Anderson Peynetsa, Zuni Potter

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.

A fanciful decanter vividly painted and shaped like a duck

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.

Anderson holding one of his little painted pots

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).

Someone else’s pot with a thin application of white slip

Anderson’s trademark heart-line deer motif painted on a large water jug ( olla). Notice how differently the deer is rendered in this pot versus the pot above

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.

Frog pot by Agnes Peynetsa

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.

The Simple Beauty of Native American Pottery

I have been in awe of the beauty of Native American Indian pottery from the American Southwest for some time now. As my interest grows and I learn more, I realize how much there is to know and understand. My appreciation of both the old styles of pottery and new interpretations by today’s generation of potters will happily keep me learning about the artists and their work for years.

The elegant, sweeping design of a coil vase mimics the coils of clay used to build this piece of traditional coil pottery. Form meets function as the coils become the design element of this gorgeous pot.

Last year, before leaving for our tea buying trip to Japan, we stopped off along the way in Albuquerque  and purchased some traditionally-made   pottery to take as gifts to colleagues and traditional potters with whom we would be visiting in Japan. We wanted to take them a style of pottery different than their style of pottery ( and different than all East Asian pottery in fact ) and something truly American.   We chose an Acoma seedpot and a Jemez  coil vase, similar to the one pictured above.

Our hosts were fascinated by the pottery. As potters and artisans, they were interested to learn about the craft of the pottery – how it was made, how it was decorated and how it was fired.  We explained that both cultural influences and the practical matters of how the pottery is made were responsible for ‘shaping’ the pots, and that these factors  are as integral to the essence of this pottery as their Japanese techniques and values are to the pottery that they make.

They were curious about the clay and the way in which the clay was shaped and worked by hand. The earth and plant pigments used to decorate the pieces brought the most astonishment, as did the color photographs that we brought of the landscape of the American Southwest. This pottery is so different from what they are familiar with that we knew we had made a good choice.

I wish that Native American pueblo pottery was as well known across all regions of the USA as it is in the Southwest. These artisans deserve recognition and respect for their work and talent. Those here and abroad who collect Native American pottery are fiercely loyal and are determined to build important collections. Museums are adding pieces to nascent collections, and galleries across the USA often feature the work of Indian potters. But more people need to be exposed to this pottery, which, by collectible standards, are still very reasonably priced.

Most Native American artists in the Southwest live on or near one of the Pueblos of the northern and lower Rio Grande river, close to extended family and the center of their culture. Many of these pueblos maintain centuries old pottery making traditions ( and many other fine arts, as well ). Today’s most well-known potters are children, nieces or nephews or grandchildren of legendary potters who contributed significant advances to the pottery making tradition of their particular pueblo.

These pueblos are spread along the Rio Grande River from Taos ( north of Santa Fe ) to Albuquerque and west to the Arizona border.  Most potters still work with many of the same expressive design elements that their ancestors used.

A contemporary interpretation of         a traditional, old-style figure made       by Lisa Holt and Harlan Reano

But young artists are introducing contemporary design and movement in new directions, too. In the world of pottery collectors, all of these styles have been embraced as new work and ideas advance the art form. I admire Pueblo pottery in all of its glorious shapes, styles and designs, but for me it is the old-style, thin -walled, traditional, polychrome pottery painted with simple, symbolic motifs in earth pigments that appeals to my magpie eye the most.

Potters from the Acoma, Cochiti, Laguna, Santo Domingo, Zia, and Zuni pueblos are known for this style of pottery. Cross over into Arizona and the Hopi too, create finely painted, highly detailed and stylized pots.  Feast for a minute on these fine, eye-dazzling examples of painted pots by two acclaimed artists of the Acoma pueblo. These pots express precision and exuberance in painting at its most difficult and best.

stylized ‘eye-dazzler’ pots from Acoma potter Victoria Sandorino

    Traditional Acoma seed-pot with applied insects by artist Carolyn Concho

Polychrome pots are painted with designs applied by brush ( yucca or modern, adapted brushes ) in earth-tone pigments. The palette features blacks, tans, ocher and brownish-rust colors ( the natural colors of the Southwest ) applied to a solid white or tan slip painted background.

In the past, pueblo pottery had a utilitarian function or had ceremonial uses. Large and medium sized pots – ollas -were made to collect water. Bowls in varying sizes and widths were made to hold food and foodstuffs, and offerings to spirit deities. Today, the pottery is made in these same shapes, but often with a new injection of creativity and artistic flair. Most artists will say that their pots are completely functional, just as the pots made by their ancestors were. But for collectors, these works are purchased strictly as objects of beauty and fine art.

Although some similarities exist, each Pueblo has a recognizable style.  Potters develop their own style based not as much on the shapes of their pieces ( which can be similar to others ) or the colors used ( also similar to other potters ) but by the designs and motifs that they emblazon on their pots.

A display of stunning Pueblo pots

All pueblos use geometric elements such as lines, arcs, circles, and more in their designs. Some of these design elements mimic patterns found on ancient potsherds attributed to the Membres culture. Acoma and Zia ollas and vases often feature roadrunners, flowers and parrots in their design, and small insects and frogs appear on tiny seed pots. Zuni potters feature animal designs, such as frogs and lizards, butterflies, feathered serpents, and heartline-deer.

Highly-polished black pottery from the San Ildefonso pueblo  can be deeply carved or feature designs painted with a trademark black on black technique. Similarly, the Santa Clara pueblo makes highly polished red-brown earth tone pottery, which is most frequently carved. Very complementary one to another, these pieces are different in execution and complexity.

Dramatic and stunning carved container by Nancy Youngblood

          a classic pot from an unknown             Santa Clara artist

I copied the following information from a sign in the Buschsbaum Gallery of Southwestern Pottery at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This museum is a must see for anyone visiting Santa Fe who wishes to see a fantastic collection of historic pots plus  exhibitions of contemporary artists and their work. The sign explained the steps of traditional pottery making and polychrome painting in a concise way. I have embellished a few lines to make the meaning clear as I was not able to reproduce the accompanying images featured in the exhibition.

Clay is living. Potters speak to it, pray to it, revere it. Gathering clay is hard work and once collected, it is dried and then soaked to remove impurities. It is sieved to clean it further. A temper is then added to the clay to reduce shrinkage and cracking during firing and drying.

Traditionally made pots are formed using the ‘coil and scrape’ method. As fingers pinch clay and roll it into coils, successive coils of clay are used to build the pots. Coil junctures are smoothed with a curved edge tool such as pottery shard. But potters have also adapted popsicle sticks, hairbrush handles, can lids, and kitchen knives.

After excess clay is scraped away to achieve a uniform thickness, the pot is smoothed with sandpaper.

Next the potter applies the slip, a watery clay mixture. While this is still damp, the pot is polished with a smooth river stone. Painted decoration is applied according to established traditions, using earth and plant pigments, but each potter paints in his or her own individual way.

Although some pottery is now fired in electric kilns, most is fired outdoors. Several pots are placed on a grate, and fuel – usually cow or sheep manure – is stacked around the pottery and then mounded to cover the entire fire pit. The firing is a delicate stage – imperfections in the clay or air bubbles can cause a pot to explode, often damaging other pots. While warm, the pots are removed from the fire and wiped clean.