1999-03 Small Canteen with “Clown Face” and Feather Design

Object ID:
1999-03

Artist:
Nampeyo 1 (unsigned)

Culture:
Corn Clan, Tewa, Tewa Village

Dimensions:
4.875" h x 4.750" w

I purchased this piece because I was attracted to its design. The care and flair of the painting and the inclusion of a “clown face” in the design seemed like the touch of the “Old Lady” to me, though no such claim was made by the seller, Rob Coultis of Overland Park, KS. When asked later about the canteen’s provenance, Coultis wrote: “The canteen was previously owned by Doctor David Faulk who purchased it at auction in Freeman Missouri, I do not know the name of the owner prior to Dr. Faulk or exactly when Dr. Faulk purchased it. I do know David purchase(d) it as part of an estate after the prior owner passed away. Coloration materials and design seem to be characteristic of Hopi work from about 1905 to 1920. We believe it could be a Nampeyo piece; however there is a break line which some think excludes that possibility. Other believe her unwed daughters may have painted some pieces for her…”

I sent pictures of the canteen to Barbara Kramer and took the canteen to her home on my next trip to New Mexico. In a letter dated April 20, 1999 she wrote:

“I have been looking through photos and photos but can’t come up with anything directly relating to details of design on the canteen. I think the break line is intentional, because it would have been easier to complete the line than break it. The thin line directly encircling the design is also broken. However, that doesn’t prove anything. If you reverse the shape of the canteen to that of a concave bowl, you come up with many similar concepts to Nampeyo’s designs: the solid red ‘half moon’ at the top of the design, a couple of fine lines defining space between it and the horizontal band with design elements below, and a scroll sweeping from the horizontal band.. However all the scrolls that I find end in a graceful point rather than rounded ‘feathers.’ Perhaps she felt that a graceful scroll ending didn’t fit the shape. Instead of a clown face, there is usually a narrow rectangular element floating in the middle of the scroll. Notice that there is a ‘third eye’ between the rounded feathers at the end of the scroll. The three graceful white ‘slug’ can’t tap into right now. I will put it in my mind’s reminder file. Yes, I think it is probably the old lady’s and she wanted to fill the space as only she can do. A design on a convex shape can’t be seen without turning it, like a pot. A bowl can be seen within a frame at one glance so it can be more aesthetic in itself….”

In July 2009, Ed Wade looked at the on-line photos and confirmed Nampeyo as the maker, and he provided the following description:

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Nampeyo was one of the few Hopi potters at the turn of the 20th century who included canteens among the ceramic vessels she produced. They were hard to make and thus time-consuming relative to their selling prices; nevertheless they were in high demand by tourists who could easily fit them into their luggage.

The hallmarks of Nampeyo’s hand are evident in both the construction and painted composition of this elegant canteen. The semi-circular lug handles that grace the upper one-third sculptural register of the piece are indicative of her work, as is the steeply tapered neck, which thrusts forward toward the circumferal composition. The meticulously stone polished surface further speaks of her genius and workmanship, as does the ivory white clay body resulting from coal firing.

Both the composition and the delicacy of the painted line work attest to Nampeyo’s refined aesthetic. Her sureness of line, which is near surgical in perfection, visually conveys elegance while the complexity of the vertically stacked composition allows for playful interaction between painted and negative spaces.

A classic Nampeyo motif that has come to be known as a “Clown Face” (a term never used by the potter herself) dominates the painted field. It consists of a D-shaped flexure terminating in a sharp triangular, nose-like, projection. Two black domes from which lines or antennae project, commonly referred to as “eyes,” complete the motif. Surmounting this is a tubular polychrome crescent ending in black-tipped eagle tail feathers, internally subdivided by black triangles and negative lozenges. This motif was another favorite of Nampeyo and was common on large water jars and storage vessels. It often was referred to as a feathered serpent.

A bowl design intended for a concave surface has been beautifully adapted to the convex dome of this canteen.

–Edwin L. Wade
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For other Nampeyo canteens of similar design, see 2009-10 and 2010-11. This latter canteen is strikingly similar to 1999-03.

Purchase History:
Purchased on 1/28/99 on eBay.