Elder Hands of the Corn Clan: Jemez Pueblo’s Juanita Fragua

December 21 2018, 4 Comments

Gratitude for every day that you are able to use your skills and gifts to create is one of the core values of Pueblo potters. Juanita Fragua of Jemez Pueblo has a lot to be grateful for.

At 83, Juanita is a full-time potter. “That’s all I do. I have my granddaughter taking care of me. She cleans the house and cooks for me. I just do my thing, and go in the shop and work—all day, every day” she says proudly. When asked if she ever allows herself a break, she says, “I take a break at about three o’ clock or something—I get tired so I lay down.”

Juanita is known for her wedding vases, which are in demand. “I used to watch my mom make wedding vases, and that’s what I’m doing now—always making wedding vases,” Juanita says. “People call me when their son or daughter is getting married so I can make a wedding vase for them.”

Juanita learned pottery-making from her mother around 1948. “I used to watch my mom making potteries when I was 13 years old. And they used to keep telling me to go ahead and make something,” she says. “So I really started about 13 years old, but then I didn’t have time, I had to go to school.”

School and other obligations came between her and the clay for several years, only allowing for occasional practice. “After I got married … we moved to St. Louis, and I used to make small stuff, and then from St. Louis we moved back, and then we moved to San Francisco,” Juanita says. “That’s where I really started to do it, too. That was in [’64].”

Taking up the family art more prominently eventually became a necessity. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll do it because I didn’t graduate from high school, and there’s no place I can find a job. Maybe if I start doing potteries and sell them, and support my family that way.’”

While living in St. Louis and San Francisco, Juanita made and sold her Jemez pottery. “We used to come home and visit parents, and used to take the clay and all the ingredients [back] out there. I was using commercial paints, but right now I use natural paints. We came back home to the reservation in [1973].”

Juanita’s voice carries the weight, wisdom, character, and grace of more than 80 years of life, loss, and love. She is full of humor, and is quick to chuckle. Despite her age, she still goes through her self-described 19-step process of making traditional Jemez pottery—even gathering the white tempering material, a risky undertaking for anyone, regardless of age.

Her skill and large body of work made her a prime candidate for the Pueblo Pottery Mug project. When asked what captured her interest in participating, she says with a laugh, “They asked me! They wanted an elder to do it, so they’re all teasing me, telling everybody—I’m 83—that I’m close to 90.”

It took Juanita three tries to get the exact shape and size of the mug, but the real challenge was deciding on the imagery.

“They wanted a traditional design, and I had to sit there and think, ‘What, what is the traditional design?’ So I remembered that my mom was … always using that step design,” she says. “That’s what my mother used to use, to put on her pottery. When I would do my own, I started putting a corn stalk on them, because we’re Corn Clan on my mother’s side.”

Juanita says deciding on the imagery is always a difficult part, whether with the Pueblo Pottery Mug or a wedding vase. “…And it’s so hard, what to put on there. You sit there and look at the pot, ‘What kind of designs should I put,’ and then I’m looking at the pot, ‘What kind of design am I going to put?’ and sometimes while I’m looking at a pot, I fall asleep,” she admits with a playful and endearing chuckle.

Juanita’s artistic legacy extends well beyond her own body of work, as her children include accomplished artists—potters B.J. Fragua and Glendora Fragua, and sculptor Cliff Fragua.

Editor's note: Two dates were amended following new information from the Fragua family.

See Juanita's bio and shop a collection of her art work >