We often think of the Navajo people as outstanding weavers, as evidenced by the textiles that come from areas like Two Grey Hills, Ganado, Chinle, and others. We also often think of the Navajo people as amazing silversmiths, learning their trade from the Spanish explorers and traders in the early 19th century, and improving on those skills through the centuries.
But, as are most groups of Native Americans, there is considerable diversity of talent behind the common stereotypes. I have found a number of excellent Navajo potters, such as Alice Cling and Samuel Manymules, over the years.
Imagine my excitement at Indian Market this past August, when I got to meet Samuel Manymules and chat with him for a while. He only goes to Indian Market and one or two other events each year, preferring to stay at his home in the four corners region, close to the center of the sprawling Navajo Nation lands. So when I saw his name on the artist list this year, I circled it and made a point of stopping to talk. As we stood on the veranda near his display, many people stopped and admired his work, commenting on the swirling smoke clouds in the pottery created by the outside firing, and remarking on the shapes he creates.
Samuel (not to be confused with his son Sam) is a very spiritual man, as are most of the Native Americans who are very close to Mother Earth. Each morning, he goes outside to face the east and give thanks to the rising sun, seeking the blessings of the spirits and energizing his soul. When we finished chatting with Samuel, he spent a few minutes giving me a Navajo blessing – a memory I will always treasure.
“I build my pots first in my mind,” says Samuel Manymules. In little over one short decade, the pots he envisions have made him the quintessential 21st century Navajo potter and winner of numerous Native American Arts most prestigious awards.
Born on the Navajo reservation of the Bitterwater Clan for the Red Horse Nakai Dine Clan, he grew up in the Navajo way: tending flocks, and working in the cornfields. Along the way he discovered ancient pottery sherds and became fascinated with their shapes and patterns. It is a fascination that lasts to this day. After dabbling in several jobs, including jewelry making, Samuel discovered that creating pottery was to be his avocation.
Long before he sets his hand to clay, Samuel sits and plans. “I spend most of my days envisioning the shapes, planning how to make the vision a reality, and imagining how the completed pot will look.” Only then does he begin to work with the clay.
Using only traditional natural materials, Manymules transforms melon jars into swirling asymmetrical shapes; water jars into swooping, gravity-defying creations; and, into the immediately recognizable faceted pots for which he is renowned. He manipulates traditional shapes into precise architectural angles that only a master potter’s hand could create.
Samuel Manymules unique approach to creating beautiful traditional pieces of art has placed him at the forefront of traditional Navajo pottery. He is one of the most highly collected Navajo potters today. His award winning work marks the continuing movement of Navajo pottery to more sophisticated forms with more refined finishes.
So yes, to complete the story, I did manage to limit myself to purchasing only two of Samuel’s wonderful pots that day, but I am sure they won’t be the last.