Nampeyo, The Potter's Process April 13 2016
Nampeyo’s, like many other native Tewa-Hopi Natives, process began with the collecting of clay. Then the slow process of smoothing the clay would begin, squishing the clay with her feet, Nampeyo would remove small pebbles and other debris. Once all of the larger pebbles were removed the clay would be placed on a kneading stone to be further smoothed. Often Nampeyo would add sandstone dust to created an even smoother texture to the clay.
Then the no less strenuous task of coiling the pots or bowls began. After every second or third coil of clay, Nampeyo would use a melon or squash rind to smooth the surface of the quickly forming pot. Using her best judgment, Nampeyo would pause in the construction of the pot if she felt the wall of the pot could no longer bear the weight of additional coils of clay, leaving it to dry, thus strengthening the walls to allow her to continue with the process at a later time.
After the coiling and smoothing process was complete Nampeyo would use mineral colors ground on a natural slab, creating shades of red, white, and dark brown. To create black she would use beeweed or mustard plant, boiling it down to a syrup and allowing it to dry on cornhusk, the ancient version of saran wrap. Allowing the cakes of pigment to be easily peeled off and then chunked for storage or dissolved in water to create a smooth paint. Of course every painter needs her brush. Nampeyo use the traditional yucca switch that had been mashed allowing the fibers to separate. For less detailed work or large areas of her designs swabs of wool from a local sheep worked just fine.
Are you tired yet? Well Nampeyo’s work wasn’t done. While the painted pottery dried, she began to build a base of sheep's dung under a grate in the center of a circular ring of sand. Then after the pottery was thoroughly dry and warmed through it would be place on the grate and surrounded by pieces of broken pottery. These remnants of failed pieces were used to protect the new pottery from the fire. More sheep’s dung had to be layered on to create a dome and then left to burn for several hours.
Like in modern pottery techniques Nampeyo added unique items, like sheep bones, to be burned during the firing process to alter the final look of her pottery. Although it is not recorded that she explain her reasons for adding the bones, one theory is that it would make the pottery whiter.
Reflecting on the dedication that Nampeyo showed to her craft with each step, from the collection of clay to the thrill of holding a finished piece, no one can doubt that Nampeyo worked hard. Pottery was not only her livelihood for many years, but also a life long passion.
Featured image by Adam Clark Vroman, Nampeyo building a wall of fuel, 1901, Smithsonian Institution [Public domain]