Art Students Study Pueblo Pottery for Inspiration

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The Peabody Museum houses an impressive collection of Pueblo pottery, including iconic black-on-white painted pieces from Chaco Canyon and vessels made around the first part of the 20th century.

From left to right: Casas Grandes Polychrome jar, Arizona; vessel with water spirit design, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico; large Anasazi olla, Poncho House, Utah.

In October, students in art instructor Emily Trespas’s Art 225A Visual Studies Studio class visited the Peabody to examine some of our graphic painted pottery as they prepared for a lesson in printmaking. Emily wanted her students to look at an array of ancient and contemporary pottery, primarily from the American Southwest. The ceramic traditions of the Anasazi, Casas Grandes, Hohokam, and modern Pueblos emphasize bold, graphic designs that often play with negative and positive space—perfect inspiration for printmaking.

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The students were invited to spend the first few minutes of their visit moving around the room and examining each piece closely. We asked them to look at the designs and issued a challenge: could they find the one piece that was not from the Southwest? The students used deductive reasoning to rule out the Anasazi vessels, which are clearly unified by their bold black-on-white geometric designs; the black-on-black vessels of Maria Martinez; and some of the historic pieces from the San Ildefonso and Santa Clara pueblos. Many students settled on a bottle form with a distinctive cross-in-circle sunburst motif rendered in ghostly black pigment. Remarkably, one student offered that the piece is from the Southeast, possibly Georgia. She was right—the bottle is a negative-painted vessel from the Etowah site, just outside Atlanta.

Art student examines a negative painted bottle from the Etowah site, Georgia.
Art student examines a negative painted bottle from the Etowah site, Georgia.

We talked a little about where these pieces are from, how old they are, how they were made and decorated, and the lives of those who made them. I shared the story of Maria Martinez and how she and her husband, Julian, created a sensation in the 1920s by combining traditional forms and designs with their innovative black-on-black technique. Their glimmering black pieces with matte geometric designs appealed to collectors interested in the streamlined and precise aesthetic of Art Deco, and the pieces became highly collectible as Maria demonstrated her technique and marketed her pottery.

Black-on-black plate by Maria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico.

At the end of their visit, the students had an opportunity to tell us about their favorite pieces and capture some photos for later inspiration. Some liked the polychrome Casas Grandes vessel, which harbored abstract animal or human forms, while others were captivated by the subtle asymmetry of a beautiful water jar from Zia Pueblo. We look forward to seeing the prints the students create!

To read more about Maria Martinez and Pueblo pottery making, check out Peabody archaeologist Carl Guthe’s pioneering work from the 1920s at InternetArchive: https://archive.org/details/pueblopotterymak00guth

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