Monday, January 19, 2009

Clay and Spirits

We had another opportunity to attend a presentation at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

We met Max Early, 45, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, who has been making pottery for about the past 15 years. He was never encouraged to actually work with clay since his grandmother emphasized that pottery making was a woman’s job. It was, however, acceptable for Max to assist with painting his grandmother’s pottery. He began doing this when she developed arthritis and could no longer paint. He eventually moved away to attend college and his interest in pottery lay dormant for nearly 10 years.

He began painting ceramic ware as a hobby, but couldn’t feel any life in the commercial pieces. He decided to venture out on his own.

Pottery is traditionally made without the use of a wheel. Max demonstrated the early steps in making a small bowl, beginning with forming the base on a curved "mold." The clay is punched and pounded to remove all air bubbles and then formed into the curved base. Additional pieces of clay are rolled into long strands, once again to remove air pockets. Air pockets will cause the pot to break during the firing process.

These strands or coils are then placed on top of the base. The walls of the pot are built up by wrapping coils of clay on top of one another. Then, using a curved piece of a gourd, Max scrapes and smooths the surface to obliterate any trace of the coils.

After the pot has dried, a watery clay soup, called a slip, is wiped on the surface, then polished with a smooth stone. These stones, smoothed by years of water from streams rushing over them, are handed down from potter to potter within families. Max had several of different sizes and shapes, many of which had belonged to his grandmother.

It was a much slower process, but watching Max move the bowl around and around, using a piece of a gourd to smooth the inside of the bowl and his hand to shape and smooth the outside of the bowl, I felt he had a better "understanding" of the form that the clay wanted to take than if he had been using a potter's wheel.

If a design is to be painted, this is done after polishing, but before firing. The firing is mostly done outside in the open. The pots are placed upside down on a metal grate and covered with scrap metal or large pottery fragments. The fuel, usually dried dung cakes or wood, is placed under, around, and over the pile, then ignited. The fires can reach temperature of between 900-1200 degrees.

Generally, the fire is simply allowed to burn down. If black pots are desired, the entire heap is completely smothered with powdered manure and fine ash after the fire has reached its peak.

Lastly, Max used a completed pot to address two points. He explained the design on this bowl used to carry water. From what I can remember, the wide strips represented the rays of the sun, the curved solid areas were the clouds, and the vertical lines represented the rain.

He then explained the small area around the rim of the pot that was not painted. This area (the tiny white area between the brownish line around the rim) is left unpainted so that the Spirit of the clay is free to move.

I'm beginning to understand more of the spiritual aspects of creating a simple pottery bowl.

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