The first thing you see when you enter the new exhibition are some massive old pots, which are wonderfully symmetrical and have remarkably thin walls, although they were made as storage jars designed to hold grain and even water. “Or dough bowls, or they were used for bathing the kids,” said Russell Sanchez, a noted San Ildefonso potter himself and one of the curators of the exhibition, San Ildefonso Pottery: 1600-1930.

Some of the pots, jars, bowls, and other works are whole. Others are reconstructed. The types include black on red, black on white, black on black, polychrome, and blackware. One of the biggest, Pot 7725, was made by Ignacia Sanchez, Russell’s great-grandmother.

“We want people to say, ‘How did they make them?’ ” said Sanchez, looking at a huge pot in the basement collections facility at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (MIAC). Several of the beautifully painted vessels — a few of which are up to 30 inches wide and 22 inches tall — are among the 170 pieces in San Ildefonso Pottery. Most have never been exhibited before.

The show, on display through August, was co-curated by Sanchez with award-winning San Ildefonso potter Erik Fender and Bruce Bernstein, who was formerly the director of the museum and assistant director at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

While the exhibition includes works by the ubiquitous San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez (1887-1980), its focus is on “the community of potters, not individuals,” Bernstein said. “Let me just say this up front: We are working against the tide of the most famous potter. Everyone associates her with the community, and [has heard] that she is the inventor of San Ildefonso pottery.” But there is a larger picture, he said. The work of Martinez and her husband, Julian, who helped with the painting of her pots, represented “the finish punctuation on a pottery revival that started in the 1870s.

“The story is that Edgar Lee Hewett [founder and the first director of the Museum of New Mexico] handed Maria this and that and instructed people how to make pottery because this won’t sell and that will. But we’re pushing back on that story. We’re taking the San Ildefonso story instead of the story of the museum being the savior of the cultures. The pottery will be even more beautiful if you can see it through the context of the community.”

The exhibition project was shaped by the curators in partnership with other contemporary San Ildefonso potters and community members. Nearly a dozen of them appear in a video featured in the exhibition. And while Native potters sometimes visit museums to study works by their ancestors, most of those interviewed for the video had never visited the MIAC collections, which include more than 800 San Ildefonso vessels.

“The thing about museums is that the people don’t feel welcome at times,” Sanchez said as he walked through the collection in July. “The door doesn’t always seem open for people from home to come here.”

Collectors and curators have been part of the Pueblo’s world for well over a century. In about 1907, Hewett began spending time at San Ildefonso, learning about pottery making and other aspects of the culture. His relationship with Pueblo people was vital to his vision in founding the Museum of New Mexico in 1909. According to the current exhibition materials, the villagers “prospered in unexpected ways, too, finding their culture was valued after years of degenerative governmental pressure to cease its practice, helping give rise to new forms of pottery.” San Ildefonso pottery today is among the most esteemed Pueblo pottery.

Archaeologists like Hewett, and also collectors, tended to focus on certain well-known pottery types, which resulted in collections that were not entirely representative of the Pueblo’s pottery spectrum. The very first collections came from the Pajarito Plateau, where Hewett was conducting excavations before 1900. “These were archaeological,” Bernstein said. “Hewett didn’t care about contemporary work, but there were potters in the villages who were selling in the Santa Fe arts-and-crafts stores.” Among them were the Plaza businesses Collins Curio Company (owned by Jack Collins) and Southwest Arts and Crafts ( Julius Gans).

The issue of selectivity came up while viewing a selection of exhibition pots (including those by Susana Aguilar, Crescencio and Tonita Martinez, and Tonita Roybal) that were borrowed from gallerist Charles King. “They illustrate the fact that the museum collection is limited because it only worked with certain families,” Bernstein said.

He showed a piece by Dolorita Vigil. “She died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and is another great potter we never hear about because of the focus on certain families. Russell set this up in terms of people, so we have grandchildren of famous people like Chrysanthia Martinez and Tonita Roybal, people who don’t get a lot of mention.”

The show’s community focus stimulated the desire to portray a wider sampling of historic pottery, but the curators also had long discussions about pieces that perhaps should not be exhibited — for example, pots with images of ceremonially important koshare (sacred clown) figures. “Here’s a piece by a man who was actually in that [koshare] society, and it’s fine for him to do that, and people can see koshares out in public,” Bernstein said. “But Eric felt it’s better to follow the cultural sensitivities of today.”

“And there are other pueblos that don’t want that imagery out there, and we don’t want to offend them,” Sanchez said.

The MIAC collection has very little San Ildefonso micaceous ware because the early curators considered it merely utilitarian — it has traditionally been prized as cookware — and not a model for new potters. There is another reason why you don’t see very much micaceous pottery in the museum, Sanchez explained: “At home, when we’re done with a pot, we basically send it back to the earth.”

The most important paints used in the Pueblo’s pottery are derived from the bee plant and hematite. They are also mixed. About clay sources, Sanchez said, “They are on the Pueblo, both volcanic ash and the regular clay, and there are clay pits for certain colors that are elsewhere. We’ve used those pits forever.”

A potter named Yellow Deer was a pioneer in combining red and black in the same figures and leaf forms. “She was kind of an amazing figure in the 1870s, who began to do certain things that changed pottery in the village in positive ways,” Bernstein said. “She was also interested in Acoma [Pueblo pottery] forms, and she began an intentional symmetry with [the fine parallel lines] known as hachuring and wave or cloud forms.”

Bernstein said he had a strong interest in decoding the mid-18th-century shift to a pottery style called Ogapogeh. He now believes it was probably tied to changes in the village after the Spanish conquest and settlement. “Some community members decided to move away and not be near the Spanish, so by mid-century those who stayed were looking for survival mechanisms with these people as neighbors.”

“There was change,” Sanchez responded, “but there was also not that much change, because a lot of the design work and styles of the pots were done before. Not every design or style was set in stone. People as artists had the ability to change into what they wished.”

As he spoke, Sanchez picked up and marveled at an unusually uneven pottery vessel from a shelf in the basement collections. He explained that the shape was created intentionally because it makes it easier to hold and to pour.

Individuality shines in the pottery of San Ildefonso. “We’re told at home that whatever the spirits tell you to do and how they guide you, you do it,” he said. “They were allowed to create and be innovative with what they saw.”

“The period is 1600 to 1930, but it’s all contemporary,” Bernstein said. “It’s seeing that what people would call historic is still very much alive. It’s a continuum, not a sequence, of pottery.” ◀

details

San Ildefonso Pottery: 1600-1930

▼ Opening reception 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11; exhibition continues through August

▼ Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, 710 Camino Lejo

▼ 505-476-1269, miaclab.org

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