The last pottery buy I went on was a huge eye opener. Not only was I challenged to have a collection of pottery from all 19 Pueblos but also to find such pieces in abundance in a range of price points. Usually finding merchandise is but a phone call away but I found myself and my purchasing team on the road traveling to Pueblos such as Picuris, Pojoaque, Tesuque, Sandia, Isleta, Santa Ana, etc. in search of hard-to-find pottery gems. Our original plan of locating artists we’d worked with in the past didn’t pan out so this time we tried a different strategy; we found someone (usually a member from their tribal offices) to guide us and introduce us to artists we’ve never met or locate ones we hadn't seen or done business with in a very long time. After long days of hit and miss we had to concede that the high-quality art pieces we were searching for just aren’t as readily available as they have been in previous years. The conundrum now being: where are we going to find these rare, highly sought after pottery pieces? Why is it so hard for even an established store such as Shumakolowa Native Arts to find these pieces and, lastly, where is the new generation of artists from these Pueblos?
I’ve given this much thought over the past year. Especially when requests come from my pottery collectors asking what pots we have and who is new from, say, Sandia Pueblo. Each Pueblo has designs or traits that distinguish them from all the other Pueblos. Here a potter’s skills are tested to stay within this unique style but create something that sets them apart from other potters from their Pueblo. Designs, finishes, painting patterns and methods are refined and pushed to the limits, which is why these pots are so collectible.
So the question is: what is happening out there? I’ve heard a variety of things from different sources, many of whom are fellow art enthusiasts, retailers and collectors alike. Some speculate the craft is not being passed down with an emphasis on the importance of keeping culture and heritage alive and thriving as it was only a few years ago. I’ve heard serious collectors are a thing of the past with their collections being sold on eBay at dirt cheap prices. Others feel there is simply lack of interest from our youth. I recently spoke to Therese Tohtsoni-Prudencio of Picuris Pueblo and she agreed that there was an element of desire absent in our youth to carry on the sacred traditions of pottery crafting. She says she has even offered classes to keep the craft alive in her Pueblo. We both agreed that technology and the quickness with which we receive information today has a lot to do with it. Getting something with as little effort as possible and as always the old standard of “immediate gratification” rearing its ugly head. Creating Native American arts and crafts is usually a painstaking process with little return but one that is very rewarding on a personal level. With that said, Therese proudly unveiled a lidded micaceous handled bean pot that her 12-year-old son made. Beaming with pride she said, “Here is the future of Picuris pottery.” I couldn’t help but smile and yes, I purchased the pot for resale because I was simply blown away by the skill level of this young potter! You gotta give the up-and-comers something to feel good about.
With this in mind, I feel like this is a unique opportunity to try and build something new and exciting within the pottery community. I feel as vendors we need to start being more vocal about the needs of keeping this sacred art form healthy and give up-and-comers opportunities and something to shoot for. Positive feedback and honest critique can go a long way. Also, for the serious collector, it is a chance for them to support this community by continuing to demand and purchase pottery from these hard-to-collect Pueblos and also encourage novice admirers of Pueblo pottery to start their own collections and enjoy for themselves the beauty of Pueblo history and culture.
Hand in hand I believe we can do something to inspire artists again even if it's simply handing down the craft to the next generation. The trick though, I believe, will be igniting the fire and desire in the younger generation and making it way cool to own the skills of pottery crafting. I have heard countless stories over the years from countless artists about their crafting skills, difficulty finding materials, why these symbols are used, what inspired them to create this particular piece and in general covering all the bases of what makes this art form so beautiful, collected, unique and relevant. The next generation has to become excited to create and share their own stories for the art form to progress and become their own.