Calling the pot matte black
The Painted Pottery of Acoma Pueblo
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