Bolts of lightning zigzag toward earth against a backdrop of driving rains. These are, in turn, overlaid by a crisscrossing network of leaves and flowers. The lines are so sharp and precise because they are traced with the pointed end of a yucca plant. This is an art of the southwestern desert and its indigenous peoples, an art that celebrates a precious and scarce resource - water.
After incising designs in the clay the potter would tap the pot; if its thin sturdy walls did not ring when held to the ear that indicated that the pot would crack in firing and was defective. Eventually after wood firing was completed, seed would be stored in the pot until needed for planting. Then the seed pot would be broken and the shards could be reused to make more pots.
The same clay that made seed pots made pots to carry precious water home from nearby streams. The same clay was used to build the pueblo towns of the southwest. Dried clay is given additional strength through the incorporation of potsherds. Geometric patterns seem suited to the harsh light of the desert, sharply defined. Fire is implicit in the dry lands, waiting only to be tapped. Pottery is the art form and the tool maker ready to hand.
Maria Zieu Chino (1907-1982) was born at Acoma Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico. The making of pottery there dates back more than a millennium. She won the first award for her pottery when she was fifteen years old at the Santa Fe Indian Fair in 1922. Together with her friends Jessica Garcia, Juana Leo, and Lucy M. Lewis, the quartet became known as the "Four Matriarchs" of Acoma pottery for their revival of an ancient art, beginning in the 1950s. While gathering potsherds to temper their vessels the women unearthed pieces with long unseen designs, becoming archeologists in service to their own ancestors. Yet Chino was no mere copyist; she adapted traditional motifs to her own ends, achieving results that were fresh and compelling. Among her peers, Chin's work is admired for the fitness between its form and decoration.
Robert Patricio is the nephew of Maria Zieu Chin.
Image: Maria Zieu Chino - Seed Jar, 1982, clay, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.