Susan Folwell, Wind Wagon, 2005, native clay, native clay slips, acrylic, metal
As always, we are so lucky to have partnered with The Stedelijk Museum ‘s- Hertogenbosch to bring you Free Spirit: The New American Potter- the book which accompanied a 2006 exhibition of Contemporary Southwest Native American Pottery in The Netherlands. This was the first exhibition of Native American art at a contemporary art museum in Europe. If you are already a member, view the catalog, or begin your 14-day free trial. Click here to submit your catalog to cfile.library!
Free Sprit: The New Native American Potter
Hertogenbosch: SM’s Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch/NL, 2006
The exhibition Free Spirit (2006), curated by our own Garth Clark for the Stedelijk Museum’s Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, aims to call attention to the state of contemporary native art in the Southwest of the United States and to highlight the work of five native artists from the southwest: Nathan Begaye, Susan Folwell, Christine Nofchissey McHorse, Virgil Ortiz and Diego Romero. Using these artists as examples, Clark makes conjectures about the evolving role of tradition, technology, and tourism in contemporary native ceramics. Clark points out that most potters and ceramicists in the United States know very little about native pottery, taking for granted that it’s widely available.
The catalog essay provides a brief history of Southwestern pottery from the Prehistoric era to the Free Spirits. The Prehistoric era (Anasazi and Mibres pottery) lasted until the Spanish Entrada in 1540, which simultaneously means the beginning of the Historic era. Much of the pottery produced during the historic era was heavily swayed by Spanish decorative arts, though aspects of the native tradition endured. When the railroad workers laid down the first tracks in Santa Fe known as the SF & AF the Revival era had begun. This era is marked by the first market for native craft. No longer were natives making vessels for storage and everyday life, but for an audience and at a high-demand at that. This of course changed the way the goods were produced. Many of the pottery forms that we know to be native to the Southwest were actually fabricated during the Revival era and sold to tourists. For example, the fabled double-necked marriage pot and the rain god figurine. Native pottery was being purchased by the trainload and the market was booming.
Of course, this boom and high demand gradually slowed, as all good things do. Collectors and tourists became disenchanted with native pottery, which is repetitive by definition. For many native artists today, there is a desire to step outside the guarded perimeters of traditional native processes to expand their oeuvre and appeal to a new market. The traditional firing method is pit firing, but many native artists desire to use electric kiln technology for testing new techniques and simply to widen and advance our understanding of native pottery. But native people do not often welcome change and innovation. They believe in preserving the traditional forms, surface decoration, and firing methods of their ancestors. Innovative artists are seen as rule breakers, disloyal, and sometimes deemed illegitimate native potters, left out of books and exhibitions.
“Paradoxically, most native potters place little value on the pots they make (the only role of which, after all, is to be sold outside their society). But they do care how they pot is made and whether the processes respect the craft traditions of their ancestors. Furthermore, Clay Mother is one of the most sacred spirits in Indian religion and insensitive treatment of this magical plastic mud (wasting it thoughtlessly, digging it up at the wrong place or time, such as during menses, taking clay from other pueblo, or not offering the appropriate prayers of thanks) can easily offend and be seen as sacrilegious.” — Garth Clark
The artists in this book— the Free Spirits— represent a rebellious undercurrent of native makers. But even they least partially adhere to their pueblo guidelines, that is with the exception of Diego Romero. Christine McHorse still pit fires her pottery once a year as a kind of ritual, but fires in an electric kiln the rest of the time. Others, such as Ortiz and Begaye, use the traditional pigments but not all the time, and Folwell actually uses acrylic paint. With one foot in tradition, they satiate their hunger for experimentation while also expanding the boundaries of their craft for native ceramicists after them.
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