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Pueblo pottery on display at Carnegie
by Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
credits: Artwork images are copyright of Adobe Gallery.

The exquisite clay pots in the exhibition "Born of Fire: The Life and Pottery of Margaret Tafoya," at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, were made for the most part in the last century, but they belong to a tradition that dates to 500 A.D.

Tafoya, who was born in 1904 and died in 2001, was a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. It's one of several pueblo Indian villages in that state, and in neighboring Arizona, known for beautifully crafted pottery based on traditional methods and forms that are passed down from one generation to another.

The Carnegie shows 75 pieces by Tafoya, considered before her death "the last surviving Pueblo matriarch," and also works by her mother and descendants.

Two of the latter, daughter Toni Roller and grandson Nathan Youngblood, will give gallery talks at the museum from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday. They will also be present at a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. today for a complementary exhibition at Four Winds Gallery, 5512 Walnut St., Shadyside.

Tafoya learned how to make her black and red ware pots chiefly from her mother, Sarafina Gutierrez Tafoya, including unusually large pieces 30 or more inches high. The pots are made by the coil method -- hand built rather than wheel thrown -- and their surfaces are painstakingly rubbed with a stone before firing to achieve the characteristic polished finish. They are fired in an open fire using natural fuels, such as wood and animal manure.

Margaret Tafoya's father, Jose Geronimo Tafoya, was also a potter, as was her husband Alcario Tafoya. Both men helped to dig and process clay and to fire pots, and Alcario also carved the bold symbolic designs, such as the bear paw or water serpent, into their surfaces. But because the men's primary responsibility was raising food for their families, the women made most of the pottery.

Margaret Tafoya was a traditionalist, maintaining stringent values for the craft when she taught her children. Presented with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 1984, for example, she spoke of using only clay dug from deposits on Santa Clara land.

"We get the clay where our ancestors used to take it," she said. "My girls are still doing work from the clay that my great-great-grandparents used."

That so many of her family members have chosen to continue the tradition (though often introducing personal variants) is indicative of the cultural commitment in place in the pueblo, and also of the worldwide interest in the works that allow the potters to dedicate themselves to carrying on that tradition.

Other of Margaret Tafoya's descendents represented in the exhibition are son and daughter-in-law Lee and Betty Tafoya; besides Roller, daughters Mary Ester Archuleta, Virginia Ebelacker, LuAnn Tafoya, Shirley Tafoya, Jennie Trammel and Mela Youngblood; granddaughters Linda Tafoya and Nancy Youngblood; besides Nathan Youngblood, grandsons Jeff Roller, Daryl Whitegeese and Christopher Youngblood; great grandsons Jerome Ebelacker and Jeremy Oyenque; and son-in-law Richard Ebelacker.

Roller will also be at Four Winds from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and she and Youngblood from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Four Winds owner John Krena has a decades-long relationship with Southwestern Native American artists and is a collector of Tafoya family pottery. He is exhibiting pottery by Margaret Tafoya, Roller and Youngblood, as well as by Kiowa jeweler Keri Ataumbi.

Author Charles S. King will sign his book, which has the same title as the exhibition, at the Carnegie and Four Winds events. Ataumbi will attend the Four Wind events (412-682-5092).

"Fire" continues through January 4. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, and until 8 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $15, seniors $12, children ages 3 - 18 and students $11, under age 3 free. An exhibition tour, lunch and ceramic tile workshop will be led by Gloria Pollock Oct. 29 (register at 412-622-3288). Related family activities will be offered on weekends (call for dates). For information visit or call 412-622-3131

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at or 412-263-1925.
First published on October 2, 2008 at 12:00 am

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