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“The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art”

by Ruth Bunzel

Anthropologist Ruth Bunzel studied Pueblo pottery in New Mexico and Arizona in the summers of 1924 and 1925. Here, she interviews a potter who describes how she would teach a young girl. (Pottery was a woman's skill at this time. Now, some men also make pottery.)

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Zuni Woman with Four Pots, ca. 1929“Zuni Woman with Four Pots, ca. 1929,” Unidentified (possibly Pedro Lemoz) (Photographer)

When a girl starts to make a jar, I should tell her to take a handful of clay about the size of a cup, and to work it in her hands, using two fingers, until it is like a cup. Then she should put it in a mold and roll strips of clay about as thick as her thumb and about two or three feet long. She should use about five such strips, smoothing them all the time with the gourd scraper, and then she should put on two shorter strips to make the top. She must make it even around the lips and cut it off with a string, or pinch it with her fingers and cut off the extra clay to make a clean edge. She must not make the mouth too small like the Hopi jars, because it is too hard to get the gourd dipper in and out. She will not be able to make a good shape at first. Sometimes it will tip over on one side. But afterwards, she will learn to do it so it is even all around.

Then I should tell the girl to soak the white clay for the white paint. She should put it in a bowl of water and let it soak so it is smooth. Then she should see if it is thick enough. When it sticks to her fingers and drops off slowly, it is right. Then she should mix the black paint. She should rub the black stone in water. She should rub it hard because if it is not rubbed enough, it will not be a true black. She must add something to it, sugar or the boiled juice of the yucca to make it fast. Then she should mix the red paint. Then everything is ready.

Then I should teach the girl to measure the jar with her hands, so that the design will come out even. First she should measure around the top. For a small jar the designs should be about two finger widths apart, for a full size water jar, about a span. I should tell her to mark with her fingernail the Zuni Food Bowl, ca. 1910“Zuni Food Bowl, ca. 1910,” Unidentified Zuni (Artist) place where the designs will come. Then she should measure down the mouth of the jar. She should mark with her nail how far up the mold comes, and that much will remain unpainted. She should use about four or five large designs and smaller ones in between to fill out. The jar must be covered all over, but there should be plenty of white showing. I should tell her not to use too many small designs, because then it is too black and that is not nice. She should use mostly black paint and only a little bit of red.

I should not tell her what to paint, but she will know. When I was a girl, I watched my mother making pottery and learned how to do it. It is hard to learn how to paint well—harder than making the pot.