Pot­ter Rus­sell Sanchez

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Rus­sell Sanchez was only eight years old when the renowned San Ilde­fonso pot­ter Popovi Da died in 1971, but he got to know his widow very well. “One day when I was eleven or twelve, I had fin­ished a batch of pots and I put ’em out­side my house. Anita Da walked over from the stu­dio, saw them, and said, ‘I want you to start bring­ing me stuff.’ That’s how it all started.” Those first pieces were small black-on-black bowls of the tra­di­tional type. Sanchez’s forms to­day are mod­ern twists on tra­di­tion. “The very deep red I’m do­ing now was done up un­til the 1920s or so, when ev­ery­body went black,” he said. “No­body knew where to get it, but I lis­tened to a lot of the older peo­ple and be­cause I grew up speak­ing Tewa, I’ve been able to find some of the old clay sources. We also have sa­cred places all through this area, and I’ve learned where to go.” The pot­ter is an ex­pert at kayak­ing and river­raft­ing. He has sought out chal­leng­ing wa­ters in Chile and Peru and has plied the Zambesi River in south­ern Africa. An ad­van­tage of the tamer rivers closer to home is that he has been able to find clay sources along their banks. Sanchez fires his pots in out­door fires fu­eled by ju­niper and dried cow and horse ma­nure. “For a lot of it, I use the same tech­nique I was taught as a kid. It’s tried and true and it works well, so you just don’t mess with it. Ev­ery­thing I do is tra­di­tional tools and tech­niques, but then I think out­side of the box. Lately I’m lean­ing to­ward old-school, do­ing what the San Ilde­fonso pot­ters did in the 1800s, but tak­ing their ideas and to­tally flipping it around and mak­ing it my own style.” He has stud­ied the pot­tery ar­chives at the Mu­seum of In­dian Arts & Cul­ture and the School for Ad­vanced Re­search. There was a tran­si­tion pe­riod in Na­tive ce­ram­ics, when, in ad­di­tion to mak­ing util­i­tar­ian ves­sels, pot­ters be­gan cre­at­ing dec­o­ra­tive pieces for col­lec­tors. But their strength and other func­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics did not change. “We still make pots that are used for cer­e­monies, we still make pots for use at home,” he said, “and any pot I make for [In­dian] Mar­ket you can use.” What­ever type of ves­sel he be­gins, Sanchez is al­ways re­cep­tive to changes en­cour­aged by the clay it­self. “You can sit there and say, OK, this pot I’m go­ing to pol­ish, I’m go­ing to bur­nish it to be a black pot. You can start bur­nish­ing it, and it does not want to come out. Strip it down, do it again, it does not want to come out. Then I’ll use a dif­fer­ent slip for a red fir­ing and it works out. The clay tells you what it wants.” In his re­search, he has seen many beau­ti­ful old San Ilde­fonso pots. Does he ever feel like copy­ing one di­rectly? “No. Be­cause we were al­ways taught, we were given a say­ing, ‘This is mine. This is what I do. Take it and make it yours.’ I can never copy a pot, even one of my own if a col­lec­tor asks me that. And to us at home, tra­di­tion doesn’t mean be­ing stuck in a cer­tain time pe­riod. To us,

tra­di­tion is al­ways grow­ing and mov­ing for­ward, ev­ery­body adding some­thing else to it.”

He loves con­tin­u­ing the tra­di­tion, and loves the work of mak­ing pot­tery. “Some­times peo­ple say, ‘Why don’t you take a break, re­lax for a bit, en­joy your­self?’ But I am en­joy­ing it. I love the smell of the wet clay and even the smells of fir­ing.”

— Paul Wei­de­man

Top, Rus­sell Sanchez, photo Will Wil­son, from Spo­ken Through Clay: Na­tive Pot­tery of the South­west — The Eric S. Dobkin Col­lec­tion, cour­tesy Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press; right, Sanchez: black jar with lid and avanyu

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