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  Issue Date: 2 / 2017  

Artful Pottery: Form and Function

Iris Brooks


       "We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want."
       -Tao Saying
        Native American seed pots decorated with geometric patterns, raku funerary urns in gem tones, and sun-baked earthenware bowls from Mexico are among the artful pottery I have collected in my travels. To remind me of place, I usually opt for a small, unbreakable object to add to my suitcase: a Balinese batik tablecloth, colorful French Polynesian postage stamps, an embroidered purse from Thailand, and handmade Moroccan slippers. But sometimes a piece of pottery is too exquisite to resist. And learning a bit about glazing and crazing or meeting the potter gives more resonance and appreciation to these fragile yet functional clay creations.
        Admiration for pottery transcends its pedigree regardless if it is Bizen ware (referring to the region in Japan where it is crafted as well as the historic tradition of unglazed pieces likened to "the beauty of the real face" as opposed to the "beauty of makeup"), or Raku (meaning both the unpredictable, low-firing process as well as a style originating in 16th century Japan), or Tsuboya pottery from Okinawa, often shaped into mythical shisa creatures, serving as guardians to protect homes.
        Sometimes function is of paramount importance, as in Europe, where I discover handmade Tuscan ceramics in Italy, such as mini olive oil dipping bowls and in Spain where a series of ceramic tiles (acting as hot plates) with hand-painted musicians catch my eye, or in my ever-evolving collection of clay flutes and ocarinas from around the globe. I usually have a visceral reaction first and then consider both form and function. This leads me to dragon teapots from China, sake pourers and soy sauce dishes in Japan, and dessert bowls from Morocco. Sometimes the function remains secondary as in all-purpose black-and-white ceramics from Zanzibar, an earthy, ochre chi-cha vessel from a welcoming ceremony of the Achuar people in Ecuador, large bowls adorned with simple, whimsical scenes from Mexico, and a black-and-white seed pot from the Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City in New Mexico.
        But it is my most recent search for a proper funeral urn for my Dad, which leads me to the thoughtful Oregon potter, John Dodero, who elucidates some of the differences in pottery terminology. He listens to a range of music from reggae to the blues when crafting his slip-casted pieces (set in molds he creates). And rather than approach his work by thinking, he focuses on feeling. He explains this while pointing to his solar plexus, as we tour his studio in historic Jacksonville, Oregon, not far from where gold was first discovered. For this artist, the synergy of functionality and the creative pursuit are key. He speaks of creativity and his vision for changing out planet. "I hope to inspire people to be creative and help pull us out of where we are in the world through the creative process."
        This informal visit to Dodero's workshop is a chance to view his cachepots used as orchid planters and urns (not originally conceived of for ashes, but most commonly serving this function). Once sold primarily at craft fairs and now available online, his wares remind me of my forays to other places where pots resonated with me, without understanding the techniques needed to produce the products. This time I try to discern differences among the pots and learn a bit about their history.
        Clay, an abundant and adaptable material, has been formed into animal and human figures–possibly for ceremonial purposes–as long ago as 24,000 BC. Functional vessels serving to hold food and water in 10,000 BC were sometimes used for storage by burying the pots in the ground. While we may think of pottery as a medium for dishes, bowls, and vases, in times past they also served as plumbing pipes, voting ballots, and game pieces. Pottery has been found in communities all over the world from the sophisticated, highly decorated Greek vases of the 5th century BC and early West African terra-cotta heads to the tea ceremony of 13th century Japan and delicate Dutch blue and white Delftware of the 17th century. Clay creations often incorporated social identity of different groups and sometimes echoed designs found on their cloth.
        In creating pottery, the temperature is key in the vitrification (what happens to clay and glaze, melting and fusing during firing). The clay is hardened in the heating process by a range of temperatures, which fuse the clay particles. The most to least porous pieces are as follows: terra cotta (unglazed, usually red earthenware), earthenware (low-fired temperature, less durable, and not waterproof; must be glazed to become functional), stoneware (partly vitrified, both unglazed and glazed), porcelain (white, translucent ceramic introduced in Europe by Marco Polo in the 13th century), and china (fine white translucent material; the first porcelain imported into Europe came from China). This terminology is not different if the piece is coiled or shaped by hand, crafted on a potter's wheel, or made in a mold. The words pottery and ceramics are basically interchangeable although ceramics, (which comes from the Greek word, "keramos,") are often glazed, in which a layer of glass is fused onto the piece. Whether a person calls himself or herself “a potter” or “a ceramicist” is largely semantics, although some consider pottery a craft and ceramics an art.
       "Porcelain should be as white as jade, as thin as paper, as bright as a mirror, as sound as a bell."
       -Chinese Saying
        The glaze shines brightly on one side and the raw earthenware is equally visible on the reverse of two sun-baked, honey mustard-colored, pre-wheel bowls made by Esteban Valdez. Like the bowls I bring back home to New York, I feel both shiny and raw from my purification experiences in Mexico. There are many opportunities to see craftspeople at work or participate in a handicraft workshop in and around the UNESCO World Heritage town of San Miguel de Allende (with a large community of artists, U.S. expatriates, and North American retirees). I was fortunate to meet an accomplished, ailing, and elderly master potter, Esteban Valdez. He lived in the brick-making district outside of San Miguel, on the road to Celaya. Regarded as a national treasure, his work has been exhibited in Mexican museums as well as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
        I view a pile of his greenware (unfired) bowls with assorted, hand-painted scenes including a stubborn burro pulled by a man, drunken figures weaving about, and a cat stretching as its tail soars in the air. The style of Esteban Valdez is considered ”pre-wheel,” since he forms the clay over a large, smooth stone and lets it dry in the sun. Then it is fired up in an outdoor brick oven. Standing in his compound with a wandering black pig and various family members of all ages, I realize his creative process bears a strong resemblance to my temazcali purification ritual in Mexico. Only this clay, baked by the sun and fired in the outdoor oven, is not attached to my body.
        NEW MEXICO
        Driving through the expansive landscape in northern New Mexico, my eyes drink in the mostly horizontal landscape. There are no skyscrapers, but rather stone monoliths shaped by the elements. The geological formations take on life-like qualities in what is a three-dimensional Rorschach test. I see shapes of camels, lizards, monkeys, and mythical birds. There is a Mad King, Mother Earth, and statuesque Guardians of the Land. It is surprisingly quiet except for the emotive soundtrack of a Native American flute disc softly playing in the car. My heart beats slowly and my head clears in this dry climate filled with golden-hued light and red rocks amidst an azure sky. At times the wind howls, yet stillness pervades.
        A trip to New Mexico with a focus on Native American spirit and serenity can include hiking, archeology, museum viewing, ethnic dining, and even a Native-inspired wedding ceremony. Some are drawn to the rustic dreamcatchers and ornamental silver and turquoise pieces, but I am particularly interested in the pottery.
        The inviting Acoma Pueblo, which legend describes as “a place that always was,” is 65 miles west of Albuquerque. At the base of the Pueblo, friendly folks welcome you to the renovated Cultural Center with striking, contemporary architecture. Discover Native art, history and culture in exhibits such as "Matriarchs: Four Women Potters" and sign up for a guided tour of Sky City. Acoma artists craft pottery adorned with geometric shapes and fine lines symbolizing the natural world. The Pueblo tour (which requires a guide) includes an introduction to life in what is believed to be the oldest community in America, where corn is roasted and bread baked in the outdoor, adobe-brick horno ovens. Pottery is made traditionally by coiling the strips of clay and some designs are etched with the tip of a deer antler, as demonstrated by Lee and Flo Vallo. Most pieces are painted in black, white, and sometimes red.
        After the tour of Sky City, which sits upon a 367-foot high sandstone mesa, visitors have an option to meander down the ancient trail by themselves. By doing this, you can enjoy the spectacular scenery, changing light, and chance encounters with the locals at this first Native American community designated as a National Trust Historic Site. It is during this informal ambling, that I meet an interesting potter, Earl Louis who along with Rose Leon learned both traditional and contemporary pottery styles from their grandparents. He explains each of his designs tells a story with symbolic colors and motifs. I can't refuse an opportunity to bring home his striking black-and-white seed pot where black stands for mountains and clouds; white signifies Mother Earth. The piece is dominated by a series of messenger figures representing a fast runner who would deliver news to 19 communities before they had horses. This encounter encourages me to learn more about Native American pottery at museums in Santa Fe.


        Santa Fe is a dynamic town–perched at 7,000 feet above sea level–filled with world-class galleries and museums. Among the venues on Museum Hill is the excellent Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, where you can view side-by-side pottery of the 22 pueblos of New Mexico. It’s a great way to compare them, noting your preferences while exploring everything from ancient pieces to the living traditions of today. The Buschsbaum Gallery of Southwestern Pottery exhibits examples of each of the Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona in a long-term display. The ceramic masterpieces encompass works from the prehistoric period to potters of today in evolving contemporary traditions. Some of the museum's exhibits are available on-line, such as "Touched by Fire," featuring the iconic San Ildefonso potter, Maria Martinez. She created an enduring regional pottery style punctuated by her own innovations and signed them with her Tewa name meaning Water Lily. I am drawn to her black-on-black style involving iron-rich clay from the slip (liquid clay) painted in inspirational designs with a black glaze. Some of her work incorporates post-firing carvings and etchings.
        Another Santa Fe museum worth visiting is the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, founded in 1937. Their collection has an emphasis on Navajo and other Native American arts and their shop has many pieces of pottery for sale from Hopi painted bird bowls to plates with geometric patterns as well as their own publications about potters such as Dextra Quotskuyva–named an Arizona Living Treasure–and Pueblo potters who focus on human forms.
        Years later, pottery is paramount again, as I must choose an appropriate funerary urn to hold my father's ashes. I am looking for a special piece, which represents who my Dad was–simple yet sophisticated. I find such a graceful pot, crafted by John Dodero in Jacksonville, Oregon. I select a sage-hued piece, thinking my Dad was a sage as I appreciate the elegance of the form of this raku-glaze, with a one-of-a-kind, fine network of cracks (known as crazing or spiderwebbing). In Japan this is considered a piece with wabi/sabi (with a sense of natural expression), since it is not perfect, but the cracks imbue an original character and add an aesthetic sense to the work. Again I am struck by its similarity to my father, a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, who was a one-of-a-kind character. The piece–topped with a bundle of ebonized bamboo strips on its lid–is a fusion of a Japanese aesthetic and technique merged with Native American form and fetish since a small Zuni bear is attached at its crest (symbolizing one of the Native American guardians; the most powerful animal with the magical ability to heal). This artful piece of pottery truly resonates with me, and back in New York, I await its arrival.
       "Earth, water, air, and fire: so simple, but so complex."
       Acoma Cultural Center
       Acoma Cultural Center Link
       Museum of Indian Arts & Culture
       Link to Museum Website
       Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
       Link to Wheelwright Museum Website
       Dodero Studio Ceramics
       Link to Dodero Studio Ceramics Website

Iris Brooks has written over 500 travel and arts stories for many publications. She appreciates crafts of all varieties and collects them in her travels around the world. To learn more about her work with photographer Jon H. Davis, visit their NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO website.
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