Local Taos Pueblo artist and well-known master of micaceous clay pottery Angie Yazzie clinched three top awards at the 2017 Santa Fe Indian Market.
Yazzie took home the best in pottery, best in classification and best in division awards at the market, which, now in 96th year, is the largest juried show of Native American artists in North America.
And less than a week after the end of the market, Yazzie was back in her home studio continuing the pottery practices she’s had practically her whole life.
Yazzie, who grew up in Taos, is the daughter of Mary Archuleta, from Taos Pueblo, and Nick Yazzie, a Navajo man from Ganado, Arizona.
Before she was 10 years old, she was making small pots with her maternal grandmother, Isabel Archuleta, who had a shop at Taos Pueblo. “I was around this all the time,” Yazzie said.
“Every day is practice. You make mistakes. You lose pots. But you keep practicing,” said Yazzie.
Taos Pueblo pottery, Yazzie said, is known not just for its signature mica sparkle, but also for being thick and heavy, good for cooking and storing water. Yazzie’s grandmother told her to “be a diehard” of the traditional styles, she said.
Over the years, Yazzie has made a name for herself in the art scenes of New Mexico and the Southwest for her distinctive flair and impossibly thin decorative pots. But she still takes her grandma’s advice to heart, starting with the clay.
Yazzie says a small prayer before taking 5-gallon buckets into the forests around U.S. Hill off State Road 518 to harvest the glittery micaceous clay indicative of the area. Over the past few years, several of the usual clay mines used by Yazzie and other Native artists have started to show signs of depletion, so she found another patch that’s rich in black, white and gray clays.
She then soaks and screens the dense, gummy clay before starting to make a pot — rolling out a coil, circling it around the base of the pot, pinching and then “pulling it as thin as I can get it.”
Each layer of clay has to set and dry, so Yazzie jumps between her different pieces. She sometimes has three or four in process. Other times – like in the weeks leading up to the Santa Fe Indian Market – she’s creating more than a dozen works of clay at a time.
“I’m somewhat of a recluse, so the studio is my sanctuary. It’s total focus just on this,” she said of the lead-up to the market.
While Yazzie makes traditional Taos Pueblo styles of pottery — the olla and bean pot among them — she’s pushed past her usual processes and created more and more contemporary pieces, too.
After the pot is formed, shaped, pulled and perfected, Yazzie fires them in a yawning, deep pit in her backyard. It’s an involved task. Pots have to be preheated by setting them to the side of the pit, where coals hum, whine and crackle. Slowly, she rotates the pot so that every side and surface is radiating warmth before putting it directly in the pit.
Yazzie builds up a “hot, quick fire” of cottonwood bark or other slabs of wood around the pot. In less than an hour, it’s done.
It was the firing, Yazzie said, that took most of her concentration for the piece of art that propelled her to the upper echelon of artists at this year’s market — a black-fired “prayer bowl,” light and thin like all her work, but huge in comparison.
On some level, the winning piece of pottery reminds her to “keep thankful and be grateful,” she said. “I’m always praying.”
Though Yazzie isn’t always quick to call on her family and friends for help, she’s fast in naming them as a vital support network in the lifelong pursuit of her art. Dillon Marcus, her 11-year-old grandson, was instrumental in helping with the winning piece of pottery, she said.
“This is pretty exciting and quite an honor,” she said.