UT's McClung Museum Presents Two Centuries of Stunning Southwestern Pottery

While the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture's Birds in Art exhibition this past spring and summer seemed to echo a particularly wet season, the present show, titled Pueblo to Pueblo: The Legacy of Southwest Indian Pottery, on view through Jan. 5, is more like an antidote to the cloudiness and chill of winter. Pueblo to Pueblo is a traveling collection of mid 19th- to mid 20th-century vessels and related artifacts from the Kansas City Museum and that city's Union Station. Entering the museum's special exhibitions space, with its more than 70 brightly lit Native American ceramics seemingly hovering mirage-like, is akin to emerging from an air-conditioned plane into the tropics.

Approximately 20 Southwest pueblos or villages, with approximately 50,000 inhabitants, currently exist, scattered throughout Arizona and New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in Colorado and Utah. The Southwest pottery crafted during the past two centuries reflects growing interaction with outsiders. Production increased following the completion of major railroads into the region around 1880, due mostly to the tourist and collectors' trade rather than material necessity on the part of Pueblo artisans. Whatever the motivations behind it, however, Pueblo pottery remains distinctive and visually striking.

I'll never forget my foray, many years ago, to New Mexico's Santa Clara Pueblo/Indian Reservation. I was staying in Santa Fe, and I'd decided to buy a piece directly from a local artist. Drawn by the somehow majestic, high-luster black pottery associated with the famed San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez, in particular (a 15-minute documentary about her is available in conjunction with the show), I set out for Santa Clara, naively picturing a point of purchase amid ruins beyond the reach of roads. Instead, Veronica Naranjo, the woman whose work I'd been determined to see, lived on the reservation in a relatively new house that wouldn't have looked out of place in Albuquerque's suburbs. Despite the mundane setting, when my fingers traced the simple but unique carvings on the vessels Naranjo had made, I was in awe of their timeless beauty.

Pueblo pottery, an almost 2,000-year-old practice perhaps influenced by Mesoamerica, has evolved to incorporate methods specific to individual communities. The different types of clay used and preferences for certain designs and shapes have further distinguished each pueblo's wares. Also, it's traditionally mostly the work of women. Pueblo pottery represents periods in history, cultural identity, and economic survival as well as artistic accomplishment. It is, in fact, unique in this world, which is saying a lot.

As for its beginnings, when agriculture started becoming a way of life for the Anasazi people (Navajo for "ancient ones"), they produced strictly utilitarian ceramics for storing, preparing, and serving food. Although construction was a matter of building and then smoothing together coiled clay that was then allowed to dry, various pieces were often graceful, although not carved or painted.

Advances impacting the process described above have included the use of polishing stones, carving, and the application of pigment and linear designs both geometric and figurative. Firing is open-air, with burning dung beneath a metal rack heating pieces protected by broken shards of already fired clay—no potter's wheel or kiln required, in other words. The black pottery that Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos are known for results from gradually smothering the fire rather than letting it burn out, thus depriving it of oxygen, a lack of which darkens the hardened clay.

For people interested in exhibition design, Pueblo to Pueblo exemplifies a very effective approach. Wall-bound panels matching free-standing dividers make use of ingenious stained-wood elements that resemble the exterior ends of beams common to adobe dwellings—a simple but evocative touch. Inside mounted display cases are five black-and-white photographs from the mid 20th century (most by Harold Kellogg) and a 1933 watercolor of a deer-dance performer by Julian Martinez, the husband of Maria. More than a dozen pedestal-type glass boxes illuminated with spotlights produce reflections that heighten the shamanistic feel of certain objects. Bands of a rich rust-red color and chocolate brown in parts of the gallery correspond with the pigments used for various pieces.

As for the pieces themselves, especially unusual examples are a number of Hopi, Tesuque, and Zia canteens with mostly figurative painting. There are the expected double-spout-with-handle wedding vases (from Cochiti/Santo Domingo and Santa Clara/San Juan pueblos), but there are also representations of small birds (Acoma/Isleta/Laguna/Zuni) and moccasins (Isleta) alongside a rain god figurine (Tesuque). A Zuni corn-meal bowl with holes and stepped sides representing thunder has painted dragonflies inside and toads around the outside. Two separate cups (Acoma and Santo Domingo) sport a black-and-white checkerboard pattern, and a teapot (also Santo Domingo) features a floral motif. And there are, of course, the many jars and bowls, some so gorgeous that they'll bring tears to your eyes—rain in a land of dust.