Dough Bowls and Storage Jars
Many serious collectors of historic pueblo pottery do not think a collection is fully complete without an example of one of the majestic large forms commonly referred to as dough bowls and storage jars.
In his classic book, Pottery of the Pueblos of New Mexico, Jonathan Batkin described the dough bowl as “…a vessel of large diameter and substantial depth, usually with an upright or flared rim”. He goes on to suggest that true dough bowls, often larger than 16″ in diameter, were not common until the late 1800′s. So when we as collectors find a fine 19th century dough bowl today, we have acquired an example of a form that was relatively new in the pueblos when it was made. The function of the dough bowls was simple and elemental: they were used to knead a large quantity of dough for baking in an outdoor horno (oven). Preparing, baking in and cleaning the horno was a major undertaking so baking multiple loaves of bread at once made sense. The bread could then be stored in the dough bowl. I was once told by a pueblo potter that the very large dough bowls, over 18″, would also be used to bathe babies. So this form reflects the warmth and nurturing of the home. For this reason, when I purchase a dough bowl, it must exude use and warmth. Size, patina (contributing to rich color), design, and wear all contribute.
Ollas, Mid-Sized Jars and Bowls
Ollas, or water jars probably require the least explanation for experienced collectors of historic pueblo pottery. They are arguably the most commonly collected of the pueblo pottery forms. Batkin in, “Pottery of the Pueblos of New Mexico,” defines an olla as “…a relatively large vessel used for collecting, carrying and storing water”. And that’s where the similarity ends. Sometimes ollas have a concave base for balancing the jar on the head, but sometimes not. Some ollas are very rounded, almost lush in form such as the Zia four color olla with deep purple in this inventory section. Others can be high shouldered and wide such as the 1880’s Zuni olla also found here; while the beautiful Acoma 4 color olla with orange bird has a very low mid-body. An olla form most commonly identified with the Aguillar sisters who were active in the first quarter of the 20th century at Santo Domingo (Kewa) pueblo is simply elegant, tall and narrow. Watch for examples of this wonderful olla form here under New Additions in the weeks to come. Finally there are forms particular to certain pueblos; again the wide Zuni olla is a good example of a form identified closely with 19th century Zuni pottery; or the wide bodied early 20th century polychromes from San Ildefonso.
Small Pueblo Indian Pottery Bowls and Jars
Small Indian pottery bowls are fairly self-explanatory including small Indian pottery chili bowls, soup bowls, serving bowls, etc. By small jars, I am referring to small versions of storage jars and ollas; traditional forms just smaller. By and large this may mean an olla or storage jar shape that is 5-6” tall not 10-18” like the traditional water and storage jars.
My interest in this form has been rekindled only recently by spending time with Santa Fe gallery owner, Robert Nichols, a good friend of mine. Robert has long collected small Indian pottery jars. His wonderful collection has been composed of late 19th to early 20th century examples. Many have patina from years of pueblo use or handling by collectors. Small jars are easier to pick up, hold, examine, move, etc. than larger ollas; the best of them are irresistible, begging to be held. Pottery is a tactile art form, created by loving hands and small jars lend themselves to being appreciated by touch as well as by our eye senses. They more often have primitive, non-commercial-feeling designs which are warm and wonderful. Others have very sophisticated and beautifully executed designs elements such as the Kewa (Santo Domingo Indian pottery jar from Robert Nichols collection shown in the “small Indian pottery bowls and jars” inventory here). Many items from Robert’s collection will be coming to this site.
There are several advantages to collecting these smaller forms. First, beautiful contemporary pueblo small bowls and jars are plentiful at Indian Market and in Santa Fe galleries, but finding really exceptional small Indian pottery jars with age, use, warmth, etc. is more of a challenge. They are surprisingly rare. Next, if we live in a smaller space or we’re challenged by how to display our pottery, smaller bowls and jars are just easier. Finally, a very important consideration for me as a collector is cost. Even an exceptional small historic jar costs a fraction (sometimes a small fraction) of a great olla or storage jar. So a fine and beautiful and warm collection is possible for more of us.
Cups, Pitchers, Old Tourist Forms
We continue to explore overlooked, but rich areas of collecting historic pueblo pottery. Old pitchers and cups qualify. It is a neglected and under appreciated area. “Sophisticated” collectors lump these forms under the tourist category; ok for tourists (themselves under-appreciated for the value they’ve brought to this art form), but not for “serious” collections. As collectors willing to expand our view of what is historic and beautiful, such attitudes are to our great advantage.
Perhaps it may be helpful to understand when and how this art form began to proliferate. With the completion of the railroad to New Mexico by 1880, the tourist trade to northern New Mexico was in full swing. In Pottery of the Pueblos of New Mexico 1700-1940 Batkin says: There was “…the rapid deterioration of the (pottery) tradition after 1880 when the railroad to Albuquerque was completed. Trains filled with tourists now went near the pueblos of Santo Domingo, Isleta, Laguna, Acoma, and Zuni. Travellers, less likely to carry large vessels, indirectly discouraged their manufacture, and little pitchers, bowl and figurines became standard products of Pueblo potters.”
So there was a proliferation of these forms; (Pueblo potters, of course, knew how to make them; many ceremonial ceramics were small forms and unusually shaped.). Their attraction then is similar to their attraction today. They are plentiful (although very fine examples are not), relatively inexpensive, easily transported, and easier to display at home (compared to, say, a 20″ Kewa dough bowl). So another source of prejudice arises from these very factors: large traditional forms are prestigious while small non-traditional forms are not. Those of us who can see past this view can take advantage of a delightful collecting specialty.
Of course, like in the other forms (dough bowls, storage jars, ollas, storytellers and figures), there are certainly poorer and less attractive examples; these are abundant. Part of the fun and challenge is to sift through these and discover lovely, well made, beautifully formed and painted examples by long forgotten masters of, well, tourist ware. The fact is that all of the forms, even the large dough bowls, ultimately became tourist ware, created for an expanding (to this day) art market. Among the pleasures of this category is trying to discern which were intended as tourist pieces and which intended for use in pueblo homes. Many of these objects have wonderful patina; were cups unsold to tourists brought home to use; is the patina simply from 100 years of handling by admiring collector/owners? Robert Tenorio, the great Kewa Pueblo potter, once told me: ”If you want to see patina on old pots, see bowls that I made for food to be served at feast days; after 2 years of use, they appear to be 100 years old”. We can’t be sure and often our guess is just as valid as the experts’.
In this category, you can judge how well I have chosen examples to offer. I admit to accepting more leeway in my judgement (and make no mistake, these are personal judgements) of excellence here. Of course, I look for well made and decorated examples; fine and subtle. But in this category we can allow our love of fun in collecting to run a little wild. So somewhat funky, more primitive examples are among my favorites. For such an example, see the turn-of-the century pottery basket from Santo Domingo with the parade of cascading funky bird heads that is in the group photo rotating on the Home Page. It is also fun to surmise if a common feature may be indicative of a particular artist’s or families’ work. I have great love for early 20th century tea/coffee cups from Isleta Pueblo. More than once, I have found cups where the cup handle is placed high on the cup and at an identical angle, clearly (at least to my unskillful eye) the signature of a proud artist.
Storytellers, Figurines and Nativity Scenes
This is a wonderful time to consider Native American storyteller figurines as an area of collecting interest for lovers of historic pueblo pottery. In this case, history, in a sense begins in 1964 when Helen Cordero created the first Native American storyteller figurine. Of course, satiric and comical ceramic figures from Cochiti pueblo are documented for sale to tourists as early as the 1870’s (see figure 3 in Barbara Babcock’s classic work “The Pueblo Storyteller” and in the Wheelwright Museum exhibit catalog called “Clay People”).
This tradition did not die. In the 1930’s-1950’s, a number of artists at Cochiti (Damacia Cordero, Teresita Romero, Laurencita Herrera and Helen Cordero for example) were producing Native American animal figurines and adult figures holding drums or pots (called Singing Ladies, according to Babcock) or singing to a baby in their arms. The latter came to be known as “singing mothers”.
In 1964, Alexander Girard commissioned Helen Cordero a well known Cochiti potter even then, to create the first Native American storyteller figurine (see image in Babcock, plate 3, p. 95) effectively “creating a new genre of pueblo pottery” in Babcock’s words.
Today, Helen Cordero Native American storytellers are a great collectible, often commanding $10,000-20,000 and upwards. While wonderful, they are often beyond the budget of many collectors today.
So there is an opportunity for us in the work of those Native American figurative potters who preceded Helen Cordero and those who were her contemporaries. Like Helen, these potters used traditional materials (clay, slip, paint) and fired traditionally outdoors in most cases. Using Babcock as a source, in addition to the artists named above, these potters include in no certain order: Mary Francis Herrera, Josephine Laweka, Marie Laweka, Francis Naranjo Suina, Dorothy Trujillo, George Cordero, Louis (and Virginia) Naranjo, Felipa Trujillo, Marie G. Romero (with her mother Persingula Gachupin) who made the first storytellers at Jemez Pueblo in 1968, and others.
An adjunct to this collecting approach is the very recent shortage and near disappearance of the old Cochiti white slip. If the slip disappears entirely (and several potters that I spoke with at Indian Market 2010 spoke of being completely out or near so) the color that was produced by outdoor firing of this old slip will disappear. For that reason, the current work of veteran artists such as Ada Suina, Mary and Leonard Trujillo, Martha Arquero among others may fundamentally change in the very near future. For this reason, I was buying actively from each of these artists at 7:00 a.m. this year as Indian Market opened.
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