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Years ago, I read an article in the Autumn 1987 issue of American Indian Art Magazine by Richard M. (Dick) Howard, called “How Old is That Acoma Pot.” In that article, one line made an impression on me. Dick, a respected expert and mentor to many of us, stated: “Unfortunately, often there is no easy answer.” The same can be said about discovering who actually made unsigned historic pueblo pottery.
Signing pueblo pottery did not begin until, perhaps, 1923 (see Spivey, pp. 64-68) when San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez began to regularly sign her pottery. This means that the vast majority of pottery made historically in the New Mexico pueblos was unsigned. Yet, we search for clues, hoping to attribute a piece of pottery to someone, hopefully someone famous, someone significant. Perhaps it’s our curious nature to do so, or perhaps it’s to fulfill a desire to express gratitude to the potter.
In our search for the unknown potters, we often rely upon limited literature; a very small number of experts, their books and articles. In classic articles in American Indian Art Magazine in 1987 and 1981 and in his book, The Pottery of the Pueblos of New Mexico, Jonathan Batkin made us newly aware of exceptional San Ildefonso potters and pottery painters not named Maria and Julian Martinez. Among them: Martina Vigil and Florentino Montoya, Dolorita Montoya, Dominguita Pino, Alfredo Garcia, Crescencio Martinez. More recently, in their exhaustive and excellent reference books (especially The Pottery of Zia Pueblo), Harlow and Lanmon did the same, reintroducing us to Harviana Toribio, Reyes Galvin, Isabel Medina and many others. Several of these artists are represented in this show.
Using these books and others plus my own inner circle of pottery friends and collectors, this cursory examination includes some examples of several levels of attribution. First, potter unknown; from this, the largest category, I’ve chosen a small group of particularly exceptional 19th century jars where I can’t hazard even a guess. Perhaps some of you can! What each jar has in common is having been made by talented (likely) women whose names are lost to history, at least for us. The next category I’ve simply called possibly by, borrowing a phrase from Lanmon and Harlow. These are attributions that are somewhat stronger than potter unknown, based upon characteristics of the jar that appear linked to a particular potter or group of potters from the above literature. Some wonderful Zia polychromes and a group of San Ildefonso black-on-red are featured here. As noted in the paragraph above, the Zias and the San Ildefonsos are interesting because some of our first known art market master potters emerged on the scene in the first quarter of the 20th century.
The next category represents stronger attributions, where the terms attributed to or probably by are used. It is not surprising that this is the smallest category with possibly by characteristics sometimes enhanced by photographic evidence of a potter with the jar or a strongly idiosyncratic jar similar to one attributed to by an expert. So our search for the unknown potters seems neverending and my own searches continually find my own limitations. Perhaps it’s best that way: a humble appreciation of the artistry of so many potters somehow seems more beneficial than identifying the few.
Section 1 . Potter Unknown
The first 2 jars date to the 1860s – 1880s. Figure 1 is a Zuni olla (water jar); thinly potted with deep colors and rich surface patina; large at over 13 in. diameter, beautifully painted with very fine parallel and cross-hatched lines using possibly a single strand of yucca. Figure 2 is a masterful jar from Laguna pueblo; also large and very thinly potted with classic swirling rainbow bands framing split foliate elements; spare and elegant, the work of a master. Figure 3 is a McCartys (Acoma Pueblo) small jar of 4-5 colors, beautifully painted and thinly potted; one of the finest small jars of this type I’ve ever seen. We know the names of so very few early pueblo potters. Yet these ceramics show that great pottery artists were at work.
Figure 4 is a jar of magisterial presence. Illustrated as Figure 18.13 in Lanmon and Harlow’s The Pottery of Acoma Pueblo, it is uniquely designed with orange-breasted eagles and elks, plus stunningly fine lines, cross-hatching and other elements perfectly arrayed. This was painted by a superior artist. In the Pottery of Acoma Pueblo, Harlow and Lanmon say they “… have seen only one other Acoma vessel decorated with similar eagle; it is illustrated in figure 17.45” (in their book). As far as attribution, Harlow and Lanmon can only rule out Mary Histia as the creator of this remarkable jar because of the dissimilarities of the eagles. We are left only to marvel.
Section 2 . Possibly By
based upon pottery characteristics and including some Zia’s and San Ildefonso Black-on-Red’s by Early 20th Century Zia Pottery Masters
Some Zia’s to Consider
Figure 5 has thick, richly painted double rainbow bands setting off design fields with birds with teardrop wings. This is an earlier jar showing native use and beautiful surface, possibly an early example of master potter Isabel Medina (Toribio). Figure 5a shows early tags on the bottom of this jar including one attributing the jar to Isabel.
Those same thick, richly painted double rainbow bands are evident in Figure 6, a jar decorated wonderfully with alternating birds and distinctively light orange/yellow mammals. While this charming jar could be by Isabel Medina, an argument could be made for Reyes Ansela Shije Herrera, as well. Lanmon and Harlow show a double-banded jar also with light orange/yellow birds in Figure 11.57 of their Zia book. They give a possibly by Isabel Medina notation to that one. However, other potters used this light orange/yellow coloration as well, including Shije Herrera. Attribution is often an ongoing conversation.
Figure 7, a key jar in this show, is also possibly by Isabel Medina and shows an artist in the prime of her artistic and creative life. This spectacular jar features alternating elk and fanciful, atypical Zia birds. Again, dual rainbow bands frame the animals as well as as beautifully rendered chained cloud-like forms. The framing of the birds and elk differ as the rainbows are first over the elk then to the sides of the birds. A tour de force of pottery painting as the detail shots show.
Figure 8 is a color feast with rich orange and red bands and a charming bird. It leans a bit as early pottery often does, but is thin and beautifully painted. The attribution to master potter Trinidad Medina (1884-1969) is based solely on a series of Zia jars illustrated in Harlow and Lanmon’s Pottery of Zia Pueblo that also feature the orange and red double rainbow bands. (See their figure 14.67 in particular, but also 14.68 and 69).
Early 20th Century San Ildefonso Black-on-Red Pottery
The next series of possibly by jars are black-on-reds. The attributions to Dominguita Pino and her family (her daughter Tonita Roybal and her son, painter Crescencio Martinez) vary in strength, but are largely based on how prominent this family was in black-on-red pottery in the early 20th century.
In his classic book, Pottery of the Pueblos of New Mexico, page 51, Batkin shows a black-on-red jar “probably by Dominguita Pino … and painted by her son Crescencio Martinez…” going on to note that most black-on-red examples were made by Domingita. Our jars (Figure 9) are not dissimilar to that one, with similarities in form, as well as the rather thickly and simply drawn design elements.
The attribution to Tonita Roybal of the Figure 10 jar is based on the finer painting, the elegant wide body and deep, deep red. It just seems to differ just enough not to have been made by the same potter as Figure 9. The painting could have been done by Tonita or Crescencio. What I’m calling a Tonita Roybal creation was once in the esteemed collection of Lucille and Marshall Miller who attributed it to Tonita Pena in the Sotheby’s catalogue dated November 30, 1999, figure 100. I disagree, but that’s what makes attributions fluid and interesting.
Figure 11 is odd and charming, as it must have been to the potter and painter, possibly Dominguita and Crescencio. This jar could have been an engagement or wedding gift to a young San Ildefonso couple as the jar depicts first the lovers meeting and then clearly together as a couple. The painted human figures closely relate to those on a piece of black-on-red pottery that Al Anthony attributes also to Crescencio (see Adobe Gallery website). I am not ruling out a child painting these figures as that is how pueblo pottery tradition is handed down within families. Note that Al Anthony rightly notes that a number of early 20th century potters at San Ildenfonso (and Tesuque!) created black-on-red pottery as well.
Figure 12 is a San Ildefonso polychrome with unusual Douglas fir design elements, dating to about 1900. Using Batkin’s classic autumn 1987 article on early San Ildefonso pottery masters Martina Vigil and Florentino Montoya, in American Indian Art magazine, I am drawn to the strong use of heavy black negative designs juxtaposed against white and red elements, as well as outlined areas creating negative space designs. Similar characteristics are found in Figure 8 on page 32 of that article; jars by Martina’s mom, Tona, and possibly painted by Florentino. This is very much a possibly by attribution for a stunning jar created by a master.
Section 3 . Probably By
including including a jar seen in an early photograph with potter Harviana Toribio and a most unusual Acoma Storage Jar
Sometimes we can attribute more strongly. The first example of these is represented by a well known black and white posed photo from the New Mexico Photo Archives and published in Harlow and Lanmon of Harviano Toribio with several of her jars (see Figure 13) including one of the jars in this show with stepped feather forms and birds in flight. By some great good fortune, we have this jar in this show (Figure 14). Seeing the jar in person, we become aware of Harviano’s use of a deep, distinctive yellow among the 4 colors in the jar. This color scheme forms a large part of the probably by attribution of Figure 15, another 4 color jar with a bird standing from the bottom to the top of the jar. This jar is possibly earlier, with native wear and was once in my own collection.
The attribution of the stunning and idiosyncratic large Acoma polychrome storage jar (Figure 16) to Mary Histia is another example of relying upon an expert; in this case the late pueblo pottery dealer and author, Rick Dillingham who, in his book The Pottery of Acoma and Laguna Pueblos, attributed a jar so very similarly idiosyncratic in color and design to this one (see Dillingham, figure 7.7, page 162) that it seems probable that the same potter made them both. Even so, Dillingham did not indicate why he felt his illustrated jar was by Mary Histia. We simply choose (or choose not) to trust him.
Figure 17 is a curiosity. It is a large, black olla with form that is decidedly Kewa (Santo Domingo) in origin. Yet it is highly polished, shiny black, a technique we identify more with Tewa pottery, including Santa Clara. I have attributed this piece as probably by Monica Silva, a master potter of the 1920s-1940s who was born in Santa Clara, where she learned pottery making and later married into Santo Domingo pueblo. Once in Santo Domingo, most of her output was clearly in Santo Domingo polychrome forms, colors, designs (though with her own characteristic flourishes). But then again, Toni Roller, master potter of Santa Clara and a daughter of famed potter Margaret Tafoya, told me upon seeing this jar, that Monica Silva was not the only family potter that favored this form in the 1930s -‘40s.
Figure 18 is too sculpturally beautiful and refined not to have been made by Sarafina Tafoya (early pottery master and mother of pottery matriarch Margaret Tagoya) of Santa Clara pueblo.
With a tip of the cap to Dick Howard, it seems to be our nature to want to know just who made that old piece of pueblo pottery. We are curious, but we are grateful, too, and want to pay homage to these great potters. Most of the time, attribution is an inexact art, yet it remains a source of research and friendly debate among lovers of old pueblo pottery. Possibly the best policy remains to enjoy researching the pottery that we love, but to acquire pieces because they are exceptional and beautiful to us, not because a dealer (yes, even me!) makes a case for attribution to a famous potter.
I would like to thank some of my many friends, colleagues and customers from who I have learned so much. These include Jonathan Batkin, Al Anthony, Dick Howard, Joe Marchiani, Robert Farner, MD among others. Al remains an inspiration to me and I love his thoughtful and learned blogs on pottery including attributions on his website. Al is an instant education. My good friend Joe is passionate and knowledgeable and has generously shared his thoughts on old Zia pottery and their makers. Bob is my pottery brother.
Important American Indian Art, Sotheby’s catalogue, November 30, 1999.
Batkin, Jonathan. Pottery of the Pueblos of New Mexico, 1700-1940. The Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1987.
Dillingham, Rick and Elliott, Melinda. Acoma & Laguna Pottery. SAR Press, 1992.
Lanmon, Dwight P and Harlow, Francis H. The Pottery of Acoma Pueblo. Museum of New Mexico Press, 2013.
Lanmon, Dwight P and Harlow, Francis H. The Pottery of Zia Pueblo. School of American Research Press, 2003.