“This beautiful pot by Dextra is decorated in four quadrants with mythic bird symbols and has a lovely rich blush creating warm hues of color.” –description by Rutt Bridges, original owner. Subsequent investigation indicates that the flying beings on this jar are grasshoppers and not the more usual avian design used on Hopi and Hopi-Tewa pottery.
Everything about the jar gives it a lightness of being. The walls are thin and even. The mouth is wide, allowing the viewer to see into the pot, giving it an open, light feeling. The flying saucer shape lifts the pot into the air, adding to this impression. The decoration covers only the top slope of the jar, leaving the bottom empty, except for the golden blushing of the clay: grasshoppers flying over clouds. The insects fly around the pot in a counterclockwise direction, whirling it upwards.
Over many years I have written numerous entries in this catalog that note that I am not attracted to the precise decal-like painting of some of the younger Hopi/Tewa potters, many of whom were trained by Dextra. This pot may make me eat my words, though probably not since my teeth would scratch the finish. While precise, detailed and intricate, the design somehow escapes looking like a decal. There is genius here and Dextra fully lives up to her reputation. Although photographed beautifully, published examples of her pots (Struever 2001) do not capture the experience of meeting this pot eyeball to surface.
On the one hand, the painting is precise and repetitious. Each of the four insect images has exactly the same body elements as the other three.
The power of this pot is in the elusiveness of its design. While very precise, the design engages the eye because the closer one looks, the less certain the design. At first glance it’s clear that the design is “simply” four mythic bird symbols.
Insect images are rare on Hopi and Hopi/Tewa pottery; birds are common. (See 1998-10, 2006-12, 2008-13, and 2010-24.) On all such pots in the collection, the insect images are bounded; whether realistic or abstract, the insects have form and the edge of the design is set against the negative space that surrounds the design. There is boundary between each insect image and also between each creature and its background.
Not so here. Although many of the elements that Dextra uses to build her design are traditional Hopi/Tewa motifs, Dextra has deconstructed the four grasshoppers, arranging the parts against the background, linking elements of one creature to the next creature, and integrating the rim bands into the design. Observed closely, it’s difficult to decide what elements form which grasshopper and what part of the motif plays what function in the design. The effect is like an Escher graphic. First the eye sees one design, then the design morphs into a different format. This interplay of images gives pot 2010-21 enormous energy and motion.
Note that the “head” of each insect is actually an appendage of the prior grasshopper and flows from its body. The viewer’s eye flicks back and forth between design elements trying to make sense of this engaging detail. The thick-above-thin framing lines that are characteristic of Nampeyo’s design are used here with a twist. Rather than merely framing the design, both lines are integrated into the bodies of the four insects. The thick framing line extends down as a broad black band into the body of each grasshopper. The thin framing line is actually painted in four segments that become part of the body of the leading insect and attach to the triangular, crested head of the subsequent insect. The thin framing lines form a thicker back-pointing arrow behind the “neck” of each grasshopper, thus contradicting the forward thrust of the triangular-shaped head. The tension between these elements adds energy to the design.
The design is monochromatic, except for a red triangle imbedded in the head of each grasshopper focusing motion to the right and visually uniting the overall design. (The use of color to unify a design is also an “Old Lady” Nampeyo design strategy.) The directional energy of the swarm of insect beings adds excitement.
While the upper surface of the pot is crowded with paint, the delicacy of painting leaves considerable blank space around the insect images, thus highlighting them and giving them space to fly. (Another design strategy Dextra adopted from her great-grandmother, see 2010-11.) The undecorated surface of the pot adds to the visual energy. The golden blushing is subtle but rich. The micaceous clay gives the pot a subtle twinkle.
One’s eye wants to view art closely and decide an object’s form and design. Here form, material and design work together to prevent such a static image, endlessly engaging the eye in a shifting perceptional view.
Only one motif is not precisely drawn, but even here the irregularity is carefully repeated. In the body of each grasshopper, near the juncture of the wing to body and just before the tail elements, there are a series of four open ovals, each containing seven dots. Obviously this arrangement is intentional, but the four open ovals are irregularly drawn and the dots irregularly placed. For me such imprecision adds spontaneity to the design and helps counter the decal-like quality of the painting I find on some modern Hopi/Tewa pots.
In the thirtieth anniversary issue of American Indian Art, Charles King published an article titled “Pueblo Pottery: Folk Art to Fine Art (2005). He wrote: “In the 1980’s a small group of innovative Pueblo potters raised the standard for quality and originality and have since had a dramatic influence on the creativity and direction of other artists. This group…can be considered the foundation of today’s pottery movement.”
Among the five artists in this group, Dextra represents Hopi/Tewa:
“Dextra Quotskuyva’s (b. 1928) pottery is a balance of traditional patterns accented with her own interpretive style of painting and innovative shapes. Quotskuyva prides herself or rarely repeating the same design twice.… Few potters have had a greater influence on their peers” (2005:64 and 67).
Seedpot 2010-21 well represents both the genius of her work and explains the impact she has had on younger generations. Preston Singletary labels his glass sculpture “modern heritage art.” That phrase, I think, best sums up this bowl.
Apparently Dextra was willing to repeat the grasshopper design. A taller and somewhat slimmer seedpot by Dexter (4” h X 8” w) with the same design as 2010-21 was sold by Alterman Galleries in Santa Fe on 12/16/07. (Listing on file.) Steve Lucas, who was mentored by Dextra, also uses the design. (See Ancient Nations listing on file.)
Pot 2010-21 is one of a group of pots that were part of a 2,400-item Southwest pueblo pottery collection that was assembled by Rutt Bridges of Denver, CO over a period of about 14 years. His sister, Kathleen Hoff, is helping her brother sell the collection. In 2009 Kat sent me two CDs with information about Hopi pots in their collection. During 2010, over a period of months Kay sent me additional photographs of about 200 Hopi and Hopi/Tewa pots from the collection.