San Ildefonso pottery is about a little known art, an American art form that deserves recognition and appreciation alongside the other great world art systems. Before there was Santa Fe and before the idea of “art colony” was born there was San Ildefonso, a small village of extraordinarily visionary artists whose ceramic legacy is rich and vitally meaningful. In addition, San Ildefonso provided a vital partnership for first Museum of New Mexico director Edgar Lee Hewett in creating his vision of the founding of the Museum.
San Ildefonso Pueblo pottery are an art form that is simultaneously both ancient and contemporary; being a constant for Pueblo people for millennia; always present, forever evolving to reflect the historical and cultural circumstances of Pueblo people’s lives. Artisans work in a variety of styles, always evolving in response to the changing circumstances of their own lives and the world around them. Pottery, or more precisely, its aesthetics and production is ritualized behavior, serving as a critical and material conceptual ideal of the San Ildefonso world. As San Ildefonso people remind us, "Our history is recorded in pottery."
Art is an inadequate word but there is no precise word in the Tewa language. Making pottery and painting is making life; those lives residing in the works that will be part of this exhibition. Pottery and painting incorporates a myriad of ideas from ancient design iconography to new tools and materials. But at the core of these arts sits an accurate presenting of the values and principles of Pueblo cosmology. When we speak of these arts we are hearing these values; the principles of honoring the creation through the way lives are lived. “I am prayerful when I gather my clay,” a friend tells me. She continues, “my mother and grandmother dug their clay here, as did their aunties and mothers, so I am prayerful, respectful of this place and bring only good thoughts.”
Consider that pottery making is a prayer, pottery making is creating life. Pottery has profound significance; the creation of pottery is the combining of two sacred and fertile substances –water and earth—combining them to make a new life. Designs on pottery are neither iconographic, metaphoric nor symbol but rather become the form that is painted—a leaf form is a leaf, a painted feather is prayer or breath. Painting infuses pottery with sacredness. These arts are visual prayer.
The exhibit will use new methodologies of combining Native ethnogenisis, discussions with descendant community members, and museum object and archival research, developing a holistic approach and portrait of artisans, art production and social contexts. San Ildefonso Art will take a unique approach to best tell the stories of San Ildefonso art through their own interpretations and meanings as well as helping gallery visitors appreciate new understandings of the history, contexts, and meanings of San Ildefonso art, culture and history.
Curators Bruce Bernstein, Erik Fender and Russell Sanchez in partnership with potters and today’s community members bring this important project to the public’s attention to help in creating more appreciation of the depth of artistic creativity and cultural knowledge incorporated into San Ildefonso Art. The MIAC’s important collections will be featured, many of the pieces never exhibited. These artworks also tell the story of a singular alliance between the village of San Ildefonso and the foundling Museum of New Mexico. Two years before the museum was created first director Edgar Lee Hewett in the company of San Ildefonso men explored their homelands, spending countless hours enveloped in their intimate knowledge of its cultural and natural landscapes. Whether research, exhibition, publication, or education the fledgling museum relied on the men and women of the village. The village prospered in unexpected ways too, finding their culture was valued after years of degenerative governmental pressure to cease its practice, helping give rise to new forms of pottery.
Bernstein is a former director of MIAC and assistant director at the National Museum of the American Indian. Erik Fender and Russell Sanchez are active San Ildefonso community members and award winning potters. Both stand within their families long lineage and heritage of producing pottery. The project is a joint project of the Coe Center for the Arts and is supported by Al Anthony, Adobe Gallery and the School for Advanced Research.
For video from the San Ildefonso exhibit, please visit our YouTube channel at the following links. For the exhibition introductory film, please click here. For the film about making pottery, please click here. For stories about living and working in San Ildefonso, please click here.