On a recent Saturday morning, we headed over to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) for brunch, followed by dances and a pottery demonstration by expert potter Erik Fender of San Ildefonso pueblo. We had Harry and Elaine with us for the weekend, and they had expressed an interest in returning to the Cultural Center and spending a bit more time there. And since the Pueblo Harvest Café is one of my favorite dining places in Albuquerque, and my dear friend Erik Fender was giving a demonstration, it became a “must” destination for us.
The Cultural Center is owned by the 19 New Mexico pueblos, and contains a recently renovated museum of the art of the pueblos. They carefully tell the story of the history and culture of these peoples, and show a breadth of Southwestern Native American art that rivals many larger and wealthier museums. During most weekends, they have dances in the center courtyard, displaying and communicating their colorful and deeply spiritual cultures.
The Cultural Center also owns and operates the new Starbucks across the street, as well as the recently opened burger place and the very convenient Holiday Inn Express and gas station. And, of course, this blog would be remiss without a mention of the Shumakolowa Gift Shop, where they have a wide variety of authentic jewelry, pottery, rugs, and other items made by artists from the pueblos. They even have items like travel mugs designed by a small group of highly talented artists and produced only for the Cultural Center. Yes, they do have a book section (small plug – our first book Tales of The Dancing Rabbit can be found there) and some nice shirts, t-shirts, soaps, and other similar souvenir items.
In the book section, the Cultural Center staff set up a couple of dozen chairs facing Erik’s demo. He started with an interesting discussion of his pottery heritage, going all the way back to one of the pottery matriarchs, Maria Martinez. The skills and knowledge are passed down from one generation to the next, but also the artistic gene seems to be passed along as well. Erik showed us one of the smoothing stones that he inherited from Maria, but it is too small for his hand.
He described the gathering of the clay from Mother Earth, and the laborious process required before the artist can even begin making a pot. He passed around samples of the coarse clay and coarse stiffening agent (volcanic ash) as well as samples of the refined and ground clay and ash. Then he took a lump of clay and began forming the base, using a puki. The puki is often a common household item like a bowl that allows the artist to create the base, which then leads to the overall dimensions of the pot.
Following the base, Erik began to build the body of the pot, one coil at a time. He gently guides each coil into its place, then integrates it with the pit. One coil at a time, the pot takes shape.
When the pot is completed, it dries to a leather-hard stage. At that point, Erik described how he would take a pot and apply the slip. He demonstrated this to us, and as the perfectionist he is, Erik applied several coats until he was satisfied with the coverage.
The polishing comes next. Erik finds a stone (typically a smooth river stone) that fits his hand, and begins to smooth the pot until it feels right to him. This process can take many hours, and requires both a strong hand as well as a delicate touch.
Erik started his artistic training as a 2-D painter, and he told us his love for painting. After he moved into pottery, he realized how much he enjoyed painting pots to the point where he could paint pots all day long. While he was telling us this, he was freehand painting an avanyu (water serpent) design on the bowl that he had just covered with slip, starting with the upper and lower bands and then the actual serpent. Erik described his technique of painting the negative space around the shape, so that when our eye sees the shape, he has actually painted everything around it except that shape.
At the end of the presentation, Erik graciously answered additional questions, and we learned even more about this amazing artist. He teaches jewelry making and pottery skills to other Native Americans at the Poeh Cultural Center north of Santa Fe, and is active in preserving the cultural heritage of the Puebloan peoples. Though recognized as one of the best pueblo potters, Erik remains humble and gracious. His work is highly collectible, yet he continues to provide significant value to collectors. And his stories reflecting his cultural values give life to his pottery and jewelry that reach directly from soul to the souls of others.
Needless to say, after a great brunch at the Pueblo Harvest Café, followed by some wonderful buffalo and eagle dances, Erik’s presentation capped the afternoon for Harry and Elaine with a big flourish. It couldn’t have been any better.