The historical process of preparing the clay for sculpting was similar across North America, and it is still practiced by many contemporary potters. First, clay has to be gathered. Potters find clay in rivers and streambeds and by other bodies of water. In arid regions, the clay can be found in soil deposits (Wirt, 1984, 15). Once the potters or their families collect the clay deposits, they have to remove any impurities, such as pebbles or twigs. If the clay is already moist, these impurities can be pulled out. If the clay is dry the process takes a lot longer. The clay has to be made into a texture similar to coarse flour. The potter does this first by pounding it with a larger hammer or stick (or by stomping on it) and then grinding it with a mortar and pestle (Peterson, 1997, 44). Then the potter sifts it, allowing the clay to fall or blow upwind into a blanket while the impurities stay in the basket or screen (Peterson, 1997, 43; Wirt, 1984, 16). Once the potter deems the clay free of impurities, she adds water to it and starts kneading the clay into a putty or dough consistency. While working the clay, the potter adds bits of temper, or material used to strengthen the clay and keep it from cracking during the firing process. Depending on location, temper materials usually consist of finely ground volcanic rock, quartzite, sandstone, sand, vegetable matter, and sometimes old pottery shards (Wirt, 1984, 16). The potter has to be careful to add just the right amount because too little or too much could ruin the pot during firing.
Once the potter finishes preparing the clay, she turns her attention to creating the jars, bowls, water jugs, or whatever else she plans on making. Two techniques of creating pottery obtain in North America. One technique, coiling, consists of creating long, round strips of clay that are layered on top of each other while the potter pitches and smoothes the new layer with the ones below (Peterson, 1997, 45; Wirt, 1984, 17). For larger pots, the maker starts with a flat clay base, allowing it to dry and then adding the coils. Potters sometimes also place these bases into a shallow bowl or basket for support during the coiling process (Peterson, 1997, 45). A second technique for pottery making is called the paddle and anvil (Penney, 2004, 81), or sometimes modeling and paddling (Whiteford, 1983, 13). Potters again make coils, but, instead of having the coils build from each other, the makers press the clay with an anvil or other tool into the side of a container to create the shape of the pot (Penney, 2004, 81; White-ford, 1983, 13). The clay stays inside the container until it dries, at which time the potter carefully removes it for firing. This latter technique is mainly practiced by some Southeastern tribes and by the Tohono O'odham and Yuma in the Southwest (Whiteford, 1983, 13).
For both techniques, the dried pot goes through a series of steps before it is fired. First, the potter smoothes the sides of the pot with a knife or another scraping tool (Whiteford, 1983, 14). If the potter wants to decorate the pottery, instead of just letting the gray color of the clay be the surface, she or a member of her family will then add layers of slip to the outside of the pot. Slip is a thick, paint-like mixture of clay and water that gives the pot an evenly colored surface (Whiteford, 1983, 14). If the potter does not intend on painting the pot after firing, it is polished at this point.
After this process, the pot is ready for firing. This has to be done carefully, because a balance needs to be struck between too much heat and not enough from the fire. Potters usually place multiple pots onto a grill and place firewood underneath. They then cover the entire structure with dried cakes of animal dung, which burn at a hotter and more consistent rate then wood (Whiteford, 1983, 15). The pots are usually fired for between forty-five minutes and three hours, depending on the size of the pottery and the intensity of the fire. Upon their removal from the fire, the pots are polished again to ensure an even finish (Peterson, 1997, 59; Whiteford, 1983, 15). Once the pot is cooled, the potter or a member of her family paints the design on it.
While pottery was once made over much of the United States, today some of the most famous potters live in the Southwest and the Southeast. One of the major factors behind this is the rise of Southwestern tourism in the 1880s with the creation of the Santa Fe Railroad. Potters would go up to the windows of the trains and sell to the passengers during stops, and the railroad also had a line of track that went directly to the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico (Penney, 2004, 101). Furthermore, the Fred Harvey Company did much to market Native American products, and many potters found a way to provide incomes for themselves through their skills (Peterson, 1997, 17).
The first potter to gain individual recognition was Nampeyo of Hano in Hopi First Mesa, Arizona (Peterson, 1997, 54). Nampeyo is credited with revitalizing a historical pattern called Sikytaki, which has designs painted in black, orange, and white (Penney, 2004, 102; Whiteford, 1983, 31). Tourists were extremely interested in buying this Sikytaki decorated pottery, and traders recruited Hopi women to make pottery. By the late nineteenth century, almost half of all Hopi women created pottery for tourist markets (Penney, 2004, 102). Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico was also instrumental in the revival or popularization of Native American pottery. Martinez and her husband, Julian, are credited with rediscovering how to make another style of pottery decoration (Penney, 2004, 103; Peterson, 1997, 62; Whiteford, 1983, 29). This style is called black-on-black, and the name derives from the look of the finished pot. The pot is turned black during the firing process, and then a matte, black design is painted onto the shiny black surface after it is polished and cooled (Penney, 2004, 103). The pot blackens during firing when the potter places moist manure directly on the fire, causing it to create a dense smoke that surrounds the pottery with carbon (Whiteford, 1983, 15). Maria and Julian Martinez also demonstrate how Pueblo families worked together to make the pottery. It was common for wives to make the pots, while the husbands decorated them (Penney, 2004, 102–103). In the case of the black-on-black pottery, Maria would make the pots and fire them, while Julian painted the matte designs. After Julian's death, Maria's daughter-in-law, Santana, stepped into the position as painter (Peterson, 1997, 121).
Nampeyo and Martinez were not the only potters who were influential in the early twentieth century. Many women can be credited with taking historical patterns and adding their own creativity to them, such as Lucy Martin Lewis, Margaret Tafoya, Helen Cordero, and Blue Corn (Peterson, 1997, 74–106). It was from these women that many contemporary potters gained their first training and education. Like their teachers, these potters are also taking the older designs and building on them. For instance, Barbara Gonzales, the great-grandchild of Maria and Julian Martinez, has taken her great-grandparents' shiny black finish and altered it so that red hues are also present. Gonzales also places turquoise and coral beads on the surfaces of her pottery (Peterson, 1997, 126). Other contemporary potters have risen out of their own training and ingenuity as well. One such artist is Anita Fields, who is of Osage descent. Influenced by clothing that her grandmother gave her, Fields creates pottery that captures the designs and patterns of historical Osage and other Native American societies' clothing and textile traditions.
Carolyn Speros Baughman
Feest, Christian. 1980. Native Arts of North America. New York: Oxford University Press.; Penney, David. 2004. North American Indian Art. New York: Thames and Hudson.; Peterson, Susan. 1997. Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations. New York: Abbeville Press.; Schaaf, Gregory. 2000. Pueblo Indian Pottery: 750 Artist Biographies. Volume 2. American Indian Art Series. Santa Fe, CA: Center for Indigenous Arts and Culture Press.; Whiteford, Andrew Hunter. 1983. North American Indian Arts. New York: Golden Press.; Wirt, Sharon. 1984. American Indian Pottery. Blaine, WA: Hancock House Publishers.