Making More Than Mud

Making More Than Mud

Lee Allen

To most people, the basic act of adding water to soil makes mud. But in the hands of gifted artisans, these simple elements can be transformed into stunning works of art, inspired by a long and rich tradition and infused with beauty and grace.

Two sites in the Southwest are now focal points for what has been described as "Elegance From Earth." That’s the catchphrase for a new Heard Museum exhibit in Phoenix that tells the story of the centuries-old Hopi pottery tradition, while further south at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, home of the world’s largest Southwest Indian pottery collection, new additions have been added to the more than 20,000 samples already housed there.

Of the Heard's specialized display, a press release by curator Diana Pardue notes: “There’s nothing else quite like Hopi pottery with its intricate painting” of the Elegance From Earth showing of historic and contemporary work that illustrates the range and scope of the tribal tradition. “Pottery traditions, like those of other American Indian art forms, change and become reinvented through time. Imaginative potters continue to work in centuries-old techniques of clay, paint, and firing methods learned from ancestors while creating new shapes and painting unique designs.”

The Elegance From Earth exhibit explores the intertwined matriarchal artistic legacies of three families starting with historic examples of work by Nampeyo (1860-1942), a Hopi-Tewa and the first American Indian potter known and recognized by name. She revived a style of low-shouldered spherical jars based on those made at the village of Sikyatki in the 1600s, creations that took detail and design inspired by Sikyatki pottery.
This exhibit also showcases work by Frog Woman, Hopi pottery matriarch Paqua Naha, who developed a distinctive style of white-slipped pottery with black and deep red designs, artistry that has been passed along for three generations.

Arizona State Museum is showcase to a display of 2,000 years of Native pottery-making traditions in the Southwest in a collection that has been the beneficiary of statewide urban expansion. ASM issues an average of 140 archaeological permits a year due to this growth and is the official repository for the objects uncovered in the process. Two thirds of the pottery collection is of an archaeological nature and the museum’s holdings grow on a daily basis.

With millions of pot shards and thousands of whole vessels in the vault, are they always looking for more? “We get a lot of pottery because we’re mandated by the state to receive it,” says Ethnological Collections Curator Diane Dittemore. “And when collections come to us, we accept them also, especially donations of style that we don’t have a lot of. Our public trust is to curate into perpetuity -- and perpetuity is a very long time.”

So the new exhibit cases revolving around five themes were welcome additions that display: "Form & Function," "Imagery," "Eccentric Types," "Curio Trade," and "Vanguard Potters."

“The 'Form and Function' exhibit runs true to title in that different types of pots were created for a reason and their use dictates their form. We have ancient pottery samples from the Anasazi and Hohokam as well as Hopi pottery canteens, ancient cooking pots, tortilla griddles, and a Tarahamara beer fermentation jar.”

The imagery display focuses on symbolism, whether designs are merely decorative or represent historical or cultural elements. The designs range from animals to humans to deities including Mimbres pottery, one of the most representational and the Mexican Casa Grande ananyu or plumed serpent on pottery dating back to 1400.

“With the 'Eccentric types,' archeologists can only speculate their use or spiritual connection," says Dittemore. "We have lots of pots with bird motifs and shapes, perhaps representative of the bird/fertility connection. We also have a ceramic axe head that falls under the category of ‘what do you think this might be’?”

In the 'Curio Trade' category are the kinds of pots created specifically for the tourist trade that developed with the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s, when potters would sell their wares at rail stops. 'Vanguard' potters are those who, for whatever reason, choose to go beyond traditional strictures -- works that may have native tradition but make contemporary statements.

The Heard Museum Elegance From Earth exhibit will run through Spring 2013 while ASM’s The Pottery Project exhibit is on-going.

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