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THE ROAD NORTH Kate’s Journal


Episode 27 New Mexico

Georgia’s mother had taught in several of the villages on the way north, and our first stop was at San Ildefonso, home of friends of Georgia.

San Ildefonso is another sleepy village with large cottonwood trees sheltering the homes. It is the home of Maria Montoya Martinez, one of the most famous of the Pueblo potters.

I was fortunate to own a small pot by Maria which had been given to me by my aunt. Maria and her husband Julian had been a feature in the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1939 as potters demonstrating the art of Indian pottery making, and they were quite famous among their peers.

Today there are 14 families and extended families active in making pottery. Many of the younger potters are using their own designs, but much pottery is still the old black on black type. Traditionally the pottery was unglazed and fired in dirt kilns using dung as fuel. It gained its black color from the firing process.

black pot2

We pulled up in front of one house and suggested I stay in the car while she approached the house but did not go to the door. Presently a man came to the door and looked suspiciously at her as she asked for someone by name. He hesitantly said “That’s me.” Then she introduced herself and he smiled broadly while he recognized her. She asked after her friend Desideria, and he said “I married her!” With that over, he stared at me sitting in the car, so Georgia introduced us and then I got out of the car. He invited us in and his wife came out of the kitchen. They said the priest was coming for lunch so we were invited as well. Desideria, who was Maria’s sister and also a noted potter, said that Maria was coming to lunch too. It was rather like imagining you were about to meet Merle Streep for me to meet her. Her husband Julian and son, Popovi Da are both active potters as well. At some point during the lunch, Georgia told them I was also a potter, and nods and smiles were exchanged. Maria was as gracious as I had imagined her.

During the summer, my Laguna-Isleta friend and I visited many of the villages, sometimes to renew longtime friendships of Georgia’s, and sometimes to attend a seasonal celebratory dance. All villages do not welcome outside guests, and those which do, expect that strict rules of decorum be observed. This includes no cameras, which would be confiscated, no unnecessary talking during the performance, and to my great shame, no quick drawings of the dancers. I was unaware of doing anything wrong, until I heard Georgia’s whisper not to look up. Keeping my head down I saw two moccasined feet directly in front of me, and heard Georgia say that I was writing a letter home. I guiltily looked up into an old and angry hawk-nosed face, deeply tanned and wrinkled, with not an ounce of compassion or forgiveness. I smiled weakly and quickly looked back at the dancers. After an abnormal length of time, the old man moved on to try and find any other miscreants. I realized that the best sketchbook is frequently in your head, and a lot safer too.

The various villages, all slightly different, on our way north to Taos, gave an opportunity for sketching, until we found the day drifting away and knew we needed to find a place to spend the night. It was Saturday evening and in Georgia’s words: “Not a good time to be on the road with a lot of drunken Indians!” We found a cheap motel offering a dance next door, so we chose it as our place of residence for the night.

The owner said there were no more vacancies, but he had a trailer in the back which we could rent for a small sum. The trailer consisted of two sleeping areas with a small kitchen in between. The man explained how to lock the door, and I had my small gun, so we felt safe enough, but after watching the dancing next door, we forgot how to lock the door. We spread newspapers on the floor in case anyone entered we could hear them and I could threaten them, but awoke next morning to bright sunshine unscathed.

Kiowa Kiowa dancer watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

O' Odham Tash O’Odom Tash dancer waterfolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Gratefully saying goodbye to our “trailer home”, we continued north to Taos, whose stories had long fascinated me.

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11 comments on “THE ROAD NORTH Kate’s Journal

  1. You are so lucky to have that pot! I have several small pots from Acoma. I look forward to reading more of your New Mexico stories.

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    • I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I got the pot. It is signed by both Maria and Julian. You have probably seen some of the modern pots some of which are carved. I would love to have one just to show the evolution of pottery through the years. Acoma was not noted for its pots when I first went there, but a number of the villages now make beautiful pottery.

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  2. Your sketches are great. I can see why you may have gotten in trouble in terms of capturing human images. My father always talked fondly about attending the World’s Fair on Treasure Island. –Curt

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  3. Great journal of memories, Kayti. I am amazed at the details of your water colour paintings. We still have a complete set of salt glazed ceramic pottery made by a Dutch artist, while living in Holland. My dad’s brother was a ceramic artist.

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  4. What an amazing pot, so beautiful! Great story, as always 🙂

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    • You probably know they are unglazed, but they get the shine by rubbing a smooth stone over the dry clay. Everyone has a favorite stone or two or three. The modern pots are spectacular. Some are carved, and of course some today are glazed. I’m happy I have pieces arom several different villages. mrsdaffodil saidshe has an Acoma pot, so I went and looked and I too have a couple of old ones They got very decorative. I also like the Hopi which don’t look like any of the others. I should do a post with photos of different ones.

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  5. I’d love for you to do a post about the pots. While I know a tiny bit about the differences among them, I know almost nothing about the processes. For example, the detail about rubbing the stone over the clay is fascinating. There’s just nothing like a pot. The simplicity of the design, and the way they feel in the hand are wonderful.

    Of course I appreciated your story of having your sketching interrupted. Cultural differences can be so subtle, and our perspectve so limited, that we never even think to ask the questions. I just did it the other day re: the lunar New Year. I asked a Vietnamese woman about the “spring verses” that the Chinese use as decorations, never thinking that the New Year might be celebrated differently in each culture. It’s the same moon, but the customs certainly can differ.

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    • Gung Hay Fat Choy! (Cantonese for Happy New Year.) It is the year of the Fire monkey. I am a Dragon (not surprising!) Fremont has an enormous Asian population which has come in since Silicon Valley and the tech industry. For many years we held a backyard party for all the neighbors, sometimes 40 or so people. One year we had 2 two Chinese people and I cheerily suggested that they could talk together. They shook their heads and said they didn’t speak the same language since they came from different parts of China.. Live and learn. You are right in saying that the different Asian cultures celebrate the same Lunar New Year or Spring Festival in different ways. What do we know anyway?

      I think a post on Pueblo pottery would be fun to do. It’s all so different today.

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