Pueblo ceramists bridge the past and the present

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – One artist chronicles contemporary Indian life and the absurdities of human nature. One learned as a child to speak through clay, and one is renowned as a master of pure form. Though distinct in style, form and content, these three contemporary masters of Pueblo ceramics share an ancient, unbroken heritage: A reverence for the Mother Clay.

“We come from a world of dirt,” said Roxanne Swentzell, Santa Clara. “The earth is very close to us.”

Pueblo artists Diego Romero, Swentzell and Lonnie Vigil joined curator Gaylord Torrence at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Nov. 13 for an artists’ panel, “Tradition-Innovation: Contemporary Masters of Native American Ceramics.” The artists shared their work and thoughts on topics ranging from competition in the Indian art market to the mysteries of the creative process.

Whether it involves their choice of materials, subject matter, process, technique, or the influences they bring into their work, these artists are pushing boundaries and adding nuance to definitions of traditional and contemporary Indian art.

Pottery as history

Born in Berkley, Calif., Romero (Cochiti) is one of the most free-spirited Native ceramists working today. Using a combination of native clay and commercial materials for his painted ceramic jars and bowls, some of Romero’s influences include the narrative traditions of ancient Mimbres and Greek pottery, as well as elements of pop culture and comics.

Romero told the panel audience he considers himself a chronologist of the absurdity of human nature. His work covers a broad range of subjects, from the historical to the deeply personal. Romero’s 2005 creation, “A True Tale,” is from the Nelson-Atkins collection. Other subject matter includes Greek and Pueblo mythology, satiric social commentary in “Phonehenge,” and the chronicles of Romero’s own personal demons of rage and loss in “An Eye for an Eye.”

“His work is genius in my mind,” Swentzell said.

The language of clay

Nothing is more important to Swentzell than being able to communicate. Like her mother, grandmother and aunts before her, Swentzell carries on a long Pueblo tradition of ceramics. “As Pueblo women, we are builders.”

As a child, Swentzell struggled with a speech impediment. She began building clay figures to communicate her feelings.

“I think of the clay as my first language. That’s how I began. I was trying to communicate.”

Known for her provocative figure sculptures, Swentzell uses commercial clay and fires in an electric kiln rather than a pit fire. Her 1997 work, “Kosha Appreciating Anything” is on display at the Nelson-Atkins’ American Indian galleries.

She shared photos of her current project, a powerful work in progress commissioned by the National Congress of American Indians depicting the Corn Mothers desperately trying to reach children lost to drugs and alcohol. “If you deal on an emotional level with people, it’s a common language.”

Though Swentzell, Romero and Vigil have all received universal acclaim and recognition, Swentzell expressed ambivalence toward competition, saying it was foreign to her as an artist. “It’s a very hard concept, being non-Western. It’s not about competition. It’s not about who’s better.”

Vigil, Nambe, also expressed discomfort with competition, saying it can create negative feelings of envy and worthlessness.

Vigil is the 2010 recipient of the Native Treasures Living Treasures Award, presented by the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, Santa Fe. “Although his pots are constructed in the traditional coil method,” said Edith Eicher of the Native Treasurers Indian Arts Festival, “his designs are modern and even timeless.”

Vigil is credited with transforming utilitarian ware to a collectible art form. His “Micaceous Pottery Jar, 2007,” holds a prominent position in the American Indian galleries at the Nelson-Atkins. Traditional forms will continue, said Vigil. “I don’t see that disappearing or becoming stagnant.”

The Mother Clay

When asked by a member of the panel audience how he achieved the remarkable symmetry of his jar, Vigil said, “I don’t try to do it. It just happens.”

For these Pueblo artists, ceramics is more than a matter of their skills or vision. Here, the creative process and the clay itself are collaborative life forces, the artists often yielding to what statement they may lend to their work. Form, said Vigil, sometimes comes by accident. “This is what the clay wants.”

They approach their work with humility, a respect and acknowledgment for what lies beyond their control. “If I do drop the clay, I always apologize to the clay because it’s precious and special,” Vigil said.

The artists’ panel marked the first anniversary of the American Indian galleries that opened in November 2009. Torrence, the Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator, American Indian Art at the Nelson-Atkins, called the 1,000-year-old tradition of Native American ceramics one of the greatest pottery movements in the world.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at lorrainejessepe@msn.com.