fig. 23: Nora Naranjo-Morse
Photograph by Tamea J. Mikesell.
Courtesy of the Heard Museum.


Nora Naranjo-Morse, born in 1953, is a potter and a poet with an unusual world view, though she lives a traditional life at Santa Clara Pueblo. Her pointedly satirical figures and huge conceptual installations make her one of the most exciting Indian artists of her generation.

"For hundreds of years Pueblo people have treasured their powerful relationship with clay," writes Nora in the preface to her book of poetry, Mud Woman. "Veins of colored earth run along the hillsides of New Mexico, covering remote trails with golden flecks of mica. Channels of brown and scarlet mud wash across the valleys, dipping and climbing with the sprawling landscape. Intricately woven patterns of clay fan out under the topsoil, carrying the life of pottery to the Pueblo people."

Nora, youngest daughter of Rose Naranjo, a well-known Santa Clara-Laguna potter, has eight siblings, all of whom have made pottery at one time or another in their lives. Nora remembers that years ago they gathered clay together and while their mother was making a pot, she gave pieces of clay to her children to work too.

One of Nora's important recollections is of watching her mother one night when Rose was sitting on a small stool making a huge pot out of micaceous clay that was "testing her boundaries." Nora was so impressed with Rose's wondrous look of peace and accomplishment that she never forgot it. Rose's serene countenance that night inspired Nora to work with clay.

After Taos High School and the College of Santa Fe, taking ten years to get her bachelor's degree, Nora traveled and wrote poetry. Then she married, had two children - girl and boy twins, who she says have changed her life - and built her own house. Today she is confident that she can do almost anything she wants. The major events in her life have made her more zealous and directed in her own way.

fig. 24: Pearlene, 1987, by Nora Naranjo-Morse.
38"x16" dia. The Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona.
Photograph by Craig Smith.

Nora's large figures, which are now in museums and private collections, are generally concerned with satirical notions playing on Anglo and Indian lore; several figures of Pearlene - a Pueblo character she created - have in particular made Nora famous. As the artist says, her work is so different that there is often no place for her in the Indian markets of the Southwest. But she professes not to be concerned. "I'm an open vessel. I never know what life's experiences will give me, what opportunity will inspire my creativity. That is why it is essential to my creative process that I remain open to absorb information, feel emotions, and ultimately react, whether I'm forming a sculpture, filming, or choosing words.

"I'm in the Indian world too. I want to believe that any of us can do what we want. I didn't a lot of my life because I was afraid of what people in the village would say. I learned that no matter what culture, there are limits.

"Coming from a strong cultural base allows me to appreciate the creative process. Pueblo thought celebrates and utilizes creativity as an intrinsic component to our world view. I hear the drum beat during a ceremony, and I am moved from that place which shelters my soul and encourages my imagination. It's in this wondrous gift that I feel the courage to expand my creative boundaries."

In 1983 Nora went to Germany to teach, taking her three-year-old daughter and a big bag of clay. She had a rapport with the German women, who reminded her of her aunts at Santa Clara. Nora attended the Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995 and took her fifteen-year-old son to that. She has been exposing her children to the world all along, and now they are attending the American Indian Preparatory School in Rowe, New Mexico.

Although the act of making pottery is practiced traditionally as a communal art in all Indian villages, today collectors vie for unique pieces and the demand has shifted to individual expressions by name artists. Indicative of the changing values, so-called contemporary Indian claywork can command as much money as a good painting does in New York City galleries. Nora often creates atypical conceptual installations composed of a number of ceramic objects. If living an Indian life was not a high priority for Nora, her provocative work would easily secure her a place in the New York City art scene.

"There is no word for art in the Tewa language," recalls Nora in her book. "There is though the concept for an artful life, filled with inspiration and fueled by labor and thoughtful approach. The process of recording my life through clay and poetry results in an exciting volley of creative expression for me."

fig. 25: Four figures, 1996, By Nora Naranjo-Morse.
From 4.5 ft.x11in. dia. to 8.5x1.5 ft. dia.
Collection of Sara and David Lieberman.
Photograph by Craig Smith.

The tallest of the group of four figures that she made for the Legacy of Generations exhibition - she said it "stretched" her - was 11 1/2 feet tall unfired. It was so large that it had to be fired in a large gas kiln rather than in a ground pit-fire. Once all was said and done, the work measured 8 1/2 feet, having shrunk three feet because of artistic adjustments and firing.

The other multi-piece installation she created for us to choose from covered one large room. Nora and her niece, Roxanne Swentzell, are among the most innovative Indian women working in clay today.

"I know that I have something powerful in me, whatever happens I have that. I am changing. I'm writing; I'm doing monoprints, videos. The clay is changing - I'm doing larger pieces. My experiences pile up and get incorporated. I feel more certain now. When the time is right new things happen. I never know. I'm excited. I never know what will happen!" Nora repeats this exclamation over and over, literally bouncing up and down with the pleasure of these thoughts and with passion for the future.

fig. 26: Mud woman with pot, 1991.
By Nora Naranjo-Morse. 28"x18" dia.
Collection of Carol and Charles Gurke.
Photograph by Mary Fredenburgh.

Here is a poem about Nora's strong connection to clayworking, from her book Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay (University of Arizona Press, 1992.).


This clay starts calling to me only days after I've sworn it off

wishing to leave tired hands to rest,

wanting to release myself from the browns and reds

that bend easily into gentle curves,

instantly becoming a child's face,

a woman's skirt, or her husband's smile.

Resting from lines I review,

have reviewed,

and will review again.

Dusting off the sanded earth

as coarse surfaces level into fluid forms

I had not yet discovered,

so smooth and yet richly textured with life of its own.

I am in awe of this clay that fills me with passion

and wonder.

This earth

I have become a part of,

that also I have grown out of.

Jacquie Stevens

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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.