Pottery exhibit showcases Native American culture

by Kelly Sidley | 10/23/97 5:00am

Anyone who has experienced the vibrant colors of New Mexico Southwest understands the spiritual intonations that the ruddy soil of the Southwest can evoke. Works of pottery created from its clay capture the essence of the land and its indigenous people.

"Pueblo Pottery from New Mexico: A Selection from the Museum's Collection" displays twelve Native American vessels in the Hood Museum of Art.

The art of pottery-making was imported from Northern Mexico to New Mexico around 300 B.C. While the Pueblo people of this region have similar political, economic and religious systems, they are very diverse in their languages and personal identities. The various styles of pottery decorations reveal their individuality.

While all the vessels featured in this exhibition date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pueblo pottery represents a long cultural tradition. The basic shape of the pieces shows a consistency in craftsmanship.

Bowls and jars or "olla," the most common forms of pueblo pottery, were traditionally crafted by women. They use a coiling technique in which snakes of clay are built up in the shape of a bowl. Then the coils are smoothed into one another to create solid, even walls. A wet mixture of clay and water, called slip, is applied to the pot before being fired. Some vessels are primarily decorated with geometric patterns based on diamonds, triangles, checkerboard patterns, cross-hatched lines and zigzags. These designs, which contemporary eyes might see as abstract patterns, would have carried symbolic meaning for the Pueblo peoples.

Bold hues decorate the pots in black, orange and red against white backgrounds. Rich sienna reds and dark browns recall the colors of the desert and its vegetation.

Figurative details on the vessels depict flora and fauna of the Southwest. Common animals depicted on the pots include deer and birds. A Macaw surrounded by orange flowers is framed by a rainbow on an Acoma jar.

Some of the designs represent Native American craftsmanship before European explorers and colonizers had entered what is presently known as the American Southwest. The Anasazi culture of northern New Mexico, circa 100 B.C. to 1540 A.D. and the Mogollan clan of southwestern New Mexico, circa 300 B.C. to 1300 A.D. produced such works as those on display.

When the transcontinental railroad connected eastern and western portions of the United States, the local flavors of the Pueblo cultures diminished under the influence of Western inventions. As America expanded westward during the nineteenth century, many of these Pueblo vessels were replaced by more utilitarian, disposable containers made from glass, tin and enamel.

The Pueblo peoples began to produce their pottery for commercial sale. Anthropologists, curio dealers and tourists voraciously amassed collections of Pueblo work. As sales competition increased among the Pueblo people, more individualistic styles developed and less functional pieces were produced for trade purposes.

The Hood exhibition features a double-spouted jar produced in the first half of the twentieth century. The shape is commonly called a "wedding vase" and was not a traditional form for the Pueblo to make. But at the suggestion of a curio dealer, the Pueblo began to craft the untraditional shape since it was a popular tourist item.

The selection of Pueblo pottery will be on display at the Hood Museum through summer of 1998.