There are eight other Jake Koopee pots in this collection and they span much of his short 21-year career.
Two (1994-11 and 1995-14) are fairly traditional and indicate his exceptional early promise. Three (2008-04a, b, & c) are odd little plainware pieces done to demonstrate the possibilities of Hopi clay. A tile (2010-02) is well done but does not test Jake’s full ability. The last two pots (2004-08 and 2016-06) are of ordinary shape but extraordinary decoration and demonstrate the full flowering of Jake’s eye for color and creative design.
Even within this group vase 2013-08 is exceptional. Its form, finish, and firing, and its detailed, elegant design stand as a testimony to his creative genius. Jake died tragically in June of 2011, age 41. He left more monumental examples of his work, but to my eye vase 2013-08 is as fine a pot by him as I have seen.
The shape of pot 2013-08 is totally impractical, and so small-based that it cannot reliably stand on its own. It also has a mouth too oddly shaped and small to be usable. The vase is a pure art form, shaped by Jake’s sense of aesthetic without regard to the practical. The base is only 12% as wide as the vase is tall. The maximum width is only about 40% of its height. The vase soars upward, its form as svelte as the thinnest model in a fashion show. The calla lily mouth echoes in reverse the shape of the vase below it. While the body of the vase is symmetrical, the mouth is not, giving the overall shape an energy that Nampeyo often achieved by adding unsymmetrical elements to her design.
Jake finished the pot with two subtle techniques that add aesthetically but might be missed by a casual observer. First, a slightly micaceous slip has been applied to the pot, giving it subtle texture and sparkle. Second, most Hopi and Hopi-Tewa pots are polished with a smooth stone that is randomly moved across the sanded surface of a pot until a smooth sheen is achieved. Jake polished this pot using only strokes that are parallel to the axis of the vessel, which gives the surface a linear “onion skin” appearance. Though not obvious when looking at the pot, these striations reinforce the verticality of the vase. (See Wade & Cooke 2012:12.) This is a master potter at work, striving to do his best.
Held in the hand, the vase can be turned so that little of the design can be seen: the unadorned shape has the calmness of a Zen garden. Shape and finish work together to treat the eye.
The design of 2013-08 is a full-length depiction of the Polik’Mana in regalia holding a parrot in each hand. The Polik’Mana is an uncommon but persistent design element at Hopi, but the specific composition of the design on 2013-08 is inspired by the murals at Awatovi and Pottery Mound, Michael Kabotie, earlier depictions of the Polik’Mana by Nampeyo, and Jake’s own genius.
A range of birds inhabits the murals of Awatovi, particularly parrots (Smith 1955:183-188). Color drawings “E” and “I” of murals in Smith’s report show central figures with arms outstretched and parrots roosting on each wrist (Smith 1955: following p. 134). A drawing of this same image is published in McCreery and Malotki (1994:59). A very similar image of a female dancer with arms outstretched and holding macaws was found on a mural at Pottery Mound (Schaafsma 2010:38).
Michael Kabotie, Hopi painter and jeweler, was strongly influenced by these murals and painted versions of this spirit being with outstretched arms holding parrots (Behnke 2013:165). Here is his mural called “Germination of Life” painted for The Museum of Northern Arizona:
(Click on highlighted words, above.)
It is probable that Jake saw images of the Awatovi or Flower Mound murals or Kabotie’s work and was inspired by them.
The Heard Museum organized a show in 2012-2014 titled “Elegance From Earth” featuring the pottery of three Hopi-Tewa families. The pottery chosen for exhibition was outstanding, but the most extraordinary vessel in the show is a bulbous canteen by Nampeyo with a Polik’Mana face depicted on the apex of the surface and her tabula stretching in delicate layer after layer towards the rear. (Photograph on file.) I do not know if Jake ever saw this masterpiece, but in form and lightness of design, the Nampeyo vessel and Jake’s vase are close cousins.
When I visited Jake in his home in November 2009, he showed me his workspace and explained his forming, painting, and firing technique. Jake was a collector of color. Except for Hopi/Navajo potter Nathan Begaye (see 2013-10), all of the Hopi and Hopi-Tewa potters I know of paint using three colors: black, red and occasionally white for background or to highlight a design. During my visit, Jake’s workspace contained mortars for grinding six different colors. Here is a photograph of that workspace taken by Marti Struever:
“I like color,” Jake told me.
I’m not sure how many colors other than black my eye sees in the design of 2013-08. In his analysis (below), Charles King mentions red, burgundy, and mauve—and I accept his eye as better than mine.
The central Polik’Mana figure stands sacred and celebratory looking directly at the viewer, offering her blessings and welcome. Her tilted head interrupts the verticality of the jar and gives her a “come hither” look.
Her mouth is composed of six segments of varying color; her cheeks carry a red dot that indicates her female gender. On her forehead is a perfect ear of corn. Her headdress is composed of three layers of elements; the innermost is painted solid red and divided into 32 segments. To create these 32 segments, Jake divided the space five times (2, 4, 8, 16, and 32).
The next layer incorporates six pairs of large/small phallic images with the two sizes regularly changing order from right to left. In between these six pairs are five areas that incorporate two different but similar motifs. The right two pairs consist of club-shaped elements, one larger and darker nestled beneath a smaller lighter-colored club. Each of the four sections is painted a different color. The remaining three areas are more symmetrical and consist of a black equilateral triangle with similarly shaped back-to-back club-shaped images resting above. These three pairs of clubs vary in color and painting technique. Given the meticulousness of his paining, I am surprised that Jake varied the compositional elements of this second layer. I am guessing that Jake painted the right-most segments first and then imagined a more pleasing design for the remaining three, but this is just a guess. Were he alive, I would be knocking on his door with a question on my next trip to Hopi.
The outermost layer of tabula design consists of five triangular stepped rain clouds painted red and black surmounted by corn. In between these forms is a two-color design surmounted by a partial rain cloud that is painted red.
While my description of the tabula is cumbersome, the head of the Polik’Mana is a delicate, easily appreciated delight.
Arms bent at the elbows, the Polik’Mana presents the viewer with a parrot in each hand. The two birds are similar but also distinctive. The parrot in her right hand is somewhat the smaller of the two with her head elevated above her tail. Her back is red; eight thin polychromatic tails feathers flow from the rear of the figure and, though straight, fan a bit toward the skirt of the Polik’Mana. The bird in the dancer’s left hand has basically the same layout, but differs in an important detail. The body of the bird is held at right angles to the body of the Mana, her back colored a light tan, which blends in with the natural coloration of the fired pot. Again, eight tail feathers spread below her, but they are somewhat larger than on the other bird and fan slightly away from the Mana’s skirt. Along the rear of the feather fan is a ninth all-black feather that is missing from the bird in the left hand. Perhaps these details of difference are meant to suggest the difference between a female and male parrot.
The birds can only be viewed in full from the sides of the jar. Thus, when viewing the vase head-on, the viewer is intrigued to shift position and see the complete design. The right side of the dancer’s torso is covered with an embroidered drape. Around her waist, the Mana wears a rain sash, with its drapery flowing off her hip. This flowing drapery parallels the graceful tail feathers of the parrot held in the left hand. They frame an undecorated section of the pot and add to the Zen sensibility of the jar. A simple black mantle serves as the Polik’Mana’s skirt. Two small, stylized feet attach the dancer to the earth.
I like Hopi-Tewa pottery that is imperfectly formed or painted, declares its hand-made origin, and reflects a folk art tradition. Such a style is more reflective of pre-1970 First Mesa pottery. In recent years, initially under the influence of Dextra Quotskuyva, younger potters have tended to make perfectly formed and perfectly painted pots. At their worst, the painting is so perfect that it looks to me like a decal. Jake’s work, especially pots 2004-08 and 2013-08, belies my opinion. At the height of his career, Jake painted perfectly and in detail but with such imagination and skill that the result intrigues and delights the eye. On vase 2013-08, every element of form and design works to impress the viewer.