Sunday, August 7, 2022

“Grounded in Clay” A Tradition

You can learn a subject, but it is far more difficult to understand a culture.

The exhibition “Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery” at the New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture undertakes the challenge.

About 35 years ago we walked into The Museum of Northern Arizona and there we “discovered” the art of the Native Americans in the Southwest. Something about it just captured our soul. Having lived and worked in a very Eurocentric world my wife and I had to bring ourselves into that culture in order to try to understand a totally different mindset. So began a journey that continues to live with us.

The exhibition consists of about 100 pottery objects selected from almost 4,000 in the Indian Arts Research Center (IARC), which is part of the School for Advanced Research here in Santa Fe, with the addition of 24 pots from the the outstanding collection in the Vilcek Foundation in New York. The exhibition was organized by Elysia Poon, IARC Director, Rick Kinsel, President of the Vilcek Foundation and Acoma Pueblo Governor, Brian Vallo, a former IARC director. The three pots I am illustrating were selected from the Foundation by them respectively.

Originating here in Santa Fe the exhibition celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the Indian Pottery Fund which became the IARC at the School of Advanced Research. Around 60 members of 21 tribal communities including New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos, known as the Pueblo Pottery Collective, responded to the invitation to select and discuss works from the collections.

The Ceramic Vault at the IARC

The art of the potter has been a strong tradition in the Pueblos from time immemorial and continues to the present day. Lonnie Vigil, Nambé Pueblo created this monumental pot in 1995. It is 25 5/8 x 28 3/8 inches He had worked in finance in Washington D.C. before returning to the Pueblo to focus on his pottery. The quote is by Nora Naranjo Morse, KHA’p’o Wingeh/Santa Clara.

The show spans from the 11th century to into the 21st. Here you have a couple of the early pieces from the exhibition. Please do not skip the caption and the quote above. These demonstrate the universally deep meaning of these pieces to Pueblo people.

Some, like like Patrick Cruz, from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo found pots in the SAR collection made by their ancestors. Cruz wrote about a piece by his great-grandmother, Gregorita Cruz : “I have made pots using Gregorita’s polishing stone and I feel a close-lived family connection to her in ways that photographs and other mementos could never provide.”

The cultural message that these pots live to tell a story of life and history, serving as a link between the generations is expressed in the installation where the pots are surrounded with quotes from the 60 curators and their reponses to the pieces. The interaction is brought to life in the film that accompanies the exhibition.

We were privileged to attend the Community Opening for the show with the curators and their families. After Pueblo prayers and a view of the exhibition there was a feast with great stews and enchiladas as well as other Native foods catered by a family from the Jemez/Laguna Pueblo. We were also treated to a Pueblo dance group. The evening ended with a traditional “Throw”. Large laundry baskets were brought out filled with Chips, Oreos, Krispy treats etc. etc. etc., as well as a few small stuffed animals for the kids, that were thrown onto the tables to be take home.

Next day I wrote to my children:“Last night was incredible. We were concerned about how one could make a bunch of pots interesting and understandable to those unacquainted with the material and culture they came from. We were delighted that the exhibition is enlightening, and the catalog is superb.”

It is hard to explain but for this Anglo “Grounded in Clay” and its community celebration managed to convey the spiritual aspect I have experienced of Native American culture.

The exhibition will end at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on May 28, 2023, travel on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in July 2023. followed by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and later to the St. Louis Art Museum.  Other institutions around the country are still in discussions with SAR.


  1. Ruth Meria and I much enjoyed the exhibit's opening---first the convivial gathering with food and drinks, then seeing the pots themselves, which were so thoughtfully selected. The show's curators are to be highly commended, especially carrying off the project during the pandemic.
    I was on SAR's staff when the Indian Arts Research Center was being built and the I remember when it was completed and the Indian Arts Fund collection moved in. After completion, the IARC director said to me, "What am I supposed to do now, stand around dusting pots forever. He left. How he would be impressed today by this exhibit and how IARC and its programs have developed over the years! Ruth and I look forward to seeing this wonderful exhibit again and again while it is at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
    David Grant Noble

    1. I am so sorry, not to have responded before but i just saw this. I hardly get any comments here since people often write to my regular email ( but i am really interested in what you said. My first real interaction with SAR was a seminar in Cultural Property in 1997, were you there then?