Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 3, 2009

The Quiet Hands and Mind of Dora Tse-Pe: Matrilineal Potter

As we relaxed on assorted pieces of comfortable furniture in her simple multi-purpose living room, Dora stood behind a counter covered with a turquoise-blue cloth, and chatted about this and that. The cloth and her shirt of the same colour provided the perfect accent to her dark hair, soft eyes, smooth skin, and the earth-brown tones and white walls of the room. The soothing palette also created a seamless backdrop for the numerous pieces of San Ildefonso pottery scattered on various surfaces about the room — a multi-generational blend of New Mexican pueblo styles by her mother, mother-in-law, daughter, and herself. The ambiance was a suitable accessory for a woman who works with her hands. What was mesmerizing was how her hands seemed to be operating quite independently. In a continuous flow of movement, they coaxed the clay coils on which would soon emerge a perfectly symmetrical pot with the human touch that no machine could every replicate. Occasionally she would glance down at her hands, but it was more as if she were just “checking in” to see that everything was going smoothly and that everyone was happy. All the while she spoke to us about her children and grandchildren, her involvement in the community events in the pueblo, the way in which she learned her art — almost by absorption — from her mother and other female role models in her Native-American world.

As we watched her work, she carried on an easy reciprocal chat. It was as if she were making bread while entertaining her guests at the same time. And we were as much participants as observers, helping her maintain her rhythm, an essential ingredient of the cultural heritage of her pottery.

Dora Tse-Pe is considered to be one the most important Pueblo potters working today. She has won numerous awards and is recognized as one of the “Masters” of the Santa Fe Indian Market. Her work is a subtle blend of her Zia roots and the distinctive San Ildefonso Pueblo style, both in shape, style, glazing, and decoration. Her pottery also is a kind of tangible history of her people and the Pueblo culture in itself. And if you engage in even the briefest study of Southwest Native American Indian cultures (especially the pottery sub-culture) you start to see patterns and techniques that are a visible and lateral representation of the peoples that are indigenous to this area, and the fundamental influence of this multi-layered desert environment.

When Dora shapes her pots by hand, she is actually preserving thousands of years of aboriginal knowledge. And like so many Native American potters and other artists of this region, she also demonstrates how land and landscape are major factors in how human beings evolve in desert cultures like the Southwest of the United States. It is not just the earth tones and hues, nor the shapes of the pots that reflect natural formations, but it is also the fine details.

Like wildflowers that bloom in the desert, Dora’s subliminal details deserve time, patience, and a heightened awareness in order to fully appreciate them. Like her ancestors she learned to identify and collect special clays and to fire them into pots for the most humble uses, and to decorate them with natural materials. This process eventually led to a distinct art form universal in its significance. And when you observe Dora’s creations carefully you can see the transcendence from a simple functional pot to an expression of human ingenuity and vision.

My favourite element of Dora’s work is her trademark use of a single turquoise stone strategically placed on a pot, not only to act as a colour contrast in the “background” of the whole piece, but also as a focus for viewing. Her trademark technique is like photographing a desert scene; it requires the judicious placement of a singular colourful detail in the overall framework as a stimulus for encouraging the observer to integrate all of the elements. I now realize that the privilege of interacting with Dora in her home was to observe a cultural process that is millennial in nature. And it is a nurturing process. Pots were used principally by the women of the tribes for domestic purposes — cooking, bearing water, food storage — and to sustain all the members of the community. And it is therefore no surprise that Dora’s art came to her through the hands of other women in her extended family who in turn learned their sustaining skills through their grandmothers, mothers, and aunts. And equally encouraging is how many men in the San Idlefonso artistic community have also engaged in this form of cultural survival.

Although Dora is in many ways a traditionalist, it is important to recognize that she is also an innovator. Her highly polished pots, deep carvings, and the way in which she juxtaposes not only types of clay but also colours and textures gives her work a very contemporary look. Her pots are elegant — luxurious even — and each has its own distinctive gracefulness. But part of Dora’s innovativeness is the way in which she blends ancient traditions and styles with the contemporary need for self-expression which blends with a collective values systems and self-determination. And this is part of her narrative. She is a storyteller who epitomizes what, as a travel journalist, I am increasingly conscious of: we travel to explore the diversity of the human experience and in so doing discover the commonality. Through her pottery Dora travels between pueblos and through time. She contemporizes ancient motifs paying homage to the earth-based pragmatism and sensibilities of her people (and by extension all indigenous people) by taking a craft across that critical threshold into the realm of art. In so doing, she communicates timelessness in art. But she is not didactic, except perhaps in a subliminal, nurturing, maternal fashion. As we chatted with Dora and watched her create, I started to see how her work exemplifies an appreciation for sustainability that is both both real and conceptual. Through her art, she talked to us in words and gestures, as well as with her hands.

As I examined and photographed her pots, I found myself trying to decide which one I liked best. Was it the gleaming black on black pot with the turquoise “eye” that suggested a votive vessel and which Dora had also burned in such a way as to let the primary red clay emerge? Or was it the orange-red pot with the bear symbol and the universal circle theme that actually gave the pot motion? My urban mind was playing its usual game of urgency; of needing to make the definitive choice. But when I allowed myself to listen to Dora’s voice talking about the most common-day events in her life — a large family gathering and a houseful of noisy children and grandchildren around her and her pots — I did what I suspect she would have wanted me to do. I just sat back, relaxed, and spent some quality time with her pottery, examining it, admiring it, appreciating it. Assessing it or prioritizing it became quite beside the point.

Human hands (our first tools) contain an energy that keeps them constantly in motion, even when you think they are totally still. And if you enter the stillness of a desert landscape from an urban environment, you just might notice the residual tremors of that cityscape. To watch Dora’s hands at work is to see a constant but calm flow of energy; and a kind of muscle memory that allows those hands to perform their task in unison with the clay. I now realize that what I was witnessing was an liberated state of mind at work. know that our bodies are controlled by the most complex of all the mammalian brains, but I am also aware that when the mind at the core of that brain is free from the intrusion of doubts and uncertainty the body-mind interdependence is most likely to produce creative behaviour. I am not a potter but, having spent “quality time” with Dora, I now understand why a quiet mind and quiet hands are fundamental to this creative activity.

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  1. […] The Quiet Hands and Mind of Dora Tse-Pe: Matrilineal Potter […]


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