The rough & the smooth
Potter Brenda Hill
My grandpa, Stan Hill — he was a bone carver. Mohawk. He always taught me that if I’m going to make art, we have a history. We have imagery, legends, all of this stuff to draw from. But he also told me to make it my own,” said Brenda Hill (Tuscarora/ Choctaw), a potter from Sanborn, New York, near Niagara Falls. As part of We Are the Seeds’ Honor Women Art Share Project, she will be giving live demonstrations at her booth of the hand-building process.
“It can take several days to actually build a pot, so I might bring pieces with me that are at different stages,” she said. “I love demonstrating at shows because people really learn what goes into making a piece. If you just sit there with your stuff, some people don’t understand — and kids love to watch,” she said. Hill builds all of her whiteware pots by hand, blending coils until the walls are thin, smooth, and symmetrical. “This creates a viable piece so that when you fire it, it doesn’t crack, and it doesn’t break later on in life.”
Hill has been a professional artist for more than two decades, and for many years she taught craft and the history of Haudenosaunee pottery at various schools and community centers. “‘Haudenosaunee’ is our word for Iroquois — well, Iroquois is actually is a French word to describe the Six Nations,” she said. Hill has been instrumental in reviving this pottery, which she said was halted for a long time because of an influx of European cookware. “Haudenosaunee pottery has this globular form with a wide opening and a rim that is very distinctive with design. Sometimes I use that shape, and sometimes I want to challenge myself to hold different shapes. Design imagery plays into my shapes, or I do a row of wampum beads beneath the rim, and the human body plays into the shapes as well.”
The rim of the pot is where potters express their individuality most strongly, usually with lineal designs pressed with sticks or shells, she said. “Scoring was a really early style of decorating the rim, and that’s basically what I do with mine. I kind of pay homage to that early style and then I bring in my own life experiences. I say to folks that life is rough around the edges, and it doesn’t always work out for us, but some parts can be smooth and peaceful.”
Preparing for We Are the Seeds has been Hill’s first big project since undergoing surgery to remove two herniated discs in her neck and having cervical implants. Her injuries were the result of repetitive stress. “I’m past the worst part of it, slowly recovering. It’s crunch time now, right before market, but it’s been good getting back to work. I have a few other little ailments here and there. This is the life of a potter.”
Hill was last in Santa Fe for SWAIA Indian Market in 2013 and is eager to reconnect at Seeds with old friends. She will see college classmates from her days at the Institute for American Indian Arts in the 1990s, artists she knows from having shown work at markets around the country — a scene she called the Native
I LOVE DEMONSTRATING AT SHOWS BECAUSE PEOPLE REALLY LEARN WHAT GOES INTO MAKING A PIECE. IF YOU JUST SIT THERE WITH YOUR STUFF, SOME PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND — AND KIDS LOVE TO WATCH.