Preparing the clay by hand for Acoma pottery

Acoma water girls, 1926, by Edward S. Curtis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Preparing clay by hand. It starts with prayer. I suppose it must be similar  to the way the traditional First Nations women prepare medicine here. They go to the desert near Kamloops, B.C. They pray over plants, leaves, berries, and petals which they forage. Then, they pray over the medicine while mixing and pouring it into little cloth bags women have been sewing since the previous giveaway.  This amount of prayer probably sounds foreign to you. But, it also reminds me of my Hindu friends who begin praying over their food in the grocery store. They pray over it while choosing, prepping and cooking, then, finally, before eating. Most of us cannot imagine such devotion. But this is also the way the clay for Acoma pottery  is treated. With great reverence.  In August, my mother reminded me that when I was in high school, our class dug clay north of the area we lived in. I’ve  done it a few times. When I have, it was always in the form of a field trip, nothing done regularly.  I can only imagine what it must be like to make all your pottery from clay you have dug and prepared specially.  What an incredible connection you would have with each piece you made and what continuity would exist between the source, the earth, and your pieces.  So, the potters who make Acoma Pueblo pottery start out by praying and finding the right clay beds.  They drive into an area, then walk the rest of the way, dig it out, then carry it back to their vehicle. A memorial site for Acoma potter Rose Chino Garcia states that “in its original form the clay is rocky and slatelike, and large chunks must be broken up to manageable size. If it was damp when dug, it must be left to dry for many days in the sun. When dry, it must be cleaned thoroughly by sifting and winnowing to get rid of all unwanted matter, such as twigs and pebbles. With a stone, it is crushed and pulverized.” Acoma Pueblo is located  60 miles west of  Albuquerque, New Mexico. Also known as Sky City,  it was built on top of a mesa around 1100 AD,  according to Wikipedia, and “is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities within the United States borders.”  About 2,800 people live there or on off-reservation trust lands. In olden times, people reached the top of the mesa via stairs cut into the sandstone.  An article by Patricia Malarcher in the New York Times reports on a book called Lucy M. Lewis: American Indian Potter. Quoting the book, Malarcher says that “Acoma residents believe that the clay is a special mixture put there especially for their use.” Dolores Lewis Garcia, Ms. Lewis’ daughter says, “We believe in the power of the clay,” according to Melarcher. “The pots are spirits. The clay is sacred. You can eat it raw, and you’re going back to it when you die.” I’ve read that the areas where an Acoma potter’s clay deposit is found is kept secret. After the clay is prepared, crushed shards are used to temper it. That’s not all, though. This site on Pueblo pottery says,”Time is also spent gathering the tempering, slip, and paint materials. Even fuel for the fire must be gathered and dried…Paints are also prepared by hand by grinding rocks or clays that produce different colors or boiling plants to produce black carbon paint.” This last photo shows a reproduction of a seed pot. Seeds were stored in it and when they were needed, the pot was broken.

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape. — Willa Cather,


About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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