The potter Samuel Manymules’ work in clay is a fresh take on the long-standing tradition of Native American pottery. Collectors of his work revel in the beauty of the high polish surfaces and magical “fire clouds” he achieves using the alchemy of mud and fire to create his special aesthetic.

Chimayo Trading Del Norte is home to a formidable collection of Samuel Manymules’ pots in their main gallery. Owner Gabriel Abrums said Manymules’ pots are in private collections all over the world and have won many top awards in museums and shows throughout the Southwest. There is a “perfect grace’’ in his modern interpretation of his culture. His works speak for him and tell a story of tradition and innovation right here in Ranchos De Taos at Chimayo Trading Del Norte.”

Manymules shared his creative process with Tempo and a story about a transcendent experience that revealed to him he was on the right path. 

As a young man, Manymules explored making pottery looking at books and became “mesmerized by the photos of pots by Joseph Lonewolf and Christine McHorse.” He evolved to his “own sense of form and design through experimentation, but his exacting standards kept him from considering himself a serious potter for over a decade.”

The potter told the story of a transcendent experience when he was 50 years old living in Tuba City, Arizona. He said he is not a religious man but believes in the power of a creator.

“I was praying at a window looking up to the western sky. It was raining, with no thunder or lightning. In our Navajo tradition, we call this female rain. I looked to the south and felt this vibration, like a static charge billowing up around me, and weightlessness. There was the smell of sweet earth, like being in a botanical garden, it was heaven on earth, and it got more intense.

Then the southern sky opened up, and clouds parted. Inside this tunnel, I saw this gigantic transparent angel. I said creator thank you for this rain, thank you for your holy angels who’ve been sent to make this rain possible. They are doing a fabulous job and are obeying your every command. Holy angels, thank you for obeying our creator and for doing your job for our creator. You are doing a good job. Then this huge angel appeared and said `You are welcome,' and the angel bowed and said, ‘Samuel, you are doing right.'” 

Manymules said the journey of making a pot begins with finding the right mud in local riverbeds. He knows when he touches the clay that the level of moisture will guide him to the size and type of pot to make. The process is a sacred alchemy between fire and earth and takes many months from finding just the right clay to the hand polish of the finished piece.

He uses traditional construction, with coils, molding, and free-form. Manymules said he doesn’t know when he builds the pot what it may become and allows for intervening events to guide him to the final shape and character of the piece.

“I dry the pot in the sun for 3 to 4 months, then crush clay into a fine powder, hand-mixed with ash, and set aside to cure. It is mixed many times before it is ready to use. I polish the pots over and over, burnishing them with a stone.”

Manymules said the firing of the piece is done using cedarwood because it burns at high temperatures, creating beautiful clouds in the finish. It is an all-day process. “After I fire it, I swab a sweet piñon tree sap on all the surfaces of the pot while it cools.”

The final touch is a hand polish to create the glow and magic that brings the pot to life and is his signature aesthetic. “In this way, the earth and fire contribute along with the artist to create the last look of the vessel.”

For visual details about the work of Samuel Manymules, visit the Chimayo Trading Del Norte website at chimayotrading.com or visit the gallery in the historic Saint Francis Church Plaza in Ranchos de Taos.

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