Cowan's Corner

Southwest Ceramics Meld Form and Function

By Wes Cowan
and Danica Farnand

I look across my desk and gaze at the gracefully shaped Zia olla sitting on the shelf. Its four-color design dances across its body and around its shoulder. And as I follow the rhythmic pattern of the delicate lines, I begin to think about the woman who made this jar and the time and talent needed to prepare such a masterpiece.

The late 19th century was the dawn of American Anthropology. Men such as John W. Powell, Jesse Walter Fewkes, Harold S. Colton, and Edgar L. Hewett researched and recorded southwestern cultures both historic and prehistoric. During their ethnological and archeological studies, a new, unexplored world was discovered and sent east. Photographs, reports and artifacts were brought to museums, institutions and World Fairs, inciting interest and instigating western travel.

As these anthropologists attempted to understand prehistoric aboriginal cultures of the West, they often requested the help of contemporary Puebloan potters. In 1909, Edgar Hewett unearthed shiny black pottery shards during his excavations near Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico.

Hoping to recreate these vessels, he asked Maria Martinez (1887-1980), a master potter of San Ildefonso Pueblo, to help. She and her husband Julian redeveloped and perfected a firing process called oxygen-reduction firing a technique that allowed her to obtain both a high gloss and black matte finish. As the pots were fired, and after the kiln temperature had reached maximum heat, manure was used to smother the flames. The pottery enveloped by carbon-filled smoke turned it black. Maria's black-on-black work is highly desirable, in part because three in five pieces broke during firing, but also because of her mesmerizing forms and decorations.

Other women ceramicists, such as Nampeyo (1860-1942, Hopi) with her steady hand and attraction to her ancestor's designs and shapes, revitalized the 15th century Sikyatki-style of pottery. These elegant, squat-shaped vessels with wide body and narrow opening are highly sought. At auction, her pieces can bring up to of $25,000. Lucy Lewis (1902-1992, Acoma), a matriarch of Acoma pottery making, also incorporated the designs of her predecessors. She is known for finely executing 12th and 14th century imagery of the Mimbres and Anasazi cultures. Complica-ted geometrics integrated with a variety of animals can keep your eye busy for hours.

Other jars created by less well-known potters are equally as desirable and attractive. Large water jars called ollas had both the physical design to be effective carrying vessels and aesthetic merit. Early jars had a sharp shoulder that helped the woman grab a hold, and an indentation in the base allowed her to balance the jar on her head and transport it home. Beautiful designs of water birds, Avanyu the sea serpent, and heartline deer painted on the body were executed with two purposes in mind.

The clay slip to which these designs were applied, sealed the outside of the pot. Although the vessels are semi-porous, only a small amount of water evaporates. The slow transfer of water from inside to outside naturally cools and refreshes the water.
Values on these types of jars vary by the size, age and pueblo. Ollas circa 1890-1900s with 12" diameters can bring thousands of dollars, while smaller pieces from the 1920s may bring several hundred.

The turn of the last century brought about a revitalization of Puebloan ceramics, of which the delicacy of form and design cannot be denied. Today, the potting tradition continues, revisiting century old shapes and designs, with contemporary innovative whimsical creatures grounded in folktales or simply the potter's mind. Any trip to the West will open up a world of magic, not unlike the magic experienced by some of the early visitors.


About the Author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.

 



Article research by Danica Farnand.

 

Zuni Olla collected during the Wheeler Survey
(1869-1879), 8.25" x 12", $12,650.

Acoma handled jar potted by Lucy Lewis in 1959, 6.25" x 6.5", $1,440.

Maria Martinez holding
a black-on-black plate.

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