Listening to the Clay
Preparing ten pounds of red mica clay that I’d brought home from Taos, New Mexico, reminded me of my residency there two years ago. This naturally micaceous clay used by the Taos Pueblo potters comes from the mountains and is used for both cookware and decorative pottery.
I had in mind to create a traditional piece in the style of the Taos Pueblo potters. After hollowing out the interior into a rough form, the clay needed time to strengthen in order to hold a shape under the weight. After several days I began to work the clay but the walls started collapsing. Days later the walls once again collapsed.
Starting over was tempting, but something held me back and so I let go of any preconceived notions. Letting the clay have its way transformed the piece with folds and undulations I would have never imagined.
Talking with the Clay
I was in Taos when I first read about the relationship the Pueblo potters have with their clay in Talking with the Clay: The Art of Pueblo Pottery by Stephen Trimble. The book focuses on the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest and shares many of the potters’ personal views.
In one of the book’s interviews, Rose Naranjo of Santa Clara Pueblo said, “The clay is very selfish. It will form itself to what the clay wants to be. The clay says, I want to be this, not what you want me to be.” That certainly described my encounter with this red mica piece and more often than not what occurs when working with clay.
There were several other interviews in Trimble’s book that I really connected with: Santa Clara Pueblo potter Jody Folwell said, “My pieces start out somewhere deep down inside of me. I feel that physically I just make what comes out of me spiritually. The pieces seem to mold themselves. I never really mold them.”
Glady’s Paquin of Laguna Pueblo said, “So much of me goes into the pot. Even my thoughts are in the pot. I have to tell the pot how to be. The stubborn ones I give the okay to be that way. You have to realize which one wants to be and which one you should start over again.”
An Elegant Enigma
Although the culture of clay runs deep with the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the rapport with clay touches potters everywhere. This excerpt from my book, The Light in the Kiva, describes how I felt working on the piece “Elegant Enigma.” “The evolution of a piece is sometimes a mystery even to me. Studying this amorphous shape in progress I wondered where it was going. After many twists and turns, a form slowly emerged. This enigmatic piece unfolded into a complex structure.”