A Future Coiled in Clay

In 1922 the first Santa Fe Indian Market, or Indian Fair, opened in a world recently beset by war, pandemic and economic uncertainty. On the centenary of this event, the market finds itself contending with similar situations.

By Charles S. King



Santa Fe New Mexican



This first fair was created to promote Native arts — specifically Pueblo pottery — and the impact of pottery on Native arts has remained strong over the decades. Native potters have been at the forefront of the transition from functional to folk to fine art. Over the years, the medium has found a balance between contemporary and traditional trends and has encouraged creative freedom. It has led the way in artistic innovation, opening similar doors in other art forms. The demands and interests of artists, buyers and sellers have also created an evolution in Native pottery. Today the tradition is vibrant and inventive, leading us to contemplate how it will change over the next 100 years. Pueblo pottery has a strong foundation in its connection to place and cultural identity. In the early 1900s, pottery was created for ceremonial and utilitarian purposes. Each pueblo resourced local clay beds to create vessels. Processing the clay could take months, and each piece was coil-built by hand and fired outdoors. The curio and art markets of New Mexico generated the transition from using pottery at home for holding food and water to selling pots to local dealers. These dealers then resold the pottery to the burgeoning national tourist market. Shifts in style, form, design The Indian Fair of 1922 marked a seminal moment of transition in Pueblo art. Maria Martinez and her husband, Julian Martinez (both San Ildefonso Pueblo), introduced their first piece of black-on-black pottery in July 1920 at the Museum of New Mexico. The innovative painted black ware marked not just a transition of surface color from the typical polychrome pottery of San Ildefonso Pueblo. The potters also introduced new shapes and designs. These were definitely pieces made to be sold and no longer used in the home. The impact of this dramatic shift in style, form and design was so readily accepted that by 1922, almost every San Ildefonso potter was making distinctive black ware vessels. Similar shifts occurred at other pueblos as potters created more varied styles and forms to participate in the growing pottery market. It wasn't until the 1960s that another wave of innovation began to change the world of Pueblo pottery. Potters started to explore ancestral vessels, such as Mimbres pottery of the 1100s, for design and shape inspirations. Acoma potters Lucy Lewis, Marie Z. Chino, Jesse Garcia and Juana Leno focused on blackand-white geometric and graphic patterns, in contrast to more classical multicolor imagery. In 1968 Maria Martinez's grandson Tony Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo) created pieces with etched Mimbres-inspired designs along with inset stones and heishi beads. In 1970 Joseph Lonewolf (Santa Clara Pueblo) took this technique one step further with his sgraffito (lightly etched) designs, finding inspiration not only in Mimbres imagery but also in the natural world. Margaret Tafoya (Santa Clara Pueblo), famous for her massive storage jars, began firing pieces individually instead of in large groups in the early 1970s. She spent more time on each piece, with less risk of damage during the outdoor firing, improving the overall quality of the pottery. These visual and technical improvements set the stage for the next generation of potters. The next generation Nancy Youngblood (Santa Clara Pueblo), Tammy Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo), Nathan Youngblood (Santa Clara Pueblo), Russell Sanchez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Al Qoyawayma (Hopi) and Dextra Quotskuyva (Hopi-Tewa) were among the first “fine art” Native potters. They were not just technicians, creating nearly perfect surfaces and designs, but were creative voices in their individual styles, pushing the clay to new limits in the 1990s and early 2000s. The strength of their clay art was rewarded not only in Indian Market prizes and accolades but also in public and collector excitement and the encouragement of artistic innovation. Traditional pottery forms and designs have become seamlessly interwoven with the growing strength of the contemporary pottery movement. Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) and Diego Romero (Cochiti Pueblo) incorporate social commentary and Indigenous futurism into their works. Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lokata) use clay in combination with metal and cloth to create larger-than-life pieces. Many potters combined commercial clay with native clay to create larger vessels. The surfaces are painted not just with pigments from plants (such as Rocky Mountain beeweed) but also with acrylics, underglazes and other materials, as in the work of Les Namingha (Hopi-Tewa/Zuni) and Susan Folwell (Santa Clara Pueblo). The time and risk of traditional outdoor firing have partially given way to the safety and ease of electric kilns. The world of Native pottery is also seeing the start of 3D printing with clay and other technological innovations. While the early focus of Santa Fe Indian Market was on the artists of the Southwest, the modern market includes Caddo, Cherokee, Potawatomi and numerous other tribal representations, with artists such as Chase Kawinhut Earles (Caddo) and Jason Wesaw (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi) reviving traditions and incorporating clay into other mediums. Looking back, looking forward The centenary of Indian Market is a moment to reflect on the dynamic changes in form, design and conceptual content of pottery over the years. As in 1922, there is a fulminating sense of new direction, new opportunities and new techniques in an artistic environment focused on clay as an art form that transcends craft. In the future, where will Native pottery find its voice, creativity and artistic spirit? What do today's potters envision and hope for subsequent generations? Jennifer Tafoya (Santa Clara Pueblo) stressed the continued importance of using local clay. “I think they should continue to use native clay. It's what makes [the pottery] ours. If you buy commercial clay, it no longer speaks directly to our Pueblo culture.” Stephanie Tafoya (Santa Clara Pueblo) remarked, “We are still using the same methods as we did 100 years ago, which is incredible. We gather our clay from the same source, coilbuild each piece, stone-polish and traditionally fire outside. It's vital we keep those traditions strong and pass them on to the next generation.” Joseph Lugo (Santa Clara Pueblo) commented, “Our tradition is in the clay. Traditional pottery is doing the process yourself, including digging the clay, respecting our ancestors and thanking the earth for providing the clay for us. The Pueblo pottery from a century ago is timeless and can remain an important source of inspiration in the future.” Jared Tso (Diné) added, “In the future, markets will shift and the values of our society will change. In the world of art, and specifically pottery, there is the maker and the appreciator (community or collector). Our perspective of what a ‘vessel' is will change. It might be more lenient. Materials will change and there will be less emphasis on ‘traditional' firing techniques.” Stephanie Tafoya added, “In the future there will be another revival of ancestral Pueblo pottery. There will be a desire for simplistic and classic designs going back to when pieces were imperfect and rough. People crave experiencing and understanding the past.” Chase Kawinhut Earles offers a non-southwestern perspective on the expansion of the art form: “The growing regional movements like that in southeastern or southwestern Native arts will become more mainstream and create more avenues for Native arts to expand nationally and internationally to include Native communities with little to no representation or art initiatives.” Thematically, the potters see a continued expansion of design. Jennifer Tafoya said, “The evolution of designs is in tandem with the evolution of the art. It has changed so much in the past 100 years, and I have seen how much my work has changed over the past several decades. I can see in the pottery of my son [Ty Moquino, Santa Clara Pueblo] that he likes anime and sci-fi, and these interests inspire his creativity.” She continued, “There will be more texture, layers and colors. There are more stories to be heard through these pieces. It's an art form that is consistently evolving and changing, and artists are truly challenging themselves to create something new.” Russell Sanchez (San Ildefonso Pueblo) often quotes his great-aunt Rose Gonzales (San Ildefonso Pueblo), who said, “Take this and make it your own” — that is, build on the foundation given by your mentors and teachers to create an individual style. Or, as Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) is known for saying, “Never stop creating.” The evolution from utilitarian ware to fine art has taken nearly a century. Earles sees “a maturation of clay art into fully recognized Native fine art with a move into more specialized fine art movements centered around specific worldwide social, political and environmental topics.” Stephanie Tafoya added, “There's a necessity to protect our Mother Earth and have a sustainable future. We see those effects and are striving to make a change in order to survive. Our ancestors got it right; it's important we use those teachings with the technology we have today.” Autumn Borts-Medlock (Santa Clara Pueblo) understands the complexity of our quickly changing society. However, she said, “I'm passing down the knowledge of the clay to my daughter, Rochelle. She is learning how to gather the clay, mix it and coil-build a piece. Even if she doesn't use these skills, when she is grown and has a child of her own, I want her to pass on this knowledge of clay and culture.” Stephanie Tafoya offered a fitting conclusion: “Clay is Mother Earth. If there is a respect for Mother Earth, then I think we'll have a deeper appreciation and honor the past by going back to the absolute core of Pueblo pottery. Like the great revivalists and innovators before us, such as Nampeyo of Hano, Maria Martinez, Margaret Tafoya and so many others, there will be another great revival in the future. The next revival will be influenced by the traditions of the past and the cultural relevance of the times.” Charles S. King, owner of King Galleries in Santa Fe and Scottsdale, is the author of “Spoken through Clay, Born of Fire: The Art of Margaret Tafoya,” “The Art and Life of Tony Da,” and “Virgil Ortiz: Revolution.” He has served as a judge at Santa Fe Indian Market and at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market.