There is always a big swirl of activities in the week prior to Santa Fe’s Indian Market, and it is always hard to pick and choose which ones to attend and which to see another time.

This year, we had a very easy choice. The Museum of Indian Art and Culture (MIAC) is opening a year-long exhibition on San Ildefonso pottery, titled San Ildefonso Pottery 1600-1930: Voices of the Clay. MIAC went deep into their storage vaults and pulled out the best examples of historic pottery from this prolific pueblo.

The exhibition is co-curated by Bruce Bernstein, Assistant Director of MIAC, and renowned San Ildefonso potters Erik Fender and Russell Sanchez. MIAC introduced the exhibition last Sunday with a big bang, hosting a Pueblo Feast and dances out on the MIAC plaza, and a wonderful opening discussion by a prestigious panel. In addition to the co-curators, they included Laura Sanchez Escalanti, a witty and vivacious Tewa language teacher at Pojoaque High School, and Martin Aguilar, a prominent San Ildefonso elder.

Each member of the panel gave opening remarks, some focusing on the passion and emotional responses they had when seeing pottery created by their ancestors, many of whom are directly in their family lineage. Laura, for example, said that she saw pots created by her great-grandmother, and that helped her reach over the years to the spirit of her great-grandmother. She teaches cultural values as well as language, and getting students in touch with their culture and traditions is a very important part of her mission.

Other panel members talked about the elegance of this ancient pottery, particularly given the harsh conditions in which pueblo Indians lived several hundred years ago. Back then, as Russell Sanchez pointed out, the pottery was made for functional and ceremonial uses, not for sale to tourists. However, he also emphasized that many potters today support their families with their pottery art, and this is one way in which Native Americans cope with living in two worlds – the Anglo world and the Native American world. In an insightful discussion thread, Russell talked about how studying the pottery of San Ildefonso’s ancestors gave them ideas and inspiration, but also gave them the ability to find their own voices and tread their own paths of innovation.

Erik Fender thoughtfully summarized many of the prior panel member comments, and added what to me is the most important part of understanding Native American art – this art, not just pottery but all mediums, is an expression of the culture and values of a small community, and looking at the art over a period of time helps all of us, both Native American and Anglo, gain a better understanding of the culture. For pottery, the clay is an extension of the Native American relationship with Mother Earth, and the designs and traditional methods of developing the art are fully enmeshed in that relationship.

Erik also discussed the challenges of recreating some of the lost techniques and styles of San Ildefonso pottery. Today, San I is known as a black-on-black pottery center, but earlier styles of their pottery included both polychrome and black-on-red designs. Finding the correct vegetal materials and the correct combinations of mixes for these paints requires a lot of trial and error, which Erik has been undertaking for a number of years.

Martin Aguilar started and then finished the panel discussions, giving his perspective on the challenges facing the San Ildefonso pueblo community hundreds of years ago, as well as the different but similar challenges this small community faces today. As a wise elder of the pueblo, he has seen and thought about these issues for decades, and was very supportive of MIAC shining a spotlight on the rich tradition of pottery that has come from San Ildefonso from the early 1600’s to the present day.

We left the seminar after an hour and a half with a lot of additional knowledge, but we also wished that the panel members could have spent an additional hour and a half (or more) continuing their discussions. Everyone on the panel contributed gems of wisdom that we soaked up, and the standing room only crowd was very, very appreciative for the time and knowledge that they shared with us.

Yes, Indian Market is a two day art sale, but the city of Santa Fe has so much more to offer during the week prior to the actual market. Artist receptions at galleries, trunk shows, hotel shows, and amazing exhibitions and seminars like the one hosted by MIAC. If you get to Santa Fe within the next year, you MUST stop by MIAC on Museum Hill and walk through this San Ildefonso exhibition. It is SO worth your time.