Skip to Content

Home > Antique Indian Art Resources > Short Articles & Publications > A Century Of Hopi Pottery: A Celebration

< Previous | Next >

A Century Of Hopi Pottery: A Celebration

After the migrations of the large prehistoric populations that gathered at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, several ancestral pueblo groups relocated to the three ridges of Black Mesa in northern Arizona. Occupation below the mesas began as early as the 10th century, but the raids of other tribes followed by the hectoring of the Spanish eventually forced the Hopis to the top of the mesas. The Spanish attempt at conquest failed, and the distant Hopis were left in an anthropological time-warp. Undisturbed for centuries, they were free to pursue the intense ceremonials of the Kachina cult.

In the 1860s, members of John Wesley Powell's Grand Canyon Expedition were among the first visitors to arrive. In 1875, the Englishman, Thomas Keam, opened a trading post. The parade of Eastern anthropologists, museum collectors, dignitaries, world travelers and eccentrics began at Keams Canyon, all searching for exotic examples of Hopi material culture, both contemporary and prehistoric, above or below the ground. From the extant collections in the Smithsonian and the Peabody Museum, we see evidence of the strength of Hopi pottery in large undecorated storage jars, cooking pots, huge canteens, along with some decorated pieces of more modest size which are generally called Polacca, easily recognized by its yellow or white, crackled slipped surface. In addition to stew bowls and water jars, there are many smaller eccentric effigy pieces representing kachinas.

Excavations, legal and illegal, of prehistoric Hopi sites began, and the wonderful prehistoric ceramics of Sikyatki were popped out of the ground and began filling the trading post. Soon boxes and boxes were shipped to the East on the speeding Iron Horse. The Gold Rush began for the yellow gold of Sikyatki pottery, and Thomas Keam was determined not to miss out. Keam needed more Hopi pottery, especially more Sikyatki pottery, and into this void stepped the young beautiful Hopi potter Nampeyo (1860-1942). A legend was born! Replacing the primitive Polacca style with the graceful abstraction and sophistication of the prehistoric, she began the Sikyatki revival that continues to this day. Indeed, her "recreations" of Sikyatki ware were so close to the originals that the anthropologist Jesse Fewkes complained that her work was being passed off as prehistoric by an unscrupulous Keam. Lo! The modern Indian trader was born!

Nampeyo, indifferent to the charges that she was a mere copyist, persisted, and mastered the use of as many as four different clays on the same piece. Of course, she enlisted her family in fulfilling the heavy demand for production placed on her by traders, travelers, scientists, and the ever-curious encroaching white society. She transformed the prehistoric style into her own mature artistic expression. Her artistic career of almost seven decades clearly records the growth of an intense hard-working genius with parallels to artists of all cultures.

In addition to several generations of her family, for whom Nampeyo says she created her designs, other Hopi potters both accompanied and followed her. By the 1920s other great Hopi potters began to emerge: Grace Chappella, and her less famous sister, Laura Tomasie, and of course, Sadie Adams with her flower hallmark. In 1930, Harold Colton, founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona, created an annual Hopi Arts and Crafts Fair paralleling Santa Fe's Indian Market and this annual event was instrumental in the development of Hopi pottery. Colton asked the potters to sign their works, and their reluctance to use their names and their illiteracy led to the use of symbols as signatures. Thus, we have Frog Woman, Antelope Woman, Feather Woman, and Flying Ant Woman. Te-wang-i-nema who began potting shortly after the turn of the century was a particular favorite of the Coltons. Thus, pottery making passed down through the generations through many families, and fortunately thousands of pieces of pottery have survived to this day.

What are the elements that account for the success of Hopi pottery? Technically, the potters work simply, with native clays so fine that a slip is rarely needed for painting. Coal firing yielded to sheep manure and cedar around 1900. Ancient ways persist, the contemporary black-and-white on red ceramics of Antelope Woman and Flying Ant Woman are the direct descendants of prehistoric Four Mile Polychromes from the 14th century. In contrast to the reliable olla and the dough bowl of Rio Grande Pueblos, the Hopis create a seemingly endless variety of forms.

But it is the Hopi potters startling mastery of abstract design and their free-flowing line drawing which captures our attention. Their sophisticated designs predate the work of Picasso and Braque and seem to herald the beginning of modern art. For sheer draftsmanship, they are undoubtedly the finest artists of all of the Pueblo potters. Isolated from the modern world, their designs and forms are less influenced by the surrounding European society. And, what we see in studying their abstractions is a wealth of religious symbols based on the Hopi belief about birds, particularly eagles and mythical birds, as messengers to the spiritual world of the kachina ancestors. From this pure and intense spirituality expressed in the ceramic arts, what wondrous images of birds and flight are created! So amazingly, on “aboriginal” Hopi pottery, we see reflected and intensified, man’s eternal fascination with birds and his quest for flight.

As well as the birds, the kachinas and their regalia are depicted on the pottery in an endless prayer as if the pots are constant reminders of the presence and importance of the kachinas in Hopi life. Of course, corn, rain, water, and clouds—life’s fertility itself—all associated with the work of the Kachinas are also on the pottery. That our own imagination is uplifted and swoops and flies with these wonderful flowing designs is certainly a testament to their strength and originality as well as the universality of humanity. From studying and enjoying Hopi pottery, we arrive back where man began, when art and religion were one.

That such an artistic achievement came from such an unexpected origin speaks to the very heart of the mystery of life and artistic creation itself; for how much longer it will continue, we can only hope and wonder ourselves. Thank you for joining us in this celebration!

Suggested Bibliography:

Nampeyo, by Barbara Kramer
The Legacy of a Master Potter: Nampeyo, by Mary Ellen and Laurence Blair
Historic Hopi Ceramics, Edwin Wade and Lea McChesney
America's Great Lost Expedition: The Thomas Keam Collection of Hopi Pottery, by Wade and McChesney
Contemporary Hopi Pottery, by Laura Allen Graves