Visual Arts

Firing Squad

The railroad didn't do many favors for Southwestern American Indians. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it did bring them a vital new market for their arts and crafts. Just when traditional tribal wares were losing their place to manufactured ones (also brought by train), the iron horse steamed in loads of shoppers in search of authentic Native American goods. Western roadsides, train depots, trading posts and souvenir shops at national parks sprouted into export centers of a changing Indian culture.

And the exchange of greenbacks for beads, blankets, jewelry, pottery and other artifacts--now running annually in the tens of millions of dollars--began. The opportunity to sell outside the tribe undoubtedly helped to revive some fading traditional Indian arts and crafts. Yet as "The Legacy of Generations: Pottery by American Indian Women," at the Heard Museum, points out, it also dramatically changed at least one of those crafts.

In the past century, the Anglo market did more than simply shift the audience for Native American ceramics. It gradually altered the appearance, purpose and meaning of the pottery. No longer made to be used, clay wares acquired the increased self-consciousness of works made exclusively to be seen, sold and collected. Out went ceremony. In came connoisseurship, and the inevitable artistic struggle between tradition and innovation.

The exhibition was organized for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C., by Carefree resident Susan Peterson. A former professor of ceramics at Hunter College, in New York, Peterson has written a number of acclaimed books on ceramics and potters that feature two of the more interesting artists in the show, Maria Martinez and Lucy Lewis.

The show contains about 100 works by 28 prominent American Indian women potters. The feminine focus is hardly exclusionary. For centuries, Native American ceramics have been handed down from mother to daughter and granddaughter.

The modern lineage of six pottery families is covered in the show's first two sections, aptly titled "Matriarchs" and "The Matrilineal Line." The third, and weakest, section highlights artists characterized as "the avant-garde," a term that seems out of place in an arena still shaped by a powerful nostalgia for ancient familial ways. In addition to Martinez and Lewis, the six family matriarchs include Nampeyo of Hano, Margaret Tafoya, Helen Cordero and Blue Corn. All born between 1860 and 1920, these gifted artists were the ones who brought the old ways to the new market.

For the most part, they based their innovations on ancestral forms. Often, fragments of works were all that they had to go by. Nampeyo of Hano, a Hopi who lived from 1860 until 1942, based the beautiful tracery of her polychromed decorations on shards from 12th-century Sikyati ceramics unearthed nearby.

Peterson says that Maria Martinez, who lived and worked at San Ildefonso from 1880 to 1980, initially developed her distinctive polished jet-black ware along with her husband, Julian, to match 2,000-year-old shards found just outside the village by archaeologists working for the Smithsonian Institution and Heye Foundation.

Lucy Lewis, who was born around 1890 and lived for more than a century at Acoma Pueblo, also depended upon ancient fragments. She was always picking them up out of the dirt. Yet she also encountered some whole pots. She recalled seeing sacred pots decorated with polychromed birds and flowers in a kiva at Acoma--a motif introduced by the Spanish conquistadors of the 1500s.

Several of Lewis' own versions of those Spanish-inspired designs are in the show. Yet the show also boasts a handful of the extraordinary bowls and jars with black-and-white abstractions that she derived from pot shards. Her early bowl decorated with spirals and step patterns, and later jars with lightning jags and hair-width star bursts rank among the finest ceramic works in the past century.

Their ease is misleading. Lewis had a remarkable sense of decoration. She was constantly adjusting her decorations to fit the curvature of her forms. And she gave them just the right balance of whites and blacks, emptiness and solidity. The fine-lined star-burst decoration on her pot from 1983 shows that she also understood the dynamic tension and beauty of making straight lines appear on the surface of round objects. The shame of this show is that the installation prevents viewers from seeing these magnificent works in the round. Presumably for economic reasons (the museum is in the midst of an expansion), Lewis' pots have been given the anthropological treatment--stuffed into cases against a wall like so many bits of catalogued evidence. You can't walk around them and see the full subtlety with which she brought them to life through decoration.

The same is true of the beautifully drawn pots by Nampeyo of Hano, and the larger examples from Maria and Julian Martinez and Margaret Tafoya. Four large pieces by the Martinezes are jammed (with barely an inch or two between them) into a case not far from the entrance to the show's main gallery. And a large Tafoya pot has been squeezed into a poorly lighted wall case, essentially reducing it to a flattened profile of form.

These settings virtually negate the booming space and presence of these works. However, the installation isn't the only trouble with this show. As you move down through the generations, the works weaken dramatically. The crafting doesn't slip. In fact, in many instances, it has taken on even greater refinement and control. Emma Lewis Mitchell's lizard jar, Dorothy Torivio's eye-popping black-and-white vases, Grace Medicine Flower's miniatures and Nancy Youngblood Lugo's black, ribbed bowls and incised vases are dazzling examples of workwomanship.

But expression in clay--as in all media--is more than highly refined craft. The works of the matriarchs--filled as they were with imperfections--hovered between the old world and the new. They were barely one generation removed from clayworks that were consumed and defined by active use and meaning within their culture. And they carried the emotional force of that experience. That's hardly the case now. Today's ceramics are driven by a humming market in strictly visual objects and a persistent nostalgia for old-time ways. It has limited the emotional range of the works. But then, thanks to the railroad, that's as true of clay being made off the reservation as on.

"The Legacy of Generations: Pottery by American Indian Women" continues through Sunday, May 17, at the Heard Museum, 22 East Monte Vista. For more information, see the Visual Art listing in Thrills.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow