New Mexico’s pottery tradition is perhaps the state’s most thriving one, drawing on millennia of craftsmanship. About 2,000 years ago, the Mogollon people in the southern part of the state began making simple pots of brown coiled clay. A thousand years later, the craft had developed into the beautiful black-on-white symmetry of the Mimbres people. Later, each of the pueblos developed its own style; by the 20th century, some traditions had died out, but almost all felt some kind of renaissance after the work of María Martinez in the first half of the 20th century. A San Ildefonso potter, Martinez developed, along with her husband, Julian, a lustrous black pottery painted with geometric designs to make a subtle matte-on-shiny finish. The elegant pieces, at once innovative and traditional, inspired Anglo collectors (who saw the couple’s work at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, among other places) as well as local potters. Today, many artists make their livings from pottery, sold both in galleries and out of people’s homes in the pueblos.
The various pueblo styles are distinguished by their base clay, the “slip” (the clay-and-water finish), and particular shapes. Taos and Picurís pueblos, for instance, are surrounded by beds of micaceous clay; the mica helps the pots withstand heat well (they’re renowned for cooking beans) and lends the pottery a subtle glitter.Acoma Pueblo specializes in intricate black-and-white painted designs; pottery from Ohkay Owingeh (formerly called San Juan) is typically reddish-brown with incised symbols; and Santa Clara Pueblo developed the “wedding jar,” a double-neck design with a handle. If there’s a particular style that catches your eye in city galleries, then you can visit the specific pueblo, where you may be able to buy directly from the artisan and perhaps see where the piece was made.
A whole other field of contemporary design is thriving too, with artists working in glass, for instance, or applying traditional decorative motifs to large-scale sculpture. Non-Indian artists are producing beautiful work, sometimes incorporating local forms, sometimes using Asian techniques. Many of them have open studios—you can even tour the New Mexico Potters Trail (www.newmexicopotterstrail.org) around Santa Fe.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition