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As Reviewed in Indian Trader Magazine

Review by Ron Pecina

Nampeyo, a Hopi-Tewa from First Mesa born in 1856, began as a traditional potter and extended her craft into an art form of pottery identified by her name. Her training in the craft began in her family with the blending of traditional Tewa and Hopi potting techniques. Primary credit for her training goes to her Hopi paternal grandmother. Steve Elmore’s informative book In Search of Nampeyo: The Early Years, 1875-1892 covers her life and work as a potter during the “modernware” and Sikyatki Revival pottery periods.

Elmore accepted a heavy challenge in his scholarly search of Nampeyo, specifically in her early work before the beginning of the twentieth century. The Hopi had no written language and there was no documentation on Hopi potters other than their work. Unfortunately at that time it was not common for the Hopi potters to sign their work. Researchers and scholars had not yet entered the remote and isolated Hopi territory for formal study; it remained for ethnologists Jesse Fewkes, Alexander Stephen, and trader Thomas Keam to begin to document the Hopis’ work and culture in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

The author chose Rachel Sahmie, great-great-granddaughter of Nampeyo and a master potter, to join in his search about Nampeyo. Sahmie traveled with Elmore to Harvard’s Peabody Museum to study the Thomas Keam Collection of Hopi pottery, the major collection used in his research study. She assisted in his research and examined the museum pieces from a potter’s view. Sahmie called it “watching the pots.” Elmore wrote, the more he studied the modernware ceramics in the Keam Collection, he determined it was made by a single person, Nampeyo.

Most important, assuring his book becomes a credible reference, in the first chapter Mr. Elmore presents the methodology he uses to reclaim for Nampeyo the authorship of a large body of early ceramic work in the Thomas Keam Collection as well as reveal some of the origins of the Sikyatki Revival. His major sources were from photographs of Nampeyo with and without her pottery, his photographs of the Keam Collection, photographs of Hopi pottery from many museums and private collections, historical information on Nampeyo which started to appear after 1875, critical literature which appeared after her death in 1942, and field work based on his experience as a collector, dealer, and trader of pueblo pottery. He analyzed the input from these sources and cross-correlated the results to determine which of the ceramics were Nampeyo’s.

In his book, Elmore chooses three topics to examine and review in great depth: Rainbird designs, katsina tile designs, and pottery jars. In each of these areas Elmore shares his approach for analysis and shows how he applies it to the great body of Nampeyo’s work.

Elmore presents his study of a single potter’s use of a traditional design as it evolves over a period spanning a number of years. He chooses the Rainbird design (two opposing circles) on bowls from the Keam Collection which were made by Nampeyo. Photographs of the bowls made in her earlier years show the simple two circle design. As her artistic skills grew, her better pieces were made in later years; and over the same period of time the Rainbird design also evolved into elaborate and more complex variations.

Steve Elmore uses the same methodology in determining Nampeyo as the maker of katsina bowls in the Keam Collection. Three large groups of katsina bowls depicting three katsinas are presented. Pairs of bowls are shown followed by additional pairs with supplementary features. For practice the author urges the reader to compare the features in each of a pair of bowls and then compare each pair to the other four sets of bowls in the same figure. One can see the ten bowls are interrelated and convincingly point to the same artist potter.

Illustrations are vital to any book about an artist, and Elmore’s remarkable array of photographs spearheads his study of Nampeyo’s work and her growth as an artist. The photos group the ceramics being studied separating them into sets of matching form and sequences showing changes in design over time. After the reader has followed Elmore’s methodology to analyze forms and designs, the author applies the method in the review and analysis of a large number of ceramic jars and bowls from the Keam Collection. The narrative uses the photographs to the fullest telling of the changes and links between the pottery pieces of various vintage. It complements the photo study summarizing the results of his work and supporting his goal to determine which ceramics are common to a single potter.

Elmore’s book includes in depth studies of potter-trader relations, influence of ethnologists on the potters creations, pottery making and firing, and pottery shapes and materials. He explains how data from these sources are used, as additional information, when comparing pottery forms and designs to confirm which pieces are the products of a particular potter.

A most interesting section is dedicated to study the Hopi ceramic tiles in the Keam collection. A batch of nine tiles with katsina designs which were made at the peak of Nampeyo’s career is used to compare elements and features from each of several different katsina images. Studying the shape of legs, body stripes, shape of eyes, form of feathers and flowers, and brightness of color on the different tiles points to a common maker.

Mr. Elmore’s book is a valued reference on Nampeyo and Hopi pottery. It culminates twenty five years of research. It reads easily while covering topics which require a significant interpretation for the greatest benefit. As a reader, after viewing the series of selected and organized multiple pairs of bowls which show Nampeyo’s creative advances in design over time, I felt I had graduated and could identify designs such as the Rainbird design and its more complex derivatives. Mr. Elmore’s approach to the Nampeyo story moves me to join “in search of Nampeyo” whether at museums, art shows,
or collection sales. I will remember his work and benefit from the tutorial on Nampeyo’s work and Hopi pottery.

Reading Mr. Elmore’s book: In Search of Nampeyo: The Early Years has left us ready and hopeful for his continuation of the Search of Nampeyo.

In Search of Nampeyo: The Early Years, 1875-1892
Author: Steve Elmore
Spirit Bird Press
Full Color; 8 ½” x 11“, 220 pages, over 150 photographs

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