Tewa-Hopi yellow-ware vase, butterfly design, 1940 (?), by Grace Chapella (unsigned).
According to Dawny Cromwell, Public Education Director of the museum shop, Rex Bollin (who was selling several Hopi pots at the Museum on consignment) said this pot (and the four others for sale) were given or traded to him when he was a boy/young man. (He was 17 in 1940.) Rex’s Mother was a trader on the Navaho/Hopi reservations and she and Rex lived in Gallup.
Rick Dillingham wrote that this pot “Appears to be the work of Grace Chapella.” Bruce McGee ran the trading post at Keam’s Canyon for many years and now (in 1991) runs a gallery in Holbrook. Having looked over pictures of this pot, he wrote (7/3/91): “I totally agree with Rick on the vase that it was made by Grace Chapella. All indications (design, execution and style) all point to her. Treasure this one, you may never see another. As for the date, that is a difficult one as she really did not vary her designs in execution even after she reached her later years. If I were to guess, I would say it was made around the later 60s.”
Grace was born on February 4, 1874, in the Tewa village of Hano on First Mesa. (Though a Qua’toqti article August 30, 1973 on file says she was born in 1873.) Named “White Squash Blossom” (pronounced “Tespela”), her name was probably anglicized to “Chapella” when at age nine she was among the first group of children taken by whites from Hano and forced to go to school at Keams Canyon. Among this group of children was perhaps also Tom Pavatea, with whom she was later to have an affair and a child, Alma (1989-07). All of her pottery-making descendents are related to Grace through Alma (Dillingham, 1994:2). [For a 1938 article about Tom Pavatea, see Smith (1938).]
At the school Grace met and married John Mahkewa (Arizona Historical Society (1988). As was traditional, she learned to make pottery from her Mother Ta Tung Pawbe (“Poui”). She was a neighbor and friend of “Old Lady” Nampeyo, who (fourteen years her senior) also taught her pottery-making techniques. At age 43 (in 1917) she became the cook at the Polacca Day School, a job she held until she retired in 1955. During the two years potter Elizabeth White was a teacher at the School, she used to spend time at Grace’s home playing the piano, a talent Grace passed on to her daughter Alma. By the mid-1920s Grace was known as “The White Pottery Lady” because of the off-white color of her pots. Tom Polacca encouraged her to sign her pots. About 1925 her Mother was killed accidentally while digging coal and Grace was left responsible for raising three brothers and two sisters, in addition to her own children. In 1927 she became the first person from the Hopi reservation to travel by plane when she flew to Long Beach, California to demonstrate and sell her pottery. From the sale of these pots, she made enough money to build a house at the bottom of the mesa in Polacca, close to her work at the School. When she retired from the School 28 years later, the School presented her with a water spigot in her yard, the first person in Polacca to have running water available at a private home. Apparently she retired as school cook in 1955 (at the age of 81!) only because she was in an automobile accident in which she was severely injured and given only a fifty-fifty chance of recovering. She did recover, however, and continued to produce pottery. In 1974 she suffered a stroke and stopped making larger pots or painting her own designs (for example, see 1993-01 made by Grace in about 1975 but painted by Alma). In June 1980, at the age of 106, she died. She had been born two years before Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, a long and productive life indeed! [Most of the above information is derived from Collins (1977:9-10) and Arizona Historical Society (1988).] For a photograph, see Collins (1977:9).
Note that in the Collins catalogue, Grace is pictured holding a butterfly jar that is her trademark and very similar to her daughter Alma’s design (1989-07) and the design used by Mark Tahbo (1995-01 and 1997-08) and Dianna Tahbo (1992-06). A second Grace Chapella pot of similar design is illustrated in the Collins (1977:29). Pictures of similar pots made by Grace and in the Dillingham collection are on file and in Dillingham (1994:5).