“I talk to each pot. When it’s almost near completion, I say ‘Whose home are you going to grace? You’re only going to go to someone who really loves you, so be happy. Bless the home that you’re in.’”
Perhaps no other quote or series of words could better capture the essence of Helen Bird of Santo Domingo Pueblo, the artist behind one of the best-selling Pueblo Pottery Mugs from Shumakolowa Native Arts.
“It was a challenge, and I love challenges,” Helen says of accepting the offer to design a very specific size and shape pot for the mug series. Taking a dozen attempts to get it right, the task almost proved to be more than she bargained for, but she kept at it. “I went through a lot of disappointments, but I kept reminding myself it’s a challenge. ‘You conquered cancer, so you’ll conquer this.’”
Following several frustrating and unsuccessful tries, Helen was determined to make it happen, and chose her day. She mixed clay three times to get the right consistency. The first batch had pebbles that popped, making the pottery unusable, and the second batch was too sandy. The third passed what she calls the Levi’s test – she grabbed a handful of clay and threw it at her Levi’s hanging nearby. The clay didn’t stick, letting her know this batch was just what was needed.
Around 7 o’clock that evening, as the sun drifted toward the western horizon, Helen’s grandson drove up to her house. He was concerned by the sullen look on her face following more unsuccessful attempts at the stubborn task. “I hugged him and said ‘I was so frustrated’ and I uncovered the mug and said ‘it’s not coming out right, somebody’s challenging me.’”
“My dad used to say, ‘If you don’t succeed, try again. Take a break.’ And that’s what I did,” Helen says. “I told cancer I wasn’t going to cry, and I’m going to tell you, ‘Whoever you are challenging me, I’m not going to cry.’ I sat down, lifted my leg up, and looked up in the clouds and I saw something, and I smiled.”
Helen turned toward her grandson and said, “I saw a sign from Grandpa, so I’m ready.” At 9 o’clock she fired again. Tired from a frustrating day, she decided not to wait around for the results of this last firing. Helen left the pottery overnight, careful to close the squeaky gate behind her to keep the dogs out.
When morning light began to warm the Kewa soil, Helen pushed open the squeaky gate and brushed aside the cold ashes to peek at the pot. “It was smiling at me. And that was it.”
The mug features traditional Santo Domingo designs, including Helen’s signature bird image based on a design she saw on a pot excavated from Bandelier National Monument. When people ask her if the bird is a quail or something else, Helen responds, smiling: “It’s a Helen bird, I tell them.”
Although Helen has been a prolific potter for decades, and is credited as one of the artists who contributed to the revitalization of Santo Domingo pottery, she is excited by the reach her mug design will have. “I see it as leaving something behind of our culture. It’s not only going to be in the state, or in the nation, but it’s going to be worldwide.”
The wider visibility of the Pueblo Pottery Mug format appeals to Helen not just for herself, but for those who might follow in her footsteps. “I just create pots as communication to the rest of the world, communicate my skill, my art. I’m 70 years old, and I can still do this. I make a pot, it’s going to go to a home, and it’s going to stay there unless it’s donated to a museum. But with this mug, it’s going to be in everybody’s kitchen, and my grandkids can say ‘My grandma made that.’ That’s something I can leave with them, for future generations to be inspired by.”
With the blessings Helen bestowed upon her pot and mug, she says people won’t be drinking just coffee or tea from it. “Love will be drunk from here. Hope will be drunk from here.”
To see more work by Helen Bird, click here.
Additional background on the Pueblo pottery design mugs:
In January 2015, five Pueblo potters, Erik Fender (San Ildefonso), Elizabeth Medina (Zia), Frederica Antonio (Acoma), Patricia Lowden (Acoma), and Robin Teller (Isleta), were commissioned by Shumakolowa Native Arts to create traditional Pueblo pottery in the form of a contemporary coffee mug, which could be replicated.
The popularity of the mugs prompted the commission of a second series of Pueblo Pottery Mugs, this time with designs by Martha Romero (Nambé), Carlos Laate (Zuni), Denise Chavarria (Santa Clara), Helen Bird (Santo Domingo), and a collaboration from Lisa Holt (Cochiti) and Harlan Reano (Santo Domingo).
Series two debuted with Martha Romero’s design just before Christmas 2017, with the others being released at intervals through mid-February 2018. Series three debuts in October 2018 with mugs from Juanita Fragua (Jemez), Clarence Cruz (Ohkay Owingeh), Natalie Sandia (Jemez), Myron Sarracino (Laguna), and Hubert Candelario (San Felipe). The goal is to eventually have potters from each of New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos produce a mug design representing their Pueblo.
The originals for series one through three are on display at Shumakolowa, located inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. All of the participating artists receive royalties for each mug sold, with proceeds also supporting the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico.