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Pueblo pottery: continuity and change: Lucy Lewis.

Looking carefully

The art of American Indian potterymaking has a long history. The indigenous peoples of what is now the United States of America have been making pottery for over two thousand years, and women living in the pueblos, or villages, of the Southwest continue this tradition today. But this tradition is not static. While there has been continuity from ancient times to the present, there has also been change.

In many American Indian communities, continuity with the past is highly valued. Lucy Lewis, a potter from Acoma pueblo in New Mexico, looks to ancient pottery traditions of this region for inspiration. The designs on her black on white jar with the spiral and stepped patterns recall the painted designs on ancient Anasazi pottery made in northern New Mexico about one thousand years ago. Her fine-line hatching and solid areas of black and white provide a balance of light and dark and of textured and solid areas, in a rich and varied design that covers the surface of the vessel. Design elements are arranged so that the largest forms, four evenly spaced spirals, occupy the widest part of the pot and enhance its curves. A combination of angular and curvilinear forms establishes a rhythmic equilibrium of visual expansion and enclosure.

Lucy Lewis uses design principles of balance, repetition and rhythm in innovative pottery decorations that are entirely her own. In her fine-line pot with an all-over linear design, the pattern she creates with carefully painted hatching seems to vibrate with the visual complexity of optical illusion. As in the pot with the spiral designs, the design elements are placed to fit the form of the vessel. The pattern that appears to be made up of straight lines actually swells and contracts in accord with the contours of the pot.


The potterymaking techniques used by Lucy Lewis are centuries old, and remain relatively unchanged since ancient times. She learned these techniques from older Acoma women. Using clay from the land near Acoma pueblo, the artist shapes her pots by hand. She joins thick coils of clay to a bowl-shaped base, and thins and shapes them to form the walls of the vessel. After the pots are scraped and smoothed, they are painted with a white slip made from local clay. Lucy Lewis paints her intricate designs with an iron-rich mineral pigment, applied with a yucca brash.

An artist such as Lucy Lewis who uses techniques that depend on natural materials must develop a knowledge of the resources that the land has to offer. This type of knowledge takes years to acquire, and has been passed down through generations of potters. In addition, because Lucy Lewis fires her pottery in a traditional man her, in an open outdoor firing without a permanent kiln structure to shelter the pots, she must be keenly aware of weather conditions to ensure a favorable outcome.

Tradition and innovation

Lucy Lewis inspired by the ancient pottery that she regards as her artistic heritage. However, until she visited the New Mexico Museum of Anthropology in the late 1950's, where she saw examples of old pottery that had Been preserved intact, she was familiar with ancient pottery designs only from broken pieces of pottery, or sherds, that she found near her home. Perhaps this is why she applies her interpretations of ancient designs to vessel forms from the more recent Acoma pottery, tradition. The two vessels made by Lucy Lewis that are shown in this month's centerspread take the form of Acoma water jars, although they were made to be looked at and not to cant water.

The pottery that Lucy Lewis knew as a young girl was made and decorated using techniques and materials similar to those used by the ancient Anasazi potters of the area. Decorative principles, particularly a concern for balance and rhythm, were similar as well. Many turn of the century pots were decorated with fine-line geometric designs.

As well as being inspired by ancient tradition, the decoration, along with the forms, of many of Lucy Lewis' pots comes from her familiarity with late nineteenth and early twentieth century Acoma pottery. Yet she does not simply copy older shapes and decorative motifs. Her water jar forms are elegant in their graceful curves. The intricacy and sophistication of her pottery decoration is the result of her own vision and experimentation. Her painted designs are sometimes restatements of ancient designs, but more often take these as a point of departure.

Key concepts

* Southwest American Indian pottery is an ancient art that has been handed down through generations and continues to thrive in our own time. There has been continuity in this art from ancient times to the present, and there has also been change.

* Traditional techniques, forms and designs, and the accumulated knowledge of local natural resources and their use, are preserved by elder members of a community and taught to younger artists as a means of keeping artistic traditions alive.

* For many American Indian cultures, the preservation of cultural traditions is highly valued. Innovation in American Indian art is based in a strong identification with cultural continuity.

* Artists who look to their artistic heritage for inspiration may use traditional imagery and design principles as a point of departure for creative innovation.

Lucy Lewis

Bona in 1898, Lucy Lewis learned to make pottery by watching Acoma women make vessels for daily and ceremonial use, and for sale to collectors and tourists. By the turn of the century, metal containers had supplanted pottery for many purposes. However, people continued to use ceramic vessels to carry and store water, because the slow evaporation of water through the walls of unglazed pots keeps water cool and fresh. The water jar form was also decorated and sold to people outside the community who collected this type of art in the interest of preserving traditional Indian arts, or who desired souvenirs of their visits to the Southwest.

Lucy Lewis has been singled out for international recognition as one of the most celebrated American Indian potters. Yet she is a member of a culture that values collectivity rather than individuality. She has lived her entire life at Acoma, and throughout her life has integrated her potterymaking into her participation in the daily and ceremonial life of her community.

The awareness and conscious maintenance of continuity and tradition is a primary cultural value for the Acoma community as for many American Indian people. There has always been innovation in American Indian art even as artists have worked to uphold traditions in techniques, materials, imagery and meanings. As seen in the work of Lucy Lewis, innovation has often been based in a strong identification with cultural continuity.

Suggested activities


* Using the art of Lucy Lewis and other Southwest American Indian potters as examples, discuss ways that line, pattern, balance of light and dark, and variation and repetition of shapes can be used to create visually interesting designs. Have students handbuild earthenware pottery, and plan an all-over design that fits the form of their pot. Designs can be drawn onto the surface of the pot with a pencil; these marks will burn away when the pots are fired. Students can use ox ides or slips to paint their designs. If desired, a clear glaze over these designs will make the pots usable for liquids and food.

* Many art forms besides pottery involve abstract decoration, such as quilts, weaving, basketry, metal and woodworking. Show examples of abstract design, and discuss the design principles used. Older students can find additional examples through independent research. Using paper and paint, colored pens or ink, have students create designs that fill the page using the design principles discussed in class.

* The development of the art of pottery in the Southwest depended on the knowledge of how to use, and conserve, natural resources. Clay is prevalent, and the dry climate is favorable as well for potterymaking. Discuss with students ways that people who depend on natural resources for art materials must be aware of local resources and weather conditions. What art forms were developed by people indigenous to your area? What natural resources do (or did) they use? Take students on a field trip to a nearby area where natural resources can be seen. What materials could be used to make and decorate objects for use and/or visual appreciation? How could these materials be gathered without depleting this resource for future generations? Have students gather and use these materials in an appropriate art project.

* Although not all cultures place as high a value on the preservation of cultural tradition as do many American Indian cultures, all cultures have an artistic heritage. Have students research the art traditions of their ancestry, or sonic part of their heritage. Students can explore these art traditions by using their designs, forms, techniques and materials. Encourage them to share what they have discovered with the class.


* Have students research potential sources of local clay (even in urban areas--clay is of ten found at construction sites), and if possible take a group of students to dig clay. Have students prepare the clay for use by drying and pulverizing it, removing foreign matter, and mixing the powdered clay with water. Test-fire a small amount of the clay at earth-enware firing temperatures before using it. Small objects or simple vessel forms will work best with unrefined clays. Students can also research simple non-kiln firing methods and, if facilities are available, can fire their pots using wood, sawdust or dried manure as fuel.

* When working with clay, have students research American Indian pottery and other world ceramic traditions. Discuss ways that people decorate pottery, often made for utilitarian purposes, using sophisticated design principles. Encourage students to notice how potters make particular forms for specific purposes, and how decoration fits and enhances these forms. Students can handbuild pottery using pinching and coiling techniques. Discuss the use of innovation within tradition, as seen in the work of many potters, and ask students not to copy examples they have seen, but to use them as a basis for developing their own designs. Have students paint their pots with slips or oxides, or use various textured patterns as decoration. They should take into account the shape of the pot when planning its decoration, and incorporate the design principles discussed in class.

* For many cultures, keeping artistic traditions alive has been a means of preserving a sense of cultural identity. Ask students to think about what their cultural heritage means to them. What traditions have [sub.3]m[Y.sub.7] carried on in their families or community? Is the art of the past seen as a source of inspiration today? Why or why not? Have students research a particular art tradition from their ancestry that interests them. What type of information will be available in books? What other information might be obtained from family members? Students can incorporate their research into art projects that use the techniques, materials, forms, designs and imagery of this tradition.


Dittert, Alfred E., Jr., and Plug, Fred. Generations in Clay: Pueblo Pottery of the American Southwest. Flagstaff: Northland Press, in cooperation with the American Federation of the Arts, 1980.

Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Peterson, Susan. Lucy M. Lewis: American Indian Potter. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1984.

Wade, Edwin L. (ed.) The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution. New York: Hudson Hills Press, in association with Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, 1986.

Women in Clay: The Ongoing Tradition. Ames, Iowa: The Octagon Center for the Arts, 1984.

Melanie Herzog, a Ph.D candidate in art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and visiting professor at Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin, studied with Lucy Lewis.
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Title Annotation:Looking/Learning
Author:Herzog, Melanie
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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