Micaceous Pottery of Northern New Mexico

Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program


Within the Rio Grande region of northern New Mexico, in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, sparkling flecks of gold and silver mica have called out to potters for generations. Mica, a mineral mined from these mountains, is formed into clay, which is used to make micaceous pottery.

Some of these clay deposits are located near the Taos and Picuris Pueblos.


Potsherds that were excavated from Taos Pueblo indicate that pottery from micaceous clay dates as far back as A.D. 1300.

Micaceous pots are the last utilitarian type of pottery made in Southwest pueblos. This pottery is unpainted and traditionally used as cooking vessels.

The mica in the clay makes a strong, durable pot that heats evenly and stays warm longer, making food preparation easier.

Some even say that food made in micaceous pots tastes better!
 

Since micaceous clay has traditionally been used to make cooking pots, vessels made from this clay were not seen as art until recently.

In the pueblos of northern New Mexico, neither potters, traders, nor tourists saw micaceous pottery as collectible objects, leaving the pottery forms and usage mostly unchanged.



Cooking pots, tea kettles, pitchers, and cups continue to be a common sight in pueblo homes.

Micaceous pots can even be used in the microwave.

Today, about half of the micaceous pottery made is used in the home or for ceremonies; the other half is made as art.


Pottery for home use was most common until the 1990s, when potters began using micaceous clay to create objects for creative expression, as well as for personal use.

Can you see the flakes of mica in the red clay?

Pottery Techniques
Potters first gather the micaceous clay. This special clay is found only in a few places near the Taos and Picuris Pueblos.


Each potter has his or her own method to process raw clay. Typically, the clay is first soaked in water to form a liquid slip. Rocks or other impurities are strained out. The clean clay is left to dry, then ground to a fine powder. Water is added again, and this process is repeated until the clay fits the potter’s needs.

“Temper” does not need to be added to micaceous clay because of the mica in the clay. Temper is ground rock, sand, or potsherds that are added to clay to prevent shrinking and cracking, and to provide strength when forming a pot.

Pots are formed using the “coil and scrape” method. Long, narrow coils of wet clay are spiraled upward to form the shape of the vessel.

The coiled clay is then scraped and smoothed when still wet. This smooths the surface and helps blend and weld the coils. Decoration and handles are added while the clay is still wet.

This wedding vase handle is made from two wrapped coils.

Coils like this were used to form the vase, and then scraped smooth.

Micaceous pots are often decorated with simple impressed or molded designs. The mica creates a beautiful glow, so surfaces are not polished or painted.

Once the clay has dried, the potter may sand or scrape the surface to further smooth and shape it before firing.

After shaping and decorating, the pot is fired.


Molded designs like lizards, corn or vines are common. These are added while the clay is wet.

Firing the clay is usually done in a pit dug into the ground. Fuel – for example, wood and dung – is added to the pit.

The dried pots are added to the pit, the fuel is lit, and the pit covered.



Can you see the scrape marks from the manufacture of this cooking pot?

If oxygen is controlled in the firing pit, it creates an “oxidizing atmosphere.” Controlling the oxygen in the firing pit is needed to develop the bright red micaceous clay that many potters prefer.

Black smudges, called fire clouds, can form on the surface of a pot. This happens when there is not enough oxygen in the firing pit for the fuel to burn. Sometimes, this is a intentional effect.

Each potter has a preferred firing technique. No potter makes or fires pottery like another.�

Tradition and Change 
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Euroamericans began to travel on the railroad to Santa Fe. Manufactured goods from the East Coast arrived, and metal cookware began to replace pottery for cooking and storage among many Pueblo groups. The types of pottery made by Pueblo potters throughout the Southwest also changed. Due to a lack of demand for cooking and storage pots, highly decorative pottery was made for a growing commercial market.

Potters in the Taos and Picuris Pueblos, both centers for micaceous pottery, did not feel the same pressure as those in pueblos closer to Santa Fe.

In the face of outside influence from Euroamerican traders and collectors, micaceous pottery remained unchanged and traditional pottery forms continued to be made.



Visitors and pueblo residents saw the unpainted micaceous pottery as useful, but not as art or collectible objects.

While traditional forms of micaceous cooking pots continued unchanged, some potters who lived closer to the railroad and highways were encouraged by Euroamerican traders to make items for the growing tourist market.


Euroamerican traders in Santa Fe encouraged mass production of novelty items. Stores catering to tourists opened, and mail-order catalogs carried a wide variety of pueblo pottery novelty items.

These novelty items – including animal figurines – were popular from the late 1800s to the 1930s.

Novelty pottery items could be quickly made in large quantities. They were sold to tourists directly or through Euroamerican traders who influenced the forms and subjects of these items.

Novelty items were packed in large barrels, a cheap method to ship large quantities of items by rail to buyers all over the country.

Often, the artist’s name and Pueblo of origin were lost in the mass production.



In the 1980s and 1990s, potters began exploring traditional pottery forms in new, creative ways.

Experimenting with new shapes and decoration micaceous pottery was beginning to attract interest from the art world.

A large micaceous jar won “Best of Show” at the 1992 Santa Fe Indian Market, a first for micaceous pottery.

Even traditional cooking vessels can sell for hundreds of dollars!

Today, micaceous pottery is recognized as one of the great pottery traditions of the Southwest.

Traditional pieces are still made and used, while stunning art pieces are found in galleries and art collections worldwide.


Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program
Credits: Story

Micaceous Pottery of Northern New Mexico was developed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program, November 2017.

Tracy Murphy, Museum Curator.

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Sources:

Anderson, Duane. All That Glitters: The Emergence of Native American Micaceous Art Pottery in Northern New Mexico. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico. 1999.

Batkin, Jonathan. "Tourism Is Overrated: Pueblo Pottery and the Early Curio Trade, 1880–1910." In Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, edited by Phillips Ruth B. and Steiner Christopher B., 282-98. University of California Press. 1999.

Brostek, Emily, and Hannah Toombs. Ethno-Tourism, the U.S. Railway, and the Creation of the New Markets for Pueblo Indian Pottery. Pennsylvania State University. No date. history.psu.edu/undergraduate/resources/Ethno-Tourism.pdf. Accessed 11/2/2017.

Dittert Jr., Alfred E. and Fred Plog. Generations in Clay: Pueblo Pottery of the American Southwest. Northland Publishing. 1980.

Trimble, Stephen. Talking With The Clay: The Art of Pueblo Pottery. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico. 1987.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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