My needle always settles between west and southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side. – Henry David Thoreau
I discovered this line in a Thoreau essay titled Walking. It expresses how I feel about the Southwest more eloquently than I could do myself.
What is it that inspires me to return again and again to this rugged, sometimes lonely place ? I think just about everything – the wide open, un-blemished spaces; the soft, pale colors of ancient mesas, sprawling desert and deeply cut canyons that define the landscape; the clear, pure light; the shifting weather and dramatic skies; the high elevation and dry air; the tumultuous history of this place and the blended cultures of today; the museums and galleries (equally educational); and Native American art and artists.
While there are fine art painters of all stripes in the Santa Fe and Taos areas, and galleries that specialize in Spanish Colonial art, Cowboy art or Western art, Native American textiles, sculpture and jewelery, my special weakness is for polychrome Pueblo pottery. Although I admire the diverse work of many talented Native American potters, my favorite pieces are made by Zuni potter Anderson Peynetsa.
When I finalized my plans to attend Indian Market this year (Indian Market is a once a year juried show of Native American art held in the streets of downtown Santa Fe on the 3rd weekend of August and produced by SWAIA). I quickly scanned the exhibitor listing for Anderson’s name. YES, he would be there and I was thrilled that I would be able to meet him and see some of his new work.
On the first day of Indian Market, I arrived in downtown Santa Fe around 6 AM and made several passes by his booth hoping that he would be there. Towards 7 AM he was at his table and had just finished unloading his precious cargo from his car. His wife and children were busy un-wrapping some large, exceptionally gorgeous pieces, and I scanned the table quickly to take in all that they had brought.
He told me that he had made these large pieces to sell at Indian Market, and I was thrilled to see them. I knew that these pieces would certainly be snapped up before the weekend was over, and I was envious of the lucky collector (s) who would take these pieces home with them.
I have been a fan of Anderson’s work and Zuni pottery for a long time, and have admired many of his pots in galleries in the Santa Fe area over the years. Honestly, these stunning pots (he let me hold them!) were among the best pieces of his work that I have seen. They simply took my breath away.
Anderson’s pots are built the way Zuni potters before him have made their pots – from hand-rolled, thin coils of clay. The shapes of his pieces are pleasing to the eye and are impeccably gracious in aesthetic and even in shape. His painting has matured into a fluid, rhythmic style. Like most pueblo potters, he makes his paints from earth and plant pigments. He paints with black and reddish-brown pigments on either pure white or dark, earthy red highly polished backgrounds.
Working as a team, Avelia sands and polishes the pottery. Anderson told me that she has the touch for that – he breaks the pots when he tries to polish. Pots are made in the morning and painted at night. Small pots dry in one afternoon; large ollas dry for several days. He applies his white slip evenly and rather liberally – the color of clay body of the pot does not show through. Some artists let the clay show through a thin coating of slip and I find it distracting from otherwise nice work. He also has a very steady hand with the paintbrush and is very good at loading his brushes to deliver an even application of pigment over the surface of the pot (no thin spots in the color).
The Peynetsa family is well known in collector circles. Anderson’s sister Agnes makes smaller pieces, most of which are adorned with lizards and frogs, animal symbols that are very esteemed by the Zuni. In fact, it is one of her frog pots that brought her family to my attention. Avelia is more than happy to let the spotlight shine on her husband, but she did tell me that she, too, makes pots.
Anderson and Avelia learned their craft at Zuni High School from Jennie Laate ( an accomplished Acoma potter who taught at Zuni), and he has been a potter ever since. Working as potters is how this family makes their living – this is not a part-time occupation. I would say that Anderson is close to being middle-aged, and, from the pieces that I saw, in the prime of his craft. I look forward to watching his work change in the years to come as he grows as an artist.
I could not help but notice Anderson’s hands – they so clearly look like the hands of someone who works with a wet medium. Clay is very drying as it sucks the oils from the surface of skin. And, preparing clay from rock sherds is a laborious, hands-on job. He told me that he, like other Zuni potters and his ancestors, dig their own clay on the pueblo lands in a sacred place where only the potters are allowed to go.
After digging the clay from the earth, the clay is hauled to their home and soaked in water for 2-3 days to soften. Sometimes small, broken pieces of pottery sherds are added to the clay for suppleness if needed. Excess water is drained away, and the clay in put in pillow cases outside to rest.
By Sunday afternoon, all of Anderson’s big pots, including the exotic duck canteen, had sold. They were very happy with that, and I was pleased for them. I imagined that one lucky buyer purchased all three pieces, but I will never know. Perhaps one or more pieces will go into a museum collection, or to a gallery overseas, or to the home of someone rich and famous living in the Santa Fe foothills.
For those visiting the Santa Fe area, the Zuni pueblo is located far in the western edge of New Mexico about 2 hours driving distance from Albuquerque. There are several crafts shops on the pueblo who sell Anderson’s work. In addition to pottery, Zuni is famous for little carved fetish animals, and inlaid turquoise jewelry. For those who drive this route, be sure to leave several hours in your schedule and visit the Acoma Pueblo along the way, too. Beautiful polychrome pottery can be purchased here as well.