Once seeing Autumn Borts-Medlock’s signature design in pottery, it shouts out among all other Native American potters’ designs. Her curvilinear, art deco style is as unmistakable as a thumbprint whorl.
Granted, her Santa Clara Pueblo design-carving technique is a heartbeat away from her sister Tammy Garcia’s technique (Garcia is formerly of Blue Rain Gallery-Taos fame and now in Santa Fe).
In fact, her famous forebears, mother Linda Cain; grandmother Mary Cain; great-grandmother Christina Naranjo; and great-great grandmother Sara Fina Tafoya, have established a family tradition of great Santa Clara potters who have won accolades for generations. Not everyone knows it, Borts-Medlock said, but Blue Rain Gallery was named after her grandmother Mary Cain’s Indian name, “Blue Rain.”
But on top of the traditional Native processing, coiling and incising of design into clay, it is the style and cockiness of Borts-Medlock’s sensibility that is remarkable and stunning.
“I’m inspired by everything,” she says, “tapestry from other countries, Greek pots — I love the handles — art deco, pots from archaeological dig sites, the corner edge of a tattoo.” All are included in her particular designs.
“Having grown up in two very different worlds, with one foot in modern California and another in Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, I draw from two distinct cultures for my inspiration,” she adds.
Born in Southern California, her mother moved her two daughters back to Santa Clara Pueblo when Autumn Borts-Medlock was 4 and her sister age 3. Borts-Medlock was introduced to pottery at 5 years old by her mother and grandmother.
By age 13, she embarked upon her own artistic adventures in clay, incorporating art deco and commercial art influences from summers living in Los Angeles amid surfers, Hollywood, Disneyland and Walt Disney Productions in the San Fernando Valley, and spending the other nine months a year with her mother, among the Tewa tribe of Santa Clara Pueblo.
Despite her contemporary blending of traditional and contemporary styles, Borts-Medlock digs and makes her clay as Pueblo potters have done for centuries. And it is a feat to be appreciated — no bopping downtown to the crafts store for a 100 pounds of manufactured industrial clay whenever the mood or commissions strike. She finishes, on average, between six and 12 pots per year.
Every couple years or so, she goes with tribal members to collect the clay and volcanic ash needed for the Santa Clara clay recipe. After digging, the clay is cured or dried, for three to four months and then screened of debris — pieces of roots, pebbles, insect wings or other impedimenta. Once the ash is secured, she wears a mask to protect her from silicosis, a serious lung disease caused by inhalation of the silica released while sifting it of impurities.
They mix the clay and ash together and beat it to eliminate air — the direst enemy in every potter’s firing nightmares. Her shaping tools include pot sherds, popsicle sticks, chop sticks and a surfboard-wax-spreading comb, among others.
Once the clay is prepped, she makes a base using various-sized dishes lined with newsprint, placing the base in the bowl, pinching the clay coil onto the base and building the sides of the pottery she is creating. Sometimes it takes a month to build a large pot and about two weeks for a small, palm-size piece. Then each piece gets about an hour’s daily work on the shape, using wooden sticks and water — wetting and pressing the clay looking for bubbles, working over every square inch every day for a week or more, to get the clay just right before applying the design.
“A 12-inch clay parrot and the egg to go with it took two years to prepare before it was ready for the design” she said, noting that her natural surroundings are her greatest design inspiration.
“Sometimes it’s an experience while walking the dogs — the clouds or a butterfly landing on a branch with red berries,” she says of things that tell a story. Hummingbirds, dragonflies and flowers, a butterfly snapped up in the large beak of a Stellar jay, a writhing cloud serpent — all carved intricately onto her pots.
She’ll draw the design freehand with a pencil on a clay piece kept soft in between work sessions by wrapping it in plastic. The designs sometimes come together in a day; but then sometimes after a week’s work she’ll look at it and decide it just doesn’t flow with the piece and start all over.
She carves the design using a razor craft knife, screwdrivers and even toothpicks, whatever is necessary to scoop out the clay to finesse the design. Then comes sanding — blocks and blocks of sanding — to get the textures just right.
She goes over everything with a rinse sponge and wash brush to remove the sanding lines, cleansing the backgrounds, adding slip colors and then polishing the shiny parts with a stone. She seals the pieces with oil, nowadays using light daubs of olive oil, but says they used to use pig fat. It’s allowed to dry again and stone buffed once more to smooth and sometimes round the edges.
She can spend anywhere from a month to a couple year's work on a given piece and then it gets pit-fired on Santa Clara Pueblo land, where all the work may be for naught if a stray bubble has remained and blows the pottery to bits.
“Everything can burst in the firing. You don’t get paid till it all gets fired,” she says. “I may make thousands on one pot, but that pot may have taken years to make.”
In 2014, she began casting a few clay pieces in bronze. Her limited edition bronze pots, tiles and sculptures are each distinctly colored with patinas applied by her sculptor husband, Jeremy Medlock, making each a unique work of art.
She has received numerous awards at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Market & Fair and at the Santa Fe Indian Market. She won First Place in Contemporary Native Pottery at the 2015 Indian Market in Santa Fe, no mean feat considering the competition — hundreds of outstanding indigenous North American artists, working and pushing Native art traditions to their penultimate each year.
Her use of multiple-colored slips has also captured the interest of her peers and collectors. In an otherwise typical red and tan vase, Borts-Medlock may apply up to four or five different slips, allowing her to accentuate different aspects of a design.
In addition to working alone, she occasionally includes her favorite potters — her teenage daughter, Rochelle, and mother in collaborative pieces.
Besides private collectors, her work is in the permanent collections of such museums as the Denver Art Museum and the Heard Museum.
Borts-Medlock lives in Pot Creek, just east of Talpa, New Mexico, and she is represented by a number of galleries in the nation and the Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe. For more information, see autumnborts-medlock.com/.