air, fire, and water.
These are the basic ingredients Pueblo Indian pottery—an art
that is more than two thousand years old. In ancient times, these
were utilitarian pieces, used for cooking, for storing food and
water, and in ceremonies. But even though pottery is easily broken
and days were filled with hard labor, potters took the time to paint
and decorate their pots, transforming them to an art form.
Today, most Pueblo pottery is made the same way it was hundreds
of years ago. First, the clay is dug by hand—often at a site
known only to family members. It is sifted many times, then mixed
with sand, crushed rock, or ground pottery sherds for stability.
Then water is added. The proportions aren’t measured except
by look and feel, a skill passed through generations.
The shape of the pot is created by the coil method. First, a flat
base is patted and rolled. Then, the potter rolls a rope of clay
to coil on top of the base. The coil must be of uniform thickness
and contain no air bubbles. Coil upon coil are pressed together
to form the walls of the pot. These are smoothed and thinned using
a scraper, which is often a piece of gourd or a smooth stone. The
potter uses no modern tool, and yet the pot’s walls are an
even thickness, its shape is stable, and it is a near perfect circle—a
feat of engineering.
After it is dry, the pot is usually sanded and coated with a clay
slip. The potter will spend hours polishing it with a stone, sometimes
one passed on by a cherished relative. In some cases, designs are
painted on using colored clay slips. The technique called sgraffito
involves cutting or scraping through the slip to create a design
in the clay underneath. While commericial kilns are sometimes used,
most Native Americans prefer the magical, if somewhat unpredictable
results of an outdoor fire. Acombination of wood and cow or sheep
dung fuel the fire to very high temperatures. If the pot is smothered
during the firing, it will turn black from the smoke. Many contemporary
Native Americans make their living creating pottery using traditional
techniques and designs, but also incorporating their own modern