Santa Clara Pueblo is located north of Santa Fe along the Rio GrandeRiver and dates back to the 12th century.Black pottery from Santa Clara Pueblo is among the best known Native American pottery in the world and has become highly collectible. Dan Tafoya has been making pottery in the traditional way since he was twelve years old.He is a sixth generation potter who learned pottery making from his grandmother, Lorencita Tafoya.He and Emily Trujillo have been partners in this process for over 10 years.We are fortunate to be working directly with them.
Their pottery-making begins with natural clays gathered from around the pueblo. Clay undergoes many preparations before it is finally molded into a finished pot. The clay is soaked in water for about a week until it is smooth and fine enough to sift through a screen.
Finely sifted sand is placed on the bottom of a plastic tarp.The prepared clay is added in a ratio of approximately 2:1 until the right consistency is reached.This clay mixture is stomped with bare feet until soft and pliable enough for pottery making.
For two thousand years, pueblo artists have been forming their clay into long snake-like rolls, then slowly coiling these rolls one on top of the other from the base up. Dan and Emily smooth these coils by hand and with an ordinary wooden tongue depressoruntil the pottery takes its final shape.
After the pot has been molded, it is sanded. Then it is ready to be finished. This finishing touch is accomplished by applying a very dilute wash of clay or “slip,” made from a special rock that is soaked in water, then strained through a cloth to remove any impurities such as pebbles.The slip is specially selected for its fineness and color.It has an oily consistency.Slip is applied in five thin coats with a brush.
Now begins the task of polishing the piece, accomplished by rubbing a smooth stone over the pottery until the clay shines. These stones must have an unblemished surface and a correct shape.The more hours spent polishing, the deeper and richer the shine.After the pot is polished to a fine shine with the stone, a little lard or cooking oil is added for the final polishing to help prevent scratches.
Finally, the piece is subjected to an oxygen reduction firing process. Dan begins his preparation by putting dry paper and wood beneath a metal basket that stands on four legs.He then places well-dried pottery inside.In the photographs below you will notice there are several miniature pots being fired rather than one or two larger pieces. Slabs of wood are placed all around the outside walls of the metal basket and scraps of wood are placed on top.Surrounding the basket entirely with wood is necessary so that the pots burn evenly.Once the wood is fired, it is allowed to burn for 15 to 20 minutes, depending upon the size and number of the pots. The fire is reduced by smothering it with manure, placed on top of the basket for about 45 minutes, taking care not to let the smoke out.The manure traps a thick, carbon rich smoke around the piece. The carbon in the smoke fuses into the clay, turning it black. This black color never can be removed or washed off. After the pottery has cooled, it is cleaned with a little soapy water.
If the pottery is intended to become redware, then it is fired in an open, oxidizing fire without the manure smoke that is used to create blackware.
After the firing process is complete, Dan and Emily place their designs on the pottery by cutting through the clay surface to create subtle changes of color or texture.These designs are engraved with an etching pencil and with an electric rotary tool that has a very small round bit.The tool is called a Dremel, named after the man who invented these small power tools.Sgraffito is the name for the fine design and ornamentation that is etched through the slip after firing takes place.Below is a picture of four finished pots.
The entire process is fraught with problems; about 3 of every 5 pieces actually emerge from the fire without damage.A finished piece is often revered as a gift from God and special prayers often are offered when the clay is collected.