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Pottery collection casts an eye on continuity

More than 100 pieces reflect four centuries of Native American craftsmanship.

October 28, 2013|By Kirk Silsbee
  • Polychrome storage jar, Tesuque Pueblo, circa 1870-1880. Anonymous Gift from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection, Autry National Center.
Polychrome storage jar, Tesuque Pueblo, circa 1870-1880.… (Courtesy of the…)

The modern art of the 20th Century didn't arrive fully formed without antecedents. In the case of the Art Deco movement of the 1920s, the style drew on the geometry, sleekness and minimalism of classicism. While Deco may have had a primary stronghold in Germany's Bauhaus, its gospel spread far and wide, adapting to local customs and usage.

In Southern California, we sometimes take for granted the design elements that reflect the Southwest in our Deco. Whether it's a Hermosa Beach house that nicks the Mission style, Indian visages on the Mayan Theatre exterior, cornstalks in an ornamental frieze on Long Beach's Lafayette Hotel, the wavy lines of the Argyle Hotel in West Hollywood, or the Wiltern's diagonal gingerbread — modernist architects and designers have reinforced the connection between Indians and the city of Los Angeles.

The symbiosis of the so-called “primitive” and the modern is just one of the features of the new permanent installation of Native American pottery at the Mt. Washington campus of the Southwest Museum. With the Autry National Center, the museum has assembled an impressive array of jars, bowls, pots and other objects, encompassing 400 years of Native American clay vessels. Culled from six tribes and 30 villages in Arizona and New Mexico including the Hopi and Zuni, “Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery” gives a good accounting of Indian clay-making tradition, both prior to the Spanish conquest and after.

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These are utilitarian objects for everyday usage, and the human hand is seen in all of them. Kim Walters, the Autry's Ahmanson Curator of Native American History and Culture, has gathered more than 100 historic pieces from the Southwest Museum. She sees a consistency of craft in the grouping.

“Most of the symmetrical vessels were made by coiling strands of clay together,” she pointed out, “rather than with a potter's wheel; that came after they had contact with tourists and realized that there was an outside market for these vessels.”

The Santa Fe Trail, and later the Santa Fe Superchief, brought the outside world to the pueblos. “They sold their pieces in train stations,” said Walters. “Certainly, the pueblo artisans were not immune to the various periods and styles of European art, and the Deco motifs were probably a response to the tourist trade. And maybe the trader at the pueblo looked at what was selling and influenced designs.”

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