Call­ing the pot matte black

The Painted Pot­tery of Acoma Pue­blo

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A Pue­blo pot­ter to­day, search­ing for a state­ment that is per­haps both in­no­va­tive and re­spect­ful to tra­di­tion, can find in­spi­ra­tion in the painted de­signs on an­cient pots. “Some also grind up old pot­sherds, and they use that in­stead of sand as the tem­per for the new pot. It’s another way the an­ces­tors work, in the piece,” David Rasch said. Rasch, who is the his­toric preser­va­tion of­fi­cer for Santa Fe, cu­rated Haakume Dyunni — The Painted Pot­tery of Acoma Pue­blo, an ex­hi­bi­tion that runs through Sept. 2 at the Haak’u Mu­seum in Acoma’s Sky City Cul­tural Cen­ter.

“There are nine cases in the gallery show. I’m on the board of the Acoma mu­seum, and be­cause of the 2013 book The Pot­tery of Acoma Pue­blo by Dwight Lan­mon and Fran­cis Har­low, we de­cided to do an ex­hibit re­lat­ing to it. There are 80 pots that show the his­tory of pot­tery at Acoma.” The pots, dat­ing be­tween 1430 and 2013, come from the col­lec­tions of the Mu­seum of In­dian Arts and Cul­ture, the School for Ad­vanced Re­search, the Haak’u Mu­seum, and Rasch’s per­sonal col­lec­tion of some 400 pots.

Case 1 fea­tures three ex­am­ples of An­ces­tral Pue­bloan matte-painted pot­tery — not from Acoma, but in­cluded to show that the matte tra­di­tion was the first. Matte black paint is achieved by us­ing a mix­ture of hematite and Rocky Moun­tain bee weed. In about 1300, Acoma pot­ters in­no­vated glossy-fin­ished pots with a paint con­tain­ing lead. “In about 1700, when the Spaniards blocked ac­cess to the lead mines, they went back to the matte-painted ware,” Rasch said.

Case 4 fea­tures matte-painted Ako Poly­chrome pot­tery from the 18th and early 19th cen­turies. “Ako was the orig­i­nal set­tle­ment on En­chanted Mesa. The shapes are also char­ac­ter­is­tic,” he said, point­ing to one of the pots. “See the big flex­ure just be­low cen­ter, and a very small neck? It’s bot­tom-heavy. Then we get to Acomita [1780-1860], and they’re more glob­u­lar. This is where the de­signs re­ally flour­ish, too. Orig­i­nally, they were very sim­pli­fied, ge­o­met­ri­cal, with a lot of white space. Dur­ing Acomita, they get curvi­lin­ear and you have the rain bird design. When you start get­ting into the matte-painted Acoma poly­chrome pot­tery be­gin­ning in about 1840, you start see­ing pat­terns that fully en­velop the pot, and much more elab­o­ra­tion of design.”

Cases 5, 6, and 7 dis­play an­i­mal fig­urines made for tourists; Acoma Poly­chrome owls, wed­ding vases, can­teens, and tall-necked jars; and pots painted with “ro­ta­tional sym­me­try” — if you take such a pot and turn it up­side-down, the pat­tern is the same.

“Case 9 is for the 20th cen­tury, and you see how ev­ery­thing just ex­plodes: shapes and de­signs. You see new things like spi­ral sym­me­try, seed jars, and ex­am­ples where the design mo­tifs are smaller and larger de­pend­ing on where it is on the pot.” And there are cook­ing ves­sels with a “cor­ru­ga­tion” tex­ture so they can heat up and cool more quickly and evenly.

Rasch said very few pot­ters to­day are work­ing in the old way. “If you’re col­lect­ing your own clay, cre­at­ing your own ves­sel, paint­ing it and pit-fir­ing it, that’s so dif­fer­ent than paint­ing a pre­made pot and putting it in an elec­tric kiln. There’s very lit­tle mas­ter­ing of tech­nique there, ex­cept for paint­ing. There was a con­vo­ca­tion around this ex­hibit, with ma­tri­archs talk­ing about these is­sues. Mostly the pot­ters are against us­ing the slip­cast wares, the ones that are not even made by hand, but they seem to be fine with us­ing com­mer­cial clay and paint and kiln-fir­ing. But there is the dan­ger of los­ing a ma­jor tra­di­tion if they don’t help younger pot­ters un­der­stand it, and so they’re say­ing, If you want to be a pot­ter, you should learn the tra­di­tional way: go gather clay, grind it, make your own ce­ramic slip, build your pot, and learn how to pit-fire.”


From left, Acomita Poly­chrome bot­tle, circa 1840; Acoma Poly­chrome jar made by Lucy M. Lewis, circa 1965; Acoma rough-ware pitcher, circa 1870-1880; Acoma Poly­chrome box, circa 1820-1860; cour­tesy David Rasch; above, from left, At the Old Well of Acoma, 1926; Pue­blo In­di­ans with an in­verted Acomita Poly­chrome dough bowl, circa 1870; pho­tos from The Pot­tery of Acoma Pue­blo, cour­tesy Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press

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