fig. 10: Alice Cling
Photograph by Sally Martinez.


Navajo artist Alice Cling was born around 1946 in a hogan at Cow Springs, in the Tonalea section of Arizona. Her pots, embellished with the traditional thin coat of pitch, are deceptively simple. Their lasting beauty comes from her unusual use of clay and from the striking colors caused by outdoor firing.

Alice learned how to make pottery from her mother, Rose Williams, an innovative Navajo potter who had been trained by her aunt, Grace Barlow, who had raised Rose at Shonto. Grace, Rose, and Alice have been the inspiration for many Navajo potters who have recently tried to make pottery for the "market." Navajo clay-work for hundreds of years was made for domestic or ceremonial use only. No railroad stations or museums existed in this vast, sparsely populated desert landscape to spark a demand for tourist goods or for scholarly endeavors that would bring the art of potters to the fore.

After graduating from an Indian school, Alice married Jerry Cling. They have four children who make pottery now, too. The family digs the brown-firing clay from a special place near Black Mesa, screens it to eliminate impurities, and mixes it with sand for temper and with water to make it workable. Alice's particularly unusual aesthetic contribution to the Navajo pottery renaissance is the magnificent coloration she achieves on the softly burnished and lightly pitch-coated surfaces of her forms.

fig.11: Jar, 1995-96, by Alice Cling. Redware; 31" x 9" dia.
Collection of Judith and Stephen Schreibman.
Photograph by Craig Smith.

Alice says that these elegant, gracefully austere forms did not come to her easily. Her first pots twenty years ago were "so ugly" that she vowed to keep shaping and polishing her clay "until it was beautiful." She applies an iron bearing slip to the finished dry clay form and polishes the surface with a riverwashed stone or a Popsicle stick. She says that some women use corncobs to burnish. The chemistry of the clay body and the clay slip, the atmosphere in the fire, and the ash that falls onto the pots from the juniper wood combine to produce the red-orange-purple-brown-black blushes that enhance the unusual veneer of Alice's pots. Through trial and error, she has developed her own techniques.

fig.12: Jar, 1995-96, by Alice Cling. Redware; 12" x 12" dia.
Collection of Judith and Stephen Schreibman
Photograph by Craig Smith.

Alice applies a light coating of warm pitch to the warm pots after firing, and burnishes that down to a distinctive low sheen. Usually her pots are totally undecorated except for the natural pigmentation from the clay and the fire. Many traditional Navajo storage jars have a biyo, a beaded necklace around the shoulder of a vessel made from a textured coil of the same clay. Alice does not like to use decorations because her grandmother disapproved of using the traditional designs on nonutilitarian wares. Instead, Alice allows the beautiful pigmentation to serve as the decoration, thus forging an original path for the works she creates.

Several of Alice's jars were chosen by Joan Mondale for use in the vice president's house in Washington, D.C., during their tenure, along with the art of other contemporary American craftpersons. Alice has taken numerous awards at Flagstaff and Santa Fe Indian fairs and powwows. Alice's work is unmistakably Navajo but has flair that sets it apart from any other Indian pottery being produced today.

Anita Fields

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