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Tribal Expressions Pottery Information

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Creating the pot from coils

Pottery was a functional art form produced by the agrarian Pueblos whose stable cultures have flourished for centuries upon the mesa tops and along the river bottoms of New Mexico. Even though pottery was imbued with beautiful color and design the large and small storage jars and cooking bowls served practical purposes and were used in daily life. Now, although modern potters continue to use traditional techniques of vessel formation and decoration, the purpose of pottery making has changed dramatically. It no longer is a craft produced for utilitarian household functions but one which is an aesthetic work of art. Pottery design can be traditional or innovative or a combination of both as living potters reinvent old designs in new ways making pottery one of the most dynamic forms of American Indian art.


Traditional pottery is made by hand where by the artisan shapes the sides by laying up coils of clay and then scrapes and smoothes the exterior to blend away any traces of the coils. The clay is collected by hand from deposits in the mountains or along streams and river and is subsequently soaked and strained to get the fine texture needed. Temper, a finely ground material is added to clay to prevent it from becoming too pliable and wet. The temper is made from sand, ground rock, volcanic cinders or pulverized pieces of pottery. The ratio of temper to clay is important as not enough will cause the piece to shrink and crack when fired and too much will cause the piece to crumble when fired.


A stone is used to polish



painting with a yucca brush

Two types of paints, called slips, vegetal and mineral are used for decoration of Pueblo Indian pottery. Vegetal slip is made from boiling spring leaves and stems, especially of the Rocky Mountain bee plant. The thick juice is dried and formed into cakes and dissolved with water when needed. Vegetal slip soaks into the polished surface and chars to a black color when fired. Since the material soaks in, the surface retains its polish. Mineral slips are of various types, red, orange, tan, and similar earth colors are derived from various clays. Mineral paints adhere to the surface resulting in a dull matte finish and show tinges of brown color, whereas vegetal paints are sooty black.


Distinctive pottery is produced by each Pueblo, family or clan based upon variations in clays, characteristic forms, decorative processes and methods of firing. Because baked clay is such an enduring substance, Southwest pottery provides an unbroken record of artistic styles from prehistoric cultures to the present. The coil method, preferred by modern potters, obtaining exceptional beauty and symmetry without any mechanical aids, is the same as the Anasazi used to build pottery in the Southwest over a thousand years ago.

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