2015-12 Lobed white-slipped jar with feather motifs

Object ID:

Nampeyo 1 (unsigned)

2.725” h X 4.643” w

The form of this jar is unusual; lobed pots are not generally made at Hopi.

The painting features motifs that are typical of Nampeyo’s work, yet it is likely that her daughter Annie Healing painted the jar. Either mother or daughter might have formed the pot.

The walls of the jar are reasonably thin and thus the pot is not particularly heavy for its size. The lobes have been formed by pushing out the walls of wet clay from the inside. Although the interior of the pot is quite rough (particularly on the bottom), the exterior of the bowl is very smooth and almost perfectly shaped. The lobes are equal in form and size and the bottom view is of a symmetrical lobed square. Held in the hands with eyes closed, the jar is sensuous, like a water-smoothed rock.

The body has been slipped with a white kaolin slip that has been stone polished so that it does not “scab” like the earlier Polacca slip. It’s not clear what type of clay was used to form the body of the jar. In the few spots where the slip has flaked off, the body seems starkly white, as if it too had been made of kaolin clay. On the other hand, there are a few small areas that have a slight golden blush (particularly one lobe) and this would indicate the body is formed from grey clay that blushes yellow/gold when outdoor fired.

During the last few years, Rachael Sahmie has made gourd-shaped jars somewhat similar in shape to 2015-12, though I do not yet have one in this collection. Jake Koopee made one grooved/lobed miniature jar to demonstrate to his cousin Alton Shupla how this Santa Clara form might be made with Hopi clay (2008-04C). These are the only other examples of lobed Hopi pots of which I am aware.

On the bottom of jar 2015-12 is a “From the Hopi Villages” label that was used by the Harvey Company on pottery for sale at their Hotels and gift shops in the southwest. Written in pencil above the label is the word “Albuquerque” and below the date “May 1917.” The Alvardo Hotel in Albuquerque was the largest hotel in the Harvey chain and was opened in 1902. Presumably jar 2015-12 was purchased in 1917 at the Indian Curio Building that shared space with the Alvarado.

The bottom half of the jar is undecorated. The entire painted surface is above the midline. The design is symmetrical. From a top view, each quadrant of the design has the same design elements as the other three quadrants.

Framing the round mouth of the jar is a red square. The rest of the design is painted black. Bordering this red area is a thin black line. Lying atop each lob is a single linear tail flanked by two outwardly-curved and pointed feather elements. This is a favorite design of Nampeyo. (See pots 1988-01, 1996-05, 2002-03 and 2013-03 in this collection.) Midway up each linear tail is a single line parallel with the top of the jar. Above this line is a hill-shaped form painted solid black.

The outward curve of the pointed feathers begins an arch that spans the width of the jar and becomes the same curve of the pointed feather on the adjoining lobe. This bridging element thus links the four panels of black design around the circumference of the pot. Above this arch, between it and the black framing line around the red surface, is a small gap. Inside this gap on all four sides of the red square is painted the same design: two downward-pointing isosceles triangles flank a split oval cloud symbol (Patterson, 1994:141). One repetition of this design is quite clear; to varying degrees the other three renditions are tightly-squeezed in the small space and somewhat distorted.

Below the arch and between the lobes is a three-lobed “butterfly” motif first seen in this collection on an early Nampeyo bowl (1993-04) and copied by her from an ancient Sikyatki bowl now in the Peabody Museum at Harvard (Streuver, 2001:29). Wade and Cooke term this Nampeyo form a “mother ear of corn” (2012:236E, 238F). The three black feathers on either side of its center have rounded ends and are black-tipped. The center of the design is a black rectangle flanked by single lines. Diagonally bisecting this black area is an unpainted stepped line that may represent lightening (Patterson, 1994: 190, 192, 211).

All of these design elements are characteristic of Nampeyo’s work, but does this pattern of design indicate that Nampeyo painted the jar?

In Appendix C I specified the defining characteristics of Nampeyo’s mature style:

  • A tension between linear and curvilinear elements often represented as a contrast between heavy and delicate elements;
    Such a tension exists in the design on jar 2015-12. The relatively thick linear black tipped tail on top of each lobe contrasts with the thinner curved and pointed feathers that flank it. The two sets of three feathers that fringe the “butterfly” element and the butterfly element itself are slightly curved but overall have a linear thrust, especially when contrasted to the arch that frames this motif.
  • A deliberate asymmetry of design;
    Although a regular convention for Nampeyo, such asymmetry simply does not exist in the design of this jar. A top view image of the design could be folded so that all four lobes of the jar rested on top of each other and (except for slight variations in painting) all elements of the design would also coincide.
  • The use of color to integrate design elements;
    This strategy is also characteristic of Nampeyo’s polychromatic work, but is absent here. The large square of red paint around the jar opening provides a dramatic visual focus, but it is the only colored area of design. The rest of the design is black and hangs from this central square, draping over the upper surface of this pot.
  • The use of empty (negative) space to frame the painted image;
    Such use of negative space is seen on this jar. The design on the lobes is thrust out above the surface of the pot into space, with the flanking feathers extending down into the unpainted lower half of the jar. The four “butterfly” elements float in the empty space below their respective black arches.
  • The use of a thick above a thin framing line on the interior rim of her bowls;
    Pot 2015-12 is not a bowl, so this design characteristic does not apply.
  • Nampeyo’s painting is confident, bold, and somewhat impulsive compared to the more-studied, plotted and careful style of her daughters, descendants and other Hopi and Hopi-Tewa potters.

The painting of this jar is masterful and carefully done without being over-controlled. The feathers on the “butterfly” element are well done and vary somewhat in thickness and orientation. One of the solid black “hills” at the top of each lobe is not carefully formed and was this painted casually, maybe impulsively. Assessing the quality of painting is the most subjective of the six characteristics of Nampeyo’s painting, but it is also the critical dimension that prevents her designs from being formulistic. My eye thought this a “Nampeyo” jar the first time I saw a tiny photograph of the design online.

But perhaps my eye is tricking me. Jar 2015-12 meets only 3 of the 5 relevant criteria I have set for defining a pot as “painted by Nampeyo” and the last of these three is admittedly subjective.

Two possibilities suggest themselves. One seems like a reasonable rationalization that maintains Nampeyo as the painter of this jar. The other possibility is that daughter Annie Healing painted the jar.

First Possibility: We have noted that the lobed form of jar 2015-12 is unique and the design lacks two compositional strategies that are typical of Nampeyo’s work. Perhaps Nampeyo felt particularly experimental the day she made this pot. Given that she was playing with an unusual shape, she might also have been playing with unusual design strategies such as using color to focus the eye rather than integrate the design. The elements of design are classic Nampeyo.

Moreover, lobed shape constrained the range of design strategies available to Nampeyo. Other Nampeyo jars in this collection and published in the literature have a round surface, not the lobed shape found on this jar. A round surface gives the painter the full, uninterrupted circumference to develop her design and thus more room to develop her ideas. This is especially true of the broad-shouldered “flying saucer” shape often favored by Nampeyo.

On jar 2015-12, however, the circumference is broken by the lobes into four discreet sections, each section constrained. Notice that while the size of the jar (2.7” h X 4.6” w) is fairly typical for a Hopi jar, very little of the potential space is painted black. The red square on top extends a short way down the sides. The lower half of the jar is unpainted, leaving just 1.25” (43%) of the height within which to paint the black design. Painting this pot is the equivalent of decorating four small canvasses. As a result, the black line work is very fine and the design elements very small. These constraints might have led Nampeyo to simplify her design and omit elements that would imbalance it. Since the lobed shape is inherently balanced, perhaps Nampeyo felt a balanced design best fit the pot.

Convincing, eh? But all of this is pure speculation on my part.

Second Possibility: If the jar was new when it was sold in 1917, there is a strong possibility that daughter Annie painted jar 2015-12. This reasoning is based on a) Nampeyo’s increasing blindness and b) Annie’s style of painting.

Nampeyo’s struggle with blindness may date from as early as the 1890’s. Sometime between 1890 and 1901 Dr. Joshua Miller first treated Nampeyo’s eyes, presumably for trachoma. Nampeyo’s most innovative and “classic” work was produced in the following decade, yet during this period she was battling increasing blindness. The Blairs interpreted a 1901 photograph of Nampeyo as suggesting “that a partial loss of vision was possible at that early date (1999:67, 72).” Kramer comments that this photograph might have been taken in the mid to late 1890’s, which would suggest that Nampeyo was beginning to lose her sight fully 20 years before jar 2015-12 was purchased (1996:75). A visitor from Oxford University wrote in 1913 that Nampeyo “used once to do beautiful work, but her sight is now weak and she has grown very careless… (Kramer, 1996:72).”

Robert Ashton, a Nampeyo authority (1976), once told me that he thought that Nampeyo was functionally blind by 1915. Kramer (1996:121-123) suggests that Nampeyo was beginning to lose her sight by 1917 (the year this jar was purchased) but writes that “The Old Lady” continued to paint into “for several years into the 1920’s (1996:174).” Ed Wade believes that Nampeyo’s eyesight did not steadily decline but that she had good and bad days with an overall decrease in sight. Neal Judd (1951) writes that he presented Nampeyo with a photograph in 1920 but that she was too blind to see it.

The Blairs summarized Nampeyo’s struggle with blindness: “Nampeyo produced pottery from 1876 until 1939. For thirty-nine of these sixty-three years her eyesight was defective (1999:73).” In short, we know that when jar 2015-12 was purchased in 1917, Nampeyo’s eyesight had significantly declined.

It does not seem reasonable that a person with a substantial visual impairment, no matter how talented, could have drawn the small and delicate black painting on jar 2015-12.

Annie, Nampeyo’s oldest daughter, was born ca. 1884. As Nampeyo’s fame and demand for her pottery grew, she turned to Annie to assist her:

“At the turn of the century, Nampeyo was about forty years old and Annie not yet 20. Annie had inherited Nampeyo’s quiet temperament and had learned to make pottery by watching her mother. As indicated by photographs and reports by observers, the two worked together making pottery to sell. Typical of Hopi and Tewa custom, neither mother nor daughter sought individual recognition but set their unsigned vessels on a rug outside their home for visitors to purchase. The pottery that visitors carried away they attributed to Nampeyo (Kramer, 1996:76).”

The earliest documented pots by Annie are dated 1912: “All are expertly crafted, demonstrating Annie’s maturity as a potter…all could be mistaken for her mother’s work (Kramer, 1996:110).” Kramer reprints photographs of two jars with almost identical designs, one by Nampeyo and one by Annie. “Annie’s more delicate interpretation…can be contrasted with her mother’s strong painting…,” Kramer writes, “As (Annie’s) work matured, it had a more delicate, horizontal feeling to it (1996:151,162).”

Annie was about 33 years old in 1917 when jar 2015-12 was sold in Albuquerque. She was a mature potter with good eyesight. Moreover she was inclined to paint delicate designs, as on this jar. The weight of evidence points to Annie as the painter of jar 2015-12.

Two contrary arguments, upon examination, carry little weight:

On her jars, Nampeyo consistently defined a central element around the opening and then hung the rest of the design from this element (cf 2005-16). When painting in her own style, Annie tended to omit a central element and use the entire surface as an unstructured canvass on which to paint. Clearly jar 2015-12 with its dramatic central red square is done in Mama Nampeyo’s style. However, Annie was versatile and was able to paint like her mother. “Annie was Nampeyo’s silent but visible partner (Kramer, 1996:161).” Thus the classic Nampeyo organization of the design is not clear evidence that Nampeyo and not Annie was the painter.

It is possible that Nampeyo painted this jar since all of the design elements and the central red square are typical of her work, but in that would suggest that the jar was made before 1917 –and probably before 1915—when Nampeyo was more visually capable. The Harvey Company sold “vintage” Hopi jars years after they were made and some “new” pots bought by the company may have taken several years to sell. Indeed Kramer emphasizes that “When the United States entered World War 1 in 1917, visitors virtually disappeared from the (Hopi) mesas (1996:121).” Presumably business at the Indian Curio House at the Avalardo Hotel in Albuquerque also declined precipitously and jar 2015-12 might have taken a while to sell. However setting a date earlier than 1917 for the production of this jar is simply speculation with no basis in fact.

In short, arguments that Nampeyo painted jar 2015-12 are simply based on my conjecture.

Arguments that Annie painted the jar are based on a) factual information about Nampeyo’s visual impairment the year this jar was bought, b) the distinctive delicate character of Annie’s painting, and c) Annie’s ability to paint in the style of her mother. Thus, based on evidence, I reaffirm my best guess that jar 2015-12 was painted by Annie and not Nampeyo.

Both mother and daughter could be excellent potters. Since I know of no lobed Hopi jars anywhere close to the age of this jar, I am unable to find comparable forms attributable to either Nampeyo or Annie. Even when going blind, Nampeyo may still have made the jar as she experimented with tactile form when she could no longer paint. Typically this meant creating a corrugated surface on a section of her jars. The sensuous form of this jar might have served the same function. Mother and daughter worked closely together: Either might have formed this jar.

My eye and my heart still tell me that Nampeyo both formed and painted this pot.

Logic argues.

Perhaps jar 2015-12 is simply an outstanding example of Annie painting in her mother’s style.

Purchase History:
Purchased on 9/19/15 with a phone bid from Hutter Auctions, NYC (Receipt on file.) The jar is from the estate or Dr. Daniel Lovette, Camp Hill, PA.