Pottery by American Indian Women
Exhibition Catalog by Susan Peterson
© 1997 Abbeville Press and the
National Museum of Women in the Arts

Susan Peterson

For over sixty years, I have been in close contact with the world of American Indian pottery, and with many of the most talented potters of the past few generations. I count myself very lucky to know most of the potters featured in Pottery by American Indian Women personally. This has provided me an opportunity to hear their own explanations of their work and to better understand their traditions and innovations.

I have been visiting Indian pueblos since I was eight years old. Between 1933 and 1939, my family drove from Nebraska to California each summer, stopping at San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico on every trip. On these trips, I came to know Maria Martinez, one of the oldest, most revered American Indian potters, and her family.

When I became a potter myself, the Indian connection grew. After graduating from the MFA program at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1950, I again visited San Ildefonso during a cross-country drive to California.

I began my work as a ceramic professor at the University of Southern California in 1955, and began teaching in their summer art program (called ISOMATA, the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts) in 1957. When the Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities (now known as the NEA and the NEH) came into being in 1965, I collaborated with ISOMATA's founding director, Dr. Max Krone, to write grant proposals for an exciting idea I had: a program of demonstrations by Indian artists. This evolved into classes of Indian arts given by Indian artists.

For our first summer program, I brought many eminent Indian artists to ISOMATA. Maria Martinez came with five generations of her family. Dr. Herbert Zipper, who served as the initial director of the ISOMATA Indian program, arranged for Maria and me to have a two-person exhibition of our individual ceramic works at the California Museum of Science and Industry. I suspect it was the first time that any American Indian potter ever participated in a two-person exhibit with a non-Indian. I was very proud!

That summer I gained a much greater understanding of American Indians. All the Indian teachers and their families were housed on the campus. We Anglos had to learn quickly about the kind of food "our" Indians needed, and other problems of their expatriate life; the students and townspeople helped.

These summer sessions continued for eight years and gave me an uncommon insight into the art of Indian pottery. However, I am sure I will never be "let in" to understand everything about these unique people, no matter how many more years I know them as friends and artists.

After a few summers, I realized that the pottery of American Indian artists had never been well documented. Maria's work was covered only by a book written by Alice Marriott and illustrated with line drawings in the early 1940s. To correct this neglect, I wrote The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez, with eighty-eight pages of color photographs of the pottery, the process, and the people. My book÷Maria's book÷was awarded the National Cowboy Hall of Fame American Heritage "Oscar" as the best western art book of 1978. Understanding that no two Indian artists are alike, and that their ceramic art and techniques differ, I thought that other Indian artists deserved the same attention. With this in mind, I wrote my next book, Lucy M. Lewis, American Indian Potter, in 1984. Both books, I am glad to say, are still in print÷published by Kodansha International.

As I have learned more about these remarkable artists over the years, I have continued to share new information through magazine articles and touring. I have traveled the country with the Martinez and the Lewis families, lecturing and showing slides while they demonstrated pottery making and firing.

My personal involvement in creating ceramics spans fifty years of working in clay. I still feel that it is one of the most expressive of the art media, but also one of the most difficult. There are many technical problems associated with the ceramic vocabulary, especially for the high temperature stoneware and porcelain work that I do. However, I find it absolutely necessary to transcend technique and focus on the creative passion that is central to the art of clay. The dichotomy of this demanding material and the freedom needed to achieve success with it is part of the mysterious fascination that keeps me working in clay.

I am proud to have participated in some of the most important Anglo exhibits of Indian pottery. In 1978 I curated a large exhibition for the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., called Maria Martinez: Five Generations of Potters. I compiled a definitive catalogue for that exhibition, filled with photographs and information. In 1980 I curated an exhibition and wrote a catalogue for the American Contemporary Art Gallery in New York City, featuring Fannie and Priscilla Nampeyo, Lucy Lewis, Santana and Adam Martinez, and Barbara Gonzales. In 1984 I curated an exhibition at the Kerr Gallery in New York City for Lucy Lewis and several of her children, Emma, Dolores, and Andrew. Meanwhile, while continuing to teach and lecture extensively (in Finland, Australia, Canada and Japan, to name a few of the venues), the idea for creating a major exhibition and book on American Indian women potters began to take form.

Between 1986 and 1993 I published four books on ceramics, and in 1993 began to work on the American Indian women potters project in earnest. In 1994 I retired from teaching at Hunter College, City University of New York, and in 1997 Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations came to fruition with a book and traveling exhibition, which opened October 1997 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, continuing to the Heard Museum from February until May, 1998. The Legacy of Generations, a half-hour documentary featuring many of the artists (including Nora Naranjo-Morse, Margaret Tafoya, Nancy Youngblood, Grace Medicine-Flower, and LuAnn Tafoya) was produced by National Public Television/WETA and aired in March of 1998.

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All text © Susan Peterson, 1998.
Edited by Susan Ressler, based on compilation
© 1997 Abbeville Press and The National Museum of Women in the Arts.