On a recent trip to Minnesota, I wandered the grand halls of the Minneapolis Institute of Art where I saw pre-Columbian gold, 17th-century Japanese scrolls, drawings by contemporary artist Kara Walker and a mid-century painting by Gene Davis. Just as mesmerizing as anything else on view was a little piece of pottery by Hopi potter Nampeyo. Encased in glass, the mounted, shallow dish was earth-colored and tenderly painted, typifying her dynamic, unpretentious style. The dish, from the late 1890s, features a Hopi figure wearing a headdress ridged in spikes of varying sizes. A scarf draped over his left shoulder contains geometric elements, but is almost playfully freeform and irregular. Nampeyo is just one of a handful of world-class Southwestern potters included in Unique and Unusual Pueblo Pottery, an exhibit at Alexander Anthony's 40-year-old Adobe Gallery. It has been on Canyon Road, adjacent to the Café Des Artistes, since 2001.
The show's aim is to share styles, shapes and motifs not often seen on the market—or anywhere, for that matter—with items dating from the 1880s to the 1950s. "We tried to pick out pottery that was obviously different from what was normally made," Anthony tells SFR. "These items were made either in jest of the white man or aimed at tourists; either way, they're generally not of the size or shape that you usually see." Anthony points out a black-and-white striped Koshare clown figure, who's sitting down, maybe resting. In front of him is a notched ridge, for a cigarette. "This," says Anthony, "would never have been used ceremonially."
The Pueblo of San Ildefonso, just north of Santa Fe, is beloved for its striking black-on-black pottery, perhaps most famously exemplified by early 20th-century master potter Maria Martinez. Anthony has a special fondness for Martinez. When he left small-town North Carolina in 1956 and moved West, he immediately fell in love with New Mexico. "I was wandering downtown in Albuquerque I walked into Wright's Trading Post and saw a black bowl," he remembers in his lilting Southern drawl. "I thought it was the prettiest thing I had ever seen." The price tag, however—$100—was steep, so the shop's owner offered to let him make payments of $10, spread out over several months. It was a Maria Martinez pot, and after that first purchase, Anthony was hooked on Pueblo art.
This show includes what Anthony calls "an extremely rare and unusual plate," which Maria made, but that her husband Julian painted. The beautifully decorated saucer features a pair of deer dancers, and would have been made with tourists in mind. "Most of those kinds of items would have been sold on Route 66," Anthony explains. "The highway permitted artists to set up little card tables, so people driving past could stop and buy directly from them."
Another clay vessel from San Ildefonso, unsigned but dated to the last decade of the 1800s, has traditional elements, such as a crimped, pie crust-style rim and dual handles. Its decoration, though, is remarkably strange. Two men in Western clothing adorn the belly of the pot. Their expressions are dour, with mustached frowns and down-turned brows. One of them carries a rifle that's disproportionately, comically small, which he will presumably use to slay the deer on the back side of the pot. Another man in similar dress sits dejectedly near a little basket. With their black hats and cranky faces, it's humorous—and, as Anthony remarks, "the artist is making fun of non-Natives."
Olla jars or pots were used as grain or water storage for hundreds of years, and sometimes feature embellishments like bear claws or the undulating body of an avanyu, a mystical water serpent. What we much less typically see is a style on view at Adobe Gallery, a hunter's fetish jar made between 1890 and 1920. According to Anthony, this was a period at Zuni where potters were working with white on red, before largely moving on to different color combinations. Anthony is inclined to think the jar was made strictly for commercial use. "If it is a hunter's fetish jar, it's surprising it ever left the Pueblo," he says, referencing the object's importance in Pueblo ceremony and culture.
Back to Nampeyo for a moment. Though she was prolific, it's still a very special privilege to see her works in person, and a small jar on view at Unique and Unusual Pueblo Pottery is especially beguiling. It depicts a face in partial 3-D with a protruding nose, dark eyes and a delicately painted squash blossom necklace. Covering a range of styles from the beautiful to the tongue-in-cheek, the exhibition behaves as a kind of fascinating history lesson, one that's as "unique and unusual" as the show's pottery itself.
Unique and Unusual Pueblo Pottery:
5 pm Friday April 6. Free.
221 Canyon Road,