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Navajo potter throws beauty and symbolism into his work

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah – Navajo potter Lawrence Crank began his career 20 years ago. Today, his major pots command prices around $6,000 at major shows like Indian Market in Santa Fe. Between those points were many years of perfecting and improving his craft, learning from elders through sweat lodges and chantings, and incorporating that knowledge into his pots. The results are astonishing, intricate, beautiful and full of meaningful symbolism.

All of his pots are thrown on a wheel. He says a piece is more unique if it’s hand-thrown rather than made with a mold and calls his work “semi-traditional.” He doesn’t collect his own clay or create paints by using leaves and plants like more traditional potters, but compares his method to an artist who buys oils and canvases on which to paint. From that point on, his pots contain his particular style and symbolism. “Each part has a meaning,” Crank said.

“I’m learning every day,” he commented. “A lot of the elders with the knowledge of the traditions are slowly passing on and I’m trying to educate myself with what I need to know from them. They’re very secretive. They have to get comfortable with you in order to tell you and educate you.” He gives a lot of credit for his knowledge to his grandfather, “a great medicine man.”

Using a recently finished, highly intricate pot as an example, he explained some of the symbols. “Everything is in fours because of the Fourth World. The eagle feathers symbolize the four seasons. These other four eagle feathers symbolize the four directions. There’s a symbol of Spider Woman and a Two Gray Hills rug design with symbols of half a year on each side, six to a side or 12 months. The eagle claws are for holding to traditions and what you believe and where you’re from and who you are. Vertical lines represent rain,” he commented.

He generally includes full figures of various animals, intricately carved. This particular pot showed an eagle in flight. “The feathers purposely touch into the design below, mother earth, because it carries our prayers from mother earth to father sky. The wings almost touch father sky, never quite touching but giving the message it needs.”

He creates the designs seemingly without thought. “It’s like writing to me,” he said. “I already have an image of the design I’m going to do and I just start carving the design.” He repeats the symbols on different pots, but each pot will have its own design. “The shape of the vase determines the design and painting. The flow of the vase determines the flow of the design,” he explained.

The hard part for Crank is putting life in the animals. “You can almost feel the feather of the eagle,” he commented. “Everything is done freehand. People argue it’s laser-done but it’s not. I do it all by hand.” A bull elk on another pot seems ready to jump from the pot, it’s so realistic.

He used to draw the figures on paper first to get the correct size, but time and practice have eliminated that need. Now he works directly on the pot, although he uses pictures of animals as reference to get the details right. “Somehow I have no trouble with the eagle. I draw eagles on with no other references,” he commented.

Explaining how the designs are created, he said, “I put two different layers of paint on. The first layer is a light color and I brush it on to give the thickness it needs. Then I put a top color, which is a thin color of brown. It’s brushed to give a wood-appearance. Then I etch away the top layer to expose the second layer. I also carve deeper to expose the natural color of the clay, the white area. I have to etch without breaking the layers because if that happens, I lose the entire design.” He will devote two or three months of work to a single major pot. He took four to Santa Fe last year and sold them all plus others of lower price.

Crank also does another style, which has a wood-grain or leather appearance. He can create them much more rapidly and thus sell them for considerably less money, in the three-figure range rather than in the thousands. These are also beautifully done, also full of symbolism, and very different from most other artists.

Describing the process, he said, “Once the pot is made, the designs are carved right into the clay without colors. Then I fire it. It comes out rather orange and I put a stain wash on it so the color stays where I carved. That gives it the wood effect and has a grain.” He generally adds some color to it – turquoise, teal green or maroon – then adds a finish which creates a leather-like appearance before concluding with a clear matte finish.

Crank was born in Monument Valley, but grew up in Montezuma Creek. Today he lives with his wife and three children in Monument Valley. He has a shop at the entrance to the Navajo Tribal Park off Route 163 where Utah and Arizona meet. He sells from that shop, fills commission orders and tries to attend two shows a month throughout the country during the year.