The Making of Pueblo Pottery - Traditional TechniquesFrances Osborne Austin Tx

By Eric Sermon | Co-Author: Lynda Sermon | Submitted On April 30, 2009

Pueblo pottery making is an age old process steeped in tradition. Potters feel that the process of working with the clay ties them to their ancestors. Their bonds to their culture and heritage are maintained by following and preserving conventional pottery making methods. However, to succeed in the modern world, potters must be flexible and able to change with the times. They actually feel as though they live in two worlds - one of their ancestors and tradition, and one of present day life with all the demands and requirements of modern society.

The techniques of making traditional pueblo pottery have changed little over time. There are three basic ingredients used to make pots: clay, temper and water. Temper is a material that is added to the clay to prevent shrinking and cracking during drying and firing. This temper can help identify pots as certain tribes use specific materials in their process. Types of temper can include sand, crushed rock and old crushed up potsherds. Quite often the use of old potsherds give the potter a sense of connection to their ancestors.

Clay is an integral part of pottery making in that quality is everything. Potters use clay sources that have been in their families for generations; many sources are in secret locations, and their whereabouts are well guarded. Clay gathering generally begins with an offering of cornmeal that is scattered over the earth, thanking it for the clay. Potters do not take more than they need, and it is never wasted. The clay is then packed in sacks and buckets and carried home. The pottery making process begins with adding temper to clay in equal amounts. The blend is then sifted, and water is added to the mixture. The process of kneading then starts with the potter working this mixture with their hands and sometimes their feet. The material is worked like bread dough - pounded, pressed and divided. The potter works continually to remove the air pockets. When finished, the clay is left to set for a day, but occasional kneading is required to keep the mix pliable.

Pottery construction begins with the use of a puki, which is a supporting base or bowl. The potter rolls out clay coils and places them inside the bowl. The coils are scraped and smoothed. After the walls of the pot have been built up and smoothed, it is allowed to air dry completely for a few days. At this point a slip, which a thin mixture of clay and water, is applied to the pot. The potter will then rub and polish the slip with a smooth stone. This process is termed "burnishing". The stones are found in creek beds and take years to become smooth. These polishing stones are heirlooms and are often handed down through the family. After the polishing step is finished, designs are painted on the surface of the pot. Yucca leaves are collected and made into brushes. This natural material gives the potter a perfect brush needed for painting the intricate designs found on pueblo pottery.

The final step in the pottery making process is the firing, which traditionally is done outside only in calm weather. There can be no wind. The pots are stacked up on a metal grate, facedown. Wood is then placed under and around the grate. Metal trays, old license plates and broken pots are then placed on top of the stacked pots and firewood. These trays serve as an oven. After the fire is lit, cow chips are placed on top of the trays. Temperatures can actually reach 1200 - 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire is allowed burn out and cool. The pottery is then removed. Black pottery made famous by Maria was created by smothering the fire with dries horse manure and ashes. The fire is robbed of oxygen, thus turning the pottery black.

Pueblo pottery has been around for a thousand years, and traditional pottery making has changed little. Inter-tribal and foreign influences have changed styles and designs and continue to influence present day potters. Modern artists experiment with new forms, materials and firing techniques. No matter how pottery making evolves, it will always connect the potters with their heritage and ancestral traditions.

Eric and Lynda Sermon have been collectors and dealers in tribal and ethnic arts for the past 30 years. We offer a wide variety of tribal arts on our website. We have co-curated an exhibit on Navajo silversmithing and have lectured on collecting Native American pottery. We can be contacted through our website at the following address:

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