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Listening to the clay

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Posted: Monday, July 14, 2014 1:17 pm | Updated: 4:53 pm, Fri Jul 18, 2014.

Potter creates sparkling, functional pots

With short-cropped hair and sharp blue eyes, potter Debbie B. Carrillo is a no-nonsense kind of woman. Her mud-marked maroon apron is the only clue to her inner artistry — until she begins talking about clay. Sitting on her back porch in Santa Fe, her hands glittering faintly with a fine dusting of mica, she speaks of finding inspiration in the clay itself. 

“The clay works with me,” said Carrillo. “And when the clay stops working with me, I have to stop and listen. I could say one thing, but if I listen carefully to what the clay says, it’ll tell me what it wants.”

When she hears herself, she blushes slightly. “That probably sounds kind of weird,” she said. Watching her work with the clay in the open air of her backyard, it doesn’t. She does seem to be in communion with her medium, or at least listening very closely to what it is trying to tell her. 

Carrillo’s relationship with micaceous clay, which contains a naturally high volume of the mineral mica, began more than 20 years ago, when she was the first person to jury into Spanish Market with micaceous pottery. This year she achieved one of the market’s highest honors, the Master’s Award for Lifetime Achievement. 

The time between those two events is a love story, complete with tears, moments of clarity and, finally, respect and deep appreciation for the clay.

For the love of clay

It was not love at first sight. Carrillo’s relationship with clay took a long time to blossom. She had to get to know it, and she had to learn how to listen. “The first five years of my life with clay were hell,” she said. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it.”

Carrillo coiled her first pot in 1991, at the insistence of her husband, the renowned santero Charles M. Carrillo, who was writing his doctoral dissertation on micaceous pottery in an effort to disprove the widely held belief that Hispanic people didn’t traditionally make pottery. 

After three days of hands-on classes with Felipe Ortega, who pioneered the revival of the tradition in New Mexico, she began working with the clay on her own. It was five years before she began to enjoy it. In between she spilled many tears, lost hours of work to bad firings, struggled to mold handles that weren’t crooked and considered giving up many times. 

“I was stuck,” she said. “I had been taught a certain way and that way just wasn’t working for me. I finally snapped. I started doing it my own way, and BOOM, before you knew it I was able to do whatever I wanted with the clay.”

She credits sticking with it through those years to her husband, who provided a stream of constant support (which she sometimes refers to as nagging) over the years. 

Carrillo’s husband secretly entered her first three pieces of pottery in Spanish Market in 1992, less than a year after she took her first class with Ortega. She didn’t find out he had done it until she got a notice congratulating her on getting into the market.

“I just about died,” she said. “I don’t know what Charlie was thinking! I was just learning. He saw something greater in me than I saw in myself.”

Coil by coil

The unassuming, no-nonsense sister to Spanish Market’s more marquee art forms, such as bultos and retablos, micaceous pottery is traditionally used for cooking and is defined by its simple shapes and minimal adornment. Pie-crust edges, which Carrillo is known for, plus textures and black squiggles created with horse hair, are about as fancy as it gets. But its utilitarian form belies the painstaking work that goes into each piece. 

The clay is harvested from Northern New Mexico. Each of the 30 to 40 pieces Carrillo will bring to market this year begins with a puki, a small vessel that provides the initial form, and a thick slab of clay, called a tortilla, which will become the bottom of the pot. 

She hand coils the walls of the pot, slowly blending as she works. When the pot has dried, she hand sands it, applies a slip and then burnishes the surface. To prepare the piece for firing, she drives out any remaining moisture using a low-temperature oven. 

The most beautiful, and stressful, part of the process, the firing is like rolling the dice at the craps table. Months of hard work are at stake. A furniture maker can repair a broken chair leg; a painter can fix an error. But if Carrillo’s pots crack in the fire, there is nothing she can do to repair them. 

“When it’s done, you can see all the trepidation just blow out of her,” Charles M. Carrillo said. “It’s like she’s given birth. Debbie is as glowing as the pots are when they come out.”

Just as Carrillo prefers to form her pots surrounded by silence when no one is home, she prefers to fire early in the morning or at dusk, when all is quiet. “It’s an incredible feeling,” she  said. “The pots are like molten glass. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just say a little prayer and hope for the best.” 

When all the steps are complete and the finished pieces are lined up to take to market, she steals a moment for her favorite part of the process — savoring finishing so many pots with no tears.

Passing on the tradition

The Master’s Award for Lifetime Achievement honors more than an artist’s work. It recognizes a commitment to keeping the artistic tradition alive in the community.

“You’re looking for more than high-quality work,” said Jimmy Trujillo, who won the award last year and was on the committee that picked Carrillo as this year’s recipient. “You want a pioneer, someone who is teaching and continuing on with the tradition. Debbie is that.”

Carrillo has had many students over the years. She has taught pottery to a women’s group in Abiquiú, where she grew up, to rowdy kids in the Los Lunas public school system and to teenage boys in Clovis. One of her prized students, Annette Morfin, will show at market alongside her this year. 

If there’s one thing she hopes to pass on to her many students, it’s what it took her five long years to learn — that there’s no right way to do it. The right way is whatever works for each potter. She also hopes to pass along the sense of community she has found in the Spanish arts. “The magic of being an artist at Spanish Market is that we’re all part of a large family,” she said.

She could hardly believe it when that family chose her as the recipient of this year’s award. “I was just like, wow. Is this for real? They chose me?” she said, chuckling. “I’m the one who always stands behind her husband, the one who always stands behind the kids. I’m going to be the one up front? It’s such an honor.”

The micaceous kitchen

Micaceous pottery is designed for cooking, and Carrillo wants her customers to use her pieces in the kitchen, which sometimes takes a little convincing. It’s difficult for many to imagine using one of these works of art on the stove, in the oven or even in a microwave. 

Micaceous clay imparts a distinctive seasoning to foods cooked in it. Some say it’s a sweetness, some call it an earthy flavor. All agree it’s delicious and unmistakable. The mica in the clay also acts as an insulator, making the pots perfect for foods that require low heat and slow cooking methods.

After 20 years of cooking in micaceous clay, the potter has a few tips to offer:

• Never put it in the dishwasher. 

• Never use a metal spoon. Use a wooden spoon that won’t scrape the clay.

• Season a brand new pot by boiling a couple of chopped up potatoes in it until they dissolve. 

• Make sure you use plenty of water, especially if you are cooking beans. 

• And finally, don’t worry so much and start cooking. “It’s the Teflon of the 17th century,” Carrillo said. “In 20 years I’ve never burnt anything in a micaceous pot.”

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Today’s New Mexican, July 22, 2014

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