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Feats of Clay: Carved, Etched and Incised Pottery of Santa Clara Pueblo

When you’re working with materials as old as earth, as potters do, it’s no surprise to find that “new” ideas for designing and adorning clay vessels have already been tried, often hundreds of years ago. Still, every master potter takes these new-old ideas and gives them a distinctive, creative twist.

Such is the case with carved pottery of the Southwest. While credit for popularizing deeply carved, finely etched and incised designs in the surfaces of pots is given to certain Pueblo potters in the 20th century, polychrome and blackware shards dating back to the mid-1600s have been found to contain etched designs. “As long as people have been working with clay, they’ve been thinking about different clay techniques,” notes Anthony Chavarria (Santa Clara Pueblo), curator of ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.
Direct antecedents of today’s carved pottery can be found in pieces from the late 1800s, when potters made impressions in the clay walls with their fingers. They pressed outward from inside the vessel, or inward from the outside, to create a convex or concave design. Often these were single designs, such as the bear paw. Other pots were shaped with the impression of vertical ribs, inspired by the natural forms of pumpkins and melons.

Beginning in the 1920s, a Santa Clara Pueblo potter named Serafina Tafoya (1863–1949) took the technique of hand-impressing one step further by gouging and then smoothing bear paw and water serpent designs. This led to the development of deeper and more clean-edged carving, with the carved designs at first limited to a wide band around the midsection of the pot.

Serafina Tafoya stands at the crown of a family tree representing one of the most influential families in Santa Clara pottery. Her descendants include such renowned potters as Margaret Tafoya, Camilio (Sunflower) Tafoya, Christina Naranjo, Joseph Lonewolf, Grace Medicine Flower, Toni Roller, Mela Youngblood and her children Nathan and Nancy Youngblood, and Tammy Garcia, among many others. Serafina’s granddaughter Teresita Naranjo was among the first to expand the area of carving to cover more of the entire vessel.
In the late 1960s, San Ildefonso Pueblo potters Popovi Da (son of the legendary Maria Martinez) and his son, Tony Da, began etching fine designs on their pots. This method, known as sgraffito, quickly became popular through the work of Santa Clara potters Joseph Lonewolf and his sister, Grace Medicine Flower. Santa Clara potter Jody Folwell took sgraffito in a new direction in the late 1970s by etching designs after firing, rather than before. This creates a slightly harder surface to etch and allows for more diversity in surface treatment.

Another age-old carving style, that of incising straight lines, was revived in the 1930s by potters at Okay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) and elsewhere. Today artists such as Jody Naranjo of Santa Clara use fine incising to create background patterns. Nancy Youngblood gained acclaim with deeply carved versions of melon pots. Similarly, dozens of masterful potters over the years have brought their own sensibilities, innovations and exciting new directions to the art while continuing to employ the ancient methods of gathering and preparing clay, coil-building and hand-polishing pots, and firing in outdoor firing pits. Here is a look at five potters whose work combines the best of the old and new in the field of carved pottery.

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