Robert Hunter

When the concept of Ceramics in America was first developed, my intent was for it to be as temporally and geographically comprehensive as possible with broad coverage across North America. For the most part, I think that goal has been achieved. When reviewing the content of the past fifteen years, one can find a wide range of topics and time periods: from Portu­guese Terra Sigillata found in a seventeenth-century settlement in Newfound­land to Waylande Gregory’s atomic age ceramic sculptures crafted in Edison, New Jersey. Notably overlooked, however, have been ceramics from the American West. This volume is a concerted effort to correct this omission.

Although Native Americans were making pottery as early as 2000 B.C., very few Ceramics in America articles have addressed that subject, focusing primarily on Anglo-American ceramics. With the European settlement of North America, we can trace pottery making to the arrival of the Spanish at St. Elena Island in the 1580s in what is now South Carolina, where a potter used local materials to produce Spanish-style earthenware. Soon thereafter, English colonists imported potters to the settlements in Virginia and New England, and homegrown ceramics industries have developed in most regions of the country ever since. The pottery traditions of the distant West, however, remained isolated until the expansion of the railroad brought both settlers and tourists to this last American frontier.

The first European settlement of what is now California was a result of Spanish exploration and conquest beginning as early as 1542. From 1769 to 1821, the region became a declared area of Spanish colonization known as Alta California. In 1821 Alta California came under the control of the newly formed Mexican government and remained so until California attained United States statehood in 1848.

For the seventy years between 1776 and 1848, both architectural and table earthenwares were made in Alta California but few researchers have investigated the history of this production. In 1999, however, a group of dedicated specialists established a partnership between Santa Clara University and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education Institution to investigate all things ceramic in this early period of California’s history. A multiyear project ensued and its fascinating results are reported on in “Rediscovering the Ceramic History of the Alta California Frontier.” The authors, Russell K. Skowronek, Ronald L. Bishop, M. James Blackman, Michael Imwalle, and Ruben Reyes, represent a remarkable collaboration of archaeology, materials science, ceramic art, and historic education.

Using a variety of documentary and archaeological sources, the authors examined two thousand ceramic fragments recovered from nearly three dozen Spanish-colonial, Mexican Republican–era sites in California and Mexico. Samples taken from these fragments were submitted for instrumental neutron activation analysis. The results have helped clarify the history of the making of plain ceramics throughout Alta California and identified the diffusion of the technology for the manufacture of lead-glazed ceramics in the region. The authors also studied the importation of decorated and tin-glazed pottery ceramics made in what is today Mexico.

 In conjunction with this scientific analysis, the authors learned much about the process of tile and ceramic making by enlisting a trained potter to conduct replicative studies. The research also had a public educational emphasis, with public demonstrations of the making and firing processes in addition to a series of interpretative exhibits held at California historical sites. This extensively collaborative project not only has advanced our knowledge about early California earthenware, it serves as the model of the multidisciplinary approach for future researchers.

The history and psychology of collecting ceramics are themes that have been invoked many times in Ceramics in America. They are important topics for understanding historical trends of collecting, research, and publication. The psychology behind the desire to possess a historical ceramic object is a topic of great interest to many readers, yet the motivations of the dealers who seek to profit by exploiting the collecting urge are seldom discussed—even though the dealer-collector relationship is at the heart of every virtually every major art collection ever assembled.

In her revealing essay “Charles Lang Freer and C. T. Loo, Mentor and Mentee: Cultural Clashes and Neuropsychological Insights,” Shirley M. Mueller dissects one such relationship that ultimately goes wrong. Charles Lang Freer, a wildly successful builder of railcars in the early twentieth century known for his collection of Impressionist paintings, also purchased Asian art. Mueller charts the trajectory of his relationship with Chinese art dealer C.T. Loo, a Svengali-like figure who absconded with many of China’s important cultural art works for his wealthy Western clients. She offers both cultural and psychological explanations of Loo’s sometimes unscrupulous interactions with his clients and the consequences they had on his legacy in the Asian art world.

No ceramic artifact is more emblematic of the American West than the decorated pottery made by the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. From a larger perspective, the history of Native American pottery making is varied and complex, universally linked to the beginning of agriculture and more permanent settlement. Much of Native American pottery made over the last 3,500 years remains in the purview of the archaeologists; to the untrained eye, the broken pots appear to be nothing more than undistinguished fragments of brown and gray clay. Vessel forms and function developed according to the economic and ecological needs of the various groups throughout the country and these culturally distinct groups can be recognized by their different pot shapes and decorative styles.

The pottery of Southwest Indian cultures is something quite recognizable but not necessarily understandable to the untrained eye. The decorated wares of the various Pueblo groups have attracted the attention of anthropologists, collectors, and connoisseurs since the late nineteenth century. In fact, no single category of American-made ceramics has a greater bibliography than the ceramic art of the Pueblo potters. Although for many of us, the decorative schemes used by the various Pueblos in their pottery—one of the most highly developed of the American Indian arts—are part of a mysterious language known only to those who make and use the pots. Native American scholar, poet, and historian N. Scott Momaday has suggested that “Indian art, in its highest expression, is at once universal and unique. It is the essence of abstraction, and the abstraction of essences.”

The history of collecting and publication of Pueblo pottery is aligned with a cult of celebrity potters. Most famous is Nampeyo, a Tewa potter at the tiny village of Hano on First Mesa in eastern Arizona. Other well-known potters include Lucy M. Lewis, at Acoma, and Maria Martinez (1887–1980) and her husband, Julian (1879–1943), who made the first eastern Pueblo pottery widely recognized as art. Their works, initially made to support the community with sales to the tourist trade, now command astronomical figures in the art galleys of Los Angeles, Boston, and New York. Beyond these well-published individuals, however, the vast majority of the Pueblo ceramic production has been by anonymous individuals.

The final essay in this year’s journal is the result of a thirty-year research and collecting effort to document and understand the artistic impulse of one particular Zuni potter. In a modern-day ethnography, author and collector Edward Chappell presents “Pride Flared Up: Zuni (A:shiwi) Pottery and the Nahohai Family.” The extended article, coupled with the meticulous photography of Gavin Ashworth, chronicles the ceramic art of potter Randy Nahohai and his immediate family members. It is the story of an individual’s artistic vision seeking to be innovative in a world of Zuni tradition, but it also a story of family and community.

Unlike other survey studies of Pueblo potters, Chappell’s scholarship results from an ongoing relationship with a living, breathing artist whose works can be observed firsthand, from the sacred rituals of digging and preparing the clay to the final product’s destination for community use or sale to the modern-day collector. His stated goal of observing “how elements of a larger culture take shape piece by piece, pot by pot, brushstroke by brushstroke, influenced by values shared by parents, children, and kin” reflects the highly detailed description and recording presented in his article.

A basic tool of anthropology is the concept of ethnographic analogy; a method for inferring the meaning of an artifact or event based on observations of a living people. When this concept is applied to Chappell’s almost microscopic analysis of the design elements found on the Nahohai pots, we can better understand the rich decorative vocabulary of the Zuni and, by extension, other Pueblo ceramic traditions. And by showing us how designs are ultimately a result of the tension between personal choices and the influences of the larger family group and community, we can begin to have fresh eyes for those Pueblo pots that remain anonymous and mute. After working closely with this article during the past year, my perspective on and appreciation for Pueblo pottery has expanded exponentially, and we are fortunate to be included in this unique journey. The history of Pueblo ceramics will certainly benefit from this incredibly rich ethnography.

The next edition of Ceramics in America returns to the usual format of a variety of articles and book reviews. In this age of digital publication, pressures for abandoning the print version of the journal have been mounting. For the moment, the journal remains committed to its beautifully designed and printed format. Readers are encouraged to take advantage of the online resources found at, including versions of articles from previous issues. For daily research updates and ceramic news, readers may visit Ceramics in America’s Facebook page at

Ceramics in America 2015