip on one side, with the exposed inside upper neck highly polished to match the outside. A recent terraced pot was incised with San Ildefonso cloud and thunder designs.

Another unusual piece is what the artist calls his cliff pot. With its lip dipping down in a graceful asymmetric curve and an indentation in the vessel’s side, the pot has its genesis in a Grand Canyon rafting trip. Captured by the beauty of the setting sun as it lit up the side of a cliff, the potter envisioned his hands shaping clay and thought, “Wow, that’ll work!” The indented pot with its two-toned surface reminds him of the canyon wall and the way its color changes where it’s touched by the sun.

Among the more distinguishing features of Sanchez’s work is the use of two or more distinctively colored clay slips on a single pot. “A lot of potters do one color and then paint on it in different colors, but I thought, ‘No, why not two clays?’” he says. Along with tan and red slips, he often uses clay in shades of green or pink. Once, a clay slip he thought would be brown turned maroon in the firing. He realized a single type of clay may end up in different shades after different firings since the temperature can vary with an outdoor fire.

One thing Sanchez does exactly as his ancestors did is burnish his pots with polishing stones. Some of his stones belonged to his grandmother, others to his great-aunt. Different polishing stones are used for different shapes and various areas of the pot, he explains. “With stones, the older they are, and the more worn out, the better they get. With new ones we say, in Tewa, it’s like ‘training’ the stone. We start polishing a pot with the new stone and then finish with the old.”

Sanchez prepares clay and creates pots in the house he inherited from his grandparents. This summer he’s hoping to complete a separate studio. He’s had to build it in stages so as not to disturb activities, such as dances, taking place on the pueblo. “We’re one of the more traditional pueblos, and I’m glad we are,” he points out. “I think ceremony and tradition are a big part of Native American art, because culture and identity define who you are. A lot of my ideas come from what I live by and what I see.”

Sanchez’s pottery is defined, as well, by the highest quality materials he can find, including Lone Mountain turquoise and fine heishi. “I think people should use the best materials available to them and not take shortcuts,” he believes. “It goes back to what Dora and the other potters taught me: ‘Wait for the best.’”

Sanchez is represented by Native American Collections, Denver, CO; Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; and King Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in August 2006