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  • Southwest Pottery - a brief history and definitions

    Posted on December 21, 2013 by Jason

    CHILDREN OF THE EARTH

    It is unfortunate that the “New Agers” have pre-empted the phrase “Mother Earth” because Native Americans used it to explain to the outside world the relationship they felt toward the living soil that gave birth to virtually everything of value in their world.  No Indian enterprise is closer to the germinative spirit than the making of pottery, created from the earth itself.

    The art of pottery is very ancient in the history of mankind, but a rather late development in the technology of the Southwest.  Some date ceramics in the Four Corners to “year one”, but the general consensus dates pottery making to 500 or 600 of the current calendar.  It marks the dividing line between late Basketmaker and early Pueblo groups.

    From the beginning pottery had much more than utilitarian meaning for the Pueblo people.  Bowls, jugs and pots were so wonderful and life-changing that they immediately entered the worlds of religion, trade and status as well as art.  The complex technology itself became a commodity of some value as potters traded their secrets of success.  There are plenty of good descriptions of pottery making, but a brief outline will be helpful.

    The first requirement is an extremely fine-grained material containing high levels of silica and aluminum.  But clay alone tends to crack either in the drying process, or the firing.  A “temper” usually must be added to the mix.  Temper is a non-permeable element like sand, or crushed rock, or ground up pottery pieces.

    There are two techniques commonly used in the Southwest to build the piece into a suitable form.  The simplest method is to take a lump of wet clay, form it with the fingers into a small bowl or mug or roll it out like biscuit dough.  The main limitation of this “pinch” technique is size.  It is hard to make anything much larger than the human fist.

    The coil method has almost no limitation when controlled by a master potter.  There are Pueblo storage jars large enough to hide a good-sized child.   The maker rolls out a bottom piece a little larger than the container or “puki” it will be started in.  Puki is a Hopi word for a basket, bowl, or other rounded support used to build the pot.  The puki can be turned as the coils of clay are added.

    To create the coils a snake of clay is rolled out just the diameter of the bowl.   The rope of clay is overlapped on the previous layer, pinched to adhere, then smoothed inside and out with fingers, a wooden paddle, a rounded piece of gourd, or a piece of pottery.  The vessel can’t be built either too fast or too slow.  A large bowl of damp clay will simply collapse of its own weight.  If the rounds of clay are applied to an olla that is too dry, the new layer won’t stick.

    One important technical innovation was the discover of “slip”, a different color of clay, usually better quality than the body, applied in a thin layer over the piece.  When fired, the slip would come out a different color.  Paint, from minerals and native plants, was added with a traditional yucca leaf brush, still used by most potters today.

    Traditional firing was done outdoors when the wind wasn’t blowing.  Originally wood was used for fuel, after domestic animals were available, dried manure was found to create a high temperature fire.  Sheep waste, compacted and dried in a corral, is quite suitable.  Coal is found all over the southwest and the ancient Hopis, at least, used it for firing pottery.

    Broken pieces of old bowls were placed around the new pieces to protect them from ash and hot spots in the kiln.  For a reduction fire (almost no oxygen) more pottery sherds were used.  Some potters would cover the whole thing with a washtub or sheets of roofing tin.  Powdered manure, added toward the end of the process, would cause a “smudge” that turned the piece black, popular at Santa Clara and San Ildefonso.

    Very few pieces of pottery are still fired outdoors, but Indian pottery is still hand built and hand painted.

    There is a basic contradiction underlying any discussion of pottery design, prehistoric or modern.  On the one hand, Pueblo artists tend to be very conservative, and the group aesthetic will usually dominate any personal creative urges.  On the other hand, the history of ceramics in the Southwest is a stairway from one innovation to another.  Also, there are two major design elements in the world of ceramics—vessel shape and painted design.

    All during the classic Anasazi period, the basic design element was painted black on white.  It is amazing how many varieties such a simple formula will support.  The creative urge was a restless, living thing.  A cup was a better drinking form than a flat bowl, and a handle was a useful addition to the basic cup.  But at Mesa Verde, the creation of cups became a mind-boggling circus of innovation.

    The basic mug was deformed, with bulges at the bottom, stretched to the dimensions of a pitcher, and embellished with a variety of handles.  Painting became more and more elaborate, contradicting the simplicity of a monochromatic palette.  An artist can create a whole sunset with only black and white to work with.

    The basic olla (water jug) shape was also pushed to the limit.  Elongated necks, narrow mouths, flattened, widened bodies, multiple slips, dimples for lifting rather than attached handles that could break off.  Pots with lugs to fasten a leather or rope handle have been found.  Pots with multi-lobed bottoms and pitchers with double spouts occur.  Adding color was almost superfluous.

    Bertha Tom - Navajo Potter Bertha Tom - Navajo Potter

    The most amazing—and mysterious—development in prehistoric pottery was the wonderful, enigmatic painting found on Mimbres pottery from the area of southwestern New Mexico.  Perhaps a single genius was behind the whole movement, but we’ll never know that for sure.  The Mimbres potters suddenly started turning out painted bowls with figures and animals instead of geometrics.  These bowls are virtually a pictorial history of the culture.

    There are scene of religious observance, warfare, agriculture, domesticated turkeys, parrots from Mexico, childbirth and hundred of other subjects.  Beyond the scenes of domestic and religious life, there are animals, monsters, spirits, and scenes that are almost certainly illustrations of mythology and supernatural belief.  There are many examples of animals created by grafting parts of several creatures into a single fantasy.  Most of these bowls had small “kill holes” punched in the bottom, and were found in graves.

    Several writers, scholars and Native philosophers have been sure they had the key to these curious images.  Hopi artist Fred Kabotie devoted a great deal of study to Mimbres designs and came to the conclusion they had many counterparts in Hopi mythology and religion.  Mimbres sites were devastated by pot hunters early in the last century.

    Mimbres pottery may be the most mysterious and evocative, but many other culture groups turned out distinctive and staggeringly beautiful ceramic ware.  While effigy pots are more common among the Casa Grande ruins of Mexico and the Hohokam sites in southern Arizona, images of animals are most intriguing.  Pots in the shape of ducks, turtles and frogs are most common, perhaps because these animals are associated with water.

    The dictionary doesn’t make much distinction between the words effigy and figural, but in the pottery world effigy is most often applied to animals forms, figural to representations of human beings—both date back to the earliest days of fired clay objects.  These largely non-functional ceramics have been a mainstay of modern Pueblo pottery.

    After the Civil War various metal, glass and china containers were available and relatively cheap.  They were also much more durable than hand built bowls and jars.  Bronze pails were a staple of early trade, and even issued to Indians by the U S government along with hoes.  At that point the pottery tradition was doomed as a necessary and functional part of Native American life.  Except for the fact that pottery had always had religious functions.  No Zuni house is without its offering bowl, where cornmeal mixes with fragments of turquoise is kept for offering to the spirits and blessing the katsinas.

    Ernie Bulow

    Author - Ernie Bulow Author - Ernie Bulow

    This post was posted in Ernie Bulow - Researching art of the Southwest

  • Faking the Art

    Posted on December 17, 2013 by Jason

    Its all a ReMix anyway, right?

    If you read your Navajo jewelry history you find out that the Navajo was taught how to make silver by Mexican silversmiths. This event takes place when New Mexico is a US territory, and only within a couple of years of being ceded by Mexico. Technically its not even possible to say the Navajo invented their own jewelry craft.

    Tonto Tonto

    To add insult to injury, Trader Lorenzo Hubbell purchased a stash of Persian Turquoise to give to Navajo silversmiths and it is believed that those are the first used pieces of turquoise in Navajo silver. Today it is non-Native turquoise dealers who bring the admired blue rock to Gallup. Don’t forget the silver, our supply houses eagerly await deliveries from silver producers from states like Maine each week. At the end of the day on might think a turquoise bracelet is just that, a turquoise bracelet.

    What is Native American Art?

    So why do companies like Perry Null Trading Company spend so much time marketing authentic Native American art. Is there such a thing?

    Of course there is. At its foundations, Native American art is the understanding and expression of Native peoples applied to common artistic media.

    If we are going to make a case for authenticity, lets go back to a time before the first Navajos learned how to decorate silver in the mid 1800s. Maybe we should start with Pueblo Bonito where turquoise was uncovered. That turquoise would be around 1000 years old and comes from an ancient civilization that thrived before anyone else started showing up in the area. Some of the earliest turquoise work was very intricate and would have been worn as jewelry. Historians tell us of great trade routes in the Southwest that the Native American peoples used.

    One of the most coveted stashes of American turquoise would be that from the Cerrillos mine in Northern New Mexico. Turquoise from this mine was finding its way into jewelry at the same time that Chaco Canyon was thriving. Turquoise was definitely part of that culture and due to the extensive trade routes it would surely have been introduced to the Pueblo Indians around the Gallup area.

    Moving forward in time, we have the Mexican silversmiths or blacksmiths passing on their understanding of metallurgy to the Navajo. Oddly enough, I do not believe I have ever seen a Mexican squash blossom necklace. Mexico produces turquoise, and these Mexican blue rocks come through town on a regular basis, however, a history of Mexican turquoise jewelry does not seem to exist. Evidently the Navajo took the newly acquired skill of silver-smithing, combined it with turquoise that had been in the area for over 1000 years, and used it to express ancient style and tradition.

    Turquoise and silver is Navajo culture. It is used to demonstrate standing within a community. Also, it is used as currency within our current trading system, just as it has been for the last 100 plus years.

    When a small Navajo child grows up on the Reservation he is surrounded by jewelry. He or she grows up learning how to determine which pieces of jewelry are the best, and which pieces are Navajo made. That part of culture might influence the child to follow in the footsteps of a family member who makes silver. In return his designs are going to be influenced by what he sees as his People’s art and spirituality. It is a cycle that has been played out since the first smiths started making turquoise and silver.

    What if its a Good Fake?

    Does it really matter if your turquoise and silver jewelry is authentic handmade Native American art? After all, isn’t a bracelet made with turquoise and silver by a non-Native American still a bracelet? Think about something other than jewelry, say something like one of my favorites, Mexican food.

     'Who is there?' 'Who is there?'

    Lets say I am vacationing and my travels take me to North Dakota. It has been two weeks since I have been home and I am really missing my Mexican food. I take a look in the local telephone book and find an ad for an authentic Mexican food restaurant. My day of touring has left me famished and I decide to order that “local favorite” stuffed sopapilla. To my surprise it is tasty and not much different than what I find back home. As I am paying my bill I happen to see into the kitchen and notice my fixings have been put together by a White cooks. Those cooks had been inspired by the genuine thing and have found the proper way to prepare the stuffed sopapilla.

    What about great artists that mimic Native American Art?

    How about those great silversmiths who many consider to make excellent pieces of silver and turquoise, who happen to be non-Native American? I have personally seen excellent pieces of jewelry from these non-Native smiths. Their workmanship would make it very difficult to determine whether their art was Native made. No one complains, however, as this is appreciation of an art form. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and these artists have no intention to take credit, only to mimic and give honor to Native American culture.

    Most of the individual non-Native jewelers make silver and turquoise Native American inspired art because they love it. There is something spiritual about creating works inspired by the culture and history of America’s first inhabitants.

    So what is fake art?

    Just like anything fake, it has three major commonalities: it is cheap, it is attributed wrongly, and it is parasitic to the real craft. Mass production of a design that is not copyrighted, but which nevertheless belongs to the spirit and tradition of a people is offensive. There are those that mass produce Native American style art in order to sell it at bottom dollar prices. No Native American ever comes in contact with this jewelry except maybe as the creator of the piece that was used for the production model. This is not art, it is machine tooling, and it is destructive to the actual art market.

    Authentic Handmade Authentic Handmade

    So, it does matter if Native American craft is authentic?

    The inspiration comes from somewhere! All of those items you see that resemble Native American art have been influenced by the genuine thing. This art is how the People express their culture to outsiders and share it with them. More importantly, this art is a way for many of them to make a living, and enjoy a fulfilling career.

    See my next post that talks about how to know that what you are buying is authentic, not to be imitated.


    This post was posted in Collecting Art

  • New Mexico Causing Self-Inflicting Wounds – What’s Next

    Posted on December 4, 2013 by Jason

    New Mexico is Native American

    Lets start with some facts. New Mexico is home to the 2nd largest American Indian population calculated as a percentage to the entire state’s population. Much of that population is the proud people of the Navajo Nation. Lets not forget that the majority of that reservation lies in Arizona, and so if you added that you would be looking at the largest American Indian population.
    The Navajo Nation observes daylight savings. It does this because New Mexico observes daylight savings, instead of following Arizona, which does not follow it. The reason is simple, it is because Gallup, New Mexico plays a vital role to the people living on the Reservation and is the main servicing town to the Navajo Nation.

    Fake VS Real Fake VS Real

    In 2011 New Mexico tourism generated $7.8 Billion in economic impact to the state. This is not coming from business travelers, but those coming for leisure. The number of people taking in the sites and culture of the Land of Enchantment for pleasure accounted for 84% of those dollars. That means over 25 million people probably where introduced to our vibrant American Indian Tribes.

    One of the most popular New Mexico cities and maybe the BIGGEST tourism dollar generator is Santa Fe. Just recently the City Different was ranked by Conde Naste Traveler as the 2nd most desired city to visit in the United States. On their website it talks about taking “a whole day to explore the galleries.” Many of those galleries proudly display the arts and crafts of our Indigenous peoples.

    Glad you don’t get our Local News

    It is against the law to misrepresent American Indian arts and crafts. Many people take the fight against imposters very seriously. I have personally been to more than one Chamber of Commerce meeting that focuses on this problem.

    KRQE channel 13 News thought they would take on the fight with their investigative reporter Larry Barker. He immediately took his investigation to Santa Fe. The report went something like this. The first place he visited had misrepresented art, and the same for the second establishment, and you guessed it the third was equally guilty. Then to top it all off he went shopping on the website of the National Museum of the American Indian. You guessed it, he found fakes there too.

    Jewelry Manufacturing Jewelry Manufacturing

    This report was broadcast in November. Lucky for us that November is not our biggest tourism month so only a handful of tourists maybe saw the spot. I just hope that the New Mexico Tourism & Travel website doesn’t promote the news feed on it’s New Mexico True site.

    What makes a Good Reporter

    I am thinking about one of the most famous movie quotes of all time, “I want the truth.” Just this time I think we can all handle the truth. Larry Barker should have taken his report to tell that whole truth. The other side of the story is that the majority of the shops that sell Native American arts and crafts sell the real thing. A good reporter, especially one that benefits from tourism dollars, would have turned it into a positive New Mexico Story.

    Not only did he tear down our state’s jewel. That jewel being our handmade authentic Native American art and Santa Fe. Gallup, New Mexico gets a handful of tourist every year. However, being the “Indian Capital of the World” where the art is our industry the report really hurts us. Many galleries from Santa Fe come to our small city to purchase the art that they take home to sell daily.

    New Mexico is a GREAT Tourist Destination

    Remember, counterfeit is a problem everywhere around the world. Think of those vacations where streets are lined with shops that sell popular purse rip offs, luggage, and clothing. The reality TV Series Amish Mafia reveals it is even a problem in Pennsylvania where English sell woodwork as Amish made even when it isn’t.

    Navajo Silversmith Navajo Silversmith

    So, when you come to visit us here in New Mexico do your homework. You are definitely going to want to find where the best New Mexican cuisine is served, local gems, and those businesses that hold true to the 2nd largest Native American population. That is why you can always count on Perry Null Trading to have the real stuff because we buy directly from the Native American artists.


    This post was posted in Collecting Art

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