SANTA FE, N.M. — Exploring pueblo pottery is a gateway into the land, people, and native cultures of New Mexico. Born from an intrinsic need for storage vessels, these ceramics are today widely admired and collected for their beauty.
For one tribe, the Tewas, there is no word for art. "My mother always told me pots are made to be used," says potter Dora Tse-Pe of San Ildefonso Pueblo. "They are sad if you don't use them."
Despite the fact that many pieces fetch as much as $20,000, the idea that pottery is, above all else, inherently functional is still very much a part of American Indian culture.
Pueblo pottery is made using a technique that dates back more than 1,000 years. "You could put me on a mountain, and I could make my pots," says Ms. Tse-Pe. "All I need is my clay."
The clay is dug from nearby sacred sites. Then it is soaked, sifted, and mixed with sand or volcanic ash. Vessels are built by hand - coil by coil. Shaping the pot can take a day, sometimes two.
Tse-Pe laughs when she says that she has "modernized" the process by using rubber or aluminum tools to smooth and even the coils, instead of the gourd shards she was taught to use by her relatives. "They don't break," she says.
After the pot has air-dried, it is painted with clay slip and polished by hand with river stones. There are no kilns, no potters' wheels throughout the process. When the pot is ready to be fired, it is burned in cedar wood and cow dung. It is the soot from the dung that gives the San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblo pots their distinct black appearance.
In one tribal language, both clay and person share the same word, perhaps because many native people believe that the first people emerged from the ground, formed and shaped in much the same way as each pot and bowl is today. It should come as no surprise, then, that potters pray before they remove the clay from the ground, pray before they build the pot, and pray before they fire the pot.
Visitors can learn the techniques by participating in classes or watching local artisans demonstrate their techniques. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe (505-827-6463) offers adult classes and seminars, as well as guided tours of the Buchsbaum Gallery of Southwestern Pottery, a collection of 300 vessels from prehistoric times to the present.
The Ghost Ranch (800-821-5145), with campuses in Santa Fe and Abiquiu, offers art seminars and workshops.
The Santa Fe Indian Market (505-983-5220), held annually in August (Aug. 19-22 this year), is the world's largest native American arts show.
The portal in front of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe is also a gateway for those interested in learning more about Indian arts. Local artisans gather here daily to sell their arts and crafts. Visitors will find an array of styles, from the famous black-on-black ware from San Ildefonso and Santa Clara pueblos to the plain, mica-flecked pots of Picuris Pueblo.
I was strolling here when I stopped at one of the many blankets spread with Indian crafts. Sitting beside the blanket were a husband and wife with brochures placed before them that read "Francis and Marvin Martinez." I asked if they were related to the famous Maria Martinez.
"Yes," answered Marvin, shyly.
Maria Martinez, a San Ildefonso native, has often been credited for elevating Indian ceramics into an art form. She was involved in replicating prehistoric pottery for archaeologists in the early 1900s. She refined her pottery techniques and first demonstrated her craft at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. In the 1920s, her black-on-black style emerged, which she and her pueblo are famous for.
After spending an hour in the plaza with the Martinezes, I realized that seeing the pottery, even watching the process, was only half the story. I needed to go to a local pueblo. It is at the pueblos that in the hands of native artists the clay takes on life.
• For more information, call the Indian Tourism Program, 800-545-2070.