Historic Foundations - Contemporary Clay

The following excerpt is from an article by Charles King that was featured in the 2016 Fall/Winter edition of the ATADA News.

Contemporizing the Pueblo Pottery Past

by Charles King

Russell Sanchez contemporized gunmetal fired bowl with gourd indentions and bear lid (2016)

Russell Sanchez contemporized gunmetal fired bowl with gourd indentions and bear lid (2016)

How does Pueblo pottery best embrace its traditions and historic past as it enters the new era of modern ceramic influences? This question, certainly more relevant today than the old trope of “what is traditional pottery,” underscores the future directions and impact of this important Native art form.  This article uses the recent work of one potter, Russell Sanchez, as an example of how an artist can reclaim cultural and historic foundations to create an interesting and expansive focus for their art in the world of contemporary clay.

Russell Sanchez (b. 1966) grew up surrounded by some of the greatest modern pottery making influences and legacies in his native San Ildefonso Pueblo.  To contextualize his background, Russell is a great-great-grandnephew of Ramona Sanchez Gonzales (1885-1934) and a great-grandnephew of Rose Gonzales (1900-1989).  He learned to make pottery from Rose, who taught him the basics of traditionally coiling forms, polishing and firing.  Anita Da (1920-2005), the wife of Popovi Da (1922-1971), was also influential in guiding his early artistic career.   After Popovi Da’s passing in 1971, Anita continued to operate their studio and gallery, which was located on the pueblo.  It was considered one of the best sources for collectors to find not only work by Maria Martinez (1887-1980) but also younger Native potters.  Anita provided Russell with insights on creating innovative and quality work.  Her son, Tony Da (1940-2008), taught Russell how to inlay heishi beads, two-tone his pottery, inset stones and sgraffito (or etch) designs into the surface of the clay before it is fired.  Russell had unique access to the available techniques, both innovative and traditional, at the start of his career.