2014-07 Simplified “bird hanging from sky band” bowl

Object ID:

Nampeyo 1 (unsigned)

3.0” h X 8.875” w

This bowl is well-made with substantial, even walls. There is an extra coil of clay forming the inner lip, an accepted criteria for defining a bowl as formed by Nampeyo (Blairs, 1999:91). The bowl is slipped with a thin layer of clay that was then stone-polished. The bottom of the bowl is worn, allow us to observe the light almost white color of the clay that formed the bowl. The slip fired with an even light gold blush with only incidental lighter color where it was protected from he heat of the fire by another pot or protective shard. Following a classification established by Harold Colton, Barbara Kramer would classify the vessel as “Sikyatki Revival” (1996:160).

Early in the 20th century collectors sometimes shellacked Hopi pots to protect their painted surface. That was done to this bowl and the applied surface had crackled and “alligatored” by the time I bought it. (See photograph.) I removed the shellac with acetone and the interior painted surface was revealed in pristine condition. The exterior is unpainted.

The form of bowl 2014-07 is common, but its unobstructed surface encourages innovative design:

“…The characteristic Hopi vessel is the small bowl….It is on these small bowls that the most typical Hopi patterns are found….The decoration of the water jar is very much more formal than that of the bowl….The character of the decorative motifs is…less free on the water jar than on bowls. Water jar patterns are very largely geometric and angular (1929:41-42).”

I know of no better example of the power of Sikyatki Revival pottery than bowl 2014-07. Its simple, sophisticated design captures the essence of Nampeyo’s unique talent. Because it highlights the structure of her artistic vision , the bowl is a touchstone in this collection. A bit of mineral paint on a canvas of clay and I am bewitched, ever able to conjure up the design in my head and be transported by it. How does Nampeyo do this?

If you have read any of the descriptions of the 41 Nampeyo pots in this collection (see Artist List), you have encountered the six design strategies that I think define the mature work of “The Old Lady” (Appendix C). I find these criteria useful as a standard against which I can evaluate a pot to determine if it was painted by Nampeyo. Too often dealers, collectors or curators announce that a particular pot is “by Nampeyo” because of the “extraordinary form” or “masterly painting” but do not offer any guidelines that led to their conclusion. My discussion of Nampeyo’s mature design strategies is intended to make explicit criteria to evaluate pottery as possibly painted by “The Old Lady.”

My understanding of Nampeyo began with Bunzel’s observations and developed additional criteria. She was the first commentator to define Nampeyo’s painting:
“Her designs are executed with greater delicacy and precision, and her line work is superior to that of her fellow workers. Furthermore, her designs are of a different character. There is less design per square inch of pot. At times her patterns are almost impressionistic in their economy (Bunzel,1929:67).”

My theory of Nampeyo’s design strategy, of course, is post hoc and she was not bound by my criteria. As Bunzel suggested, Nampeyo’s bowls (1993-04) seem to better represent my sense of her mature style than jars (2013-03), but sometimes this is strikingly not the case (2005-16). Unusual or eccentric pots are not well-described by my expectations of Nampeyo (e.g. 2006-11, 2008-06 and 2007-16). Pots formed by Nampeyo but painted by a daughter using her own style often do not reflect “The Old Lady’s” eye for design (e.g., 1997-01, 1985-01 and certainly 2011-32), but sometimes they do (2010-05).

My understanding of Nampeyo’s design style can result in a “partial hit” with the vessel displaying some but not all of the criteria and I conclude that it is probably not by Nampeyo (e.g., 2013-26).

In addition, for pots that I believe were painted by Nampeyo, these same six criteria can be used to judge the quality of the vessel: not all of her work was created equal (Appendix D). Using these standards, some pots are clearly by Nampeyo (e.g., 1993-04, 2005-16) while others by the same hand reveal their source only grudgingly (e.g.,1999-03, 2013-03).

These caveats aside, one might ask:

“What would a pot look like if you stripped away all of the distracting design elements and were left with a pot that most clearly demonstrated the essence of Nampeyo’s mature style?”

Until now, small canteen 2010-11 would be my best candidate. With the addition of bowl 2014-07 to the collection, this bowl now fills that role. Here’s why:

The defining characteristics of Nampeyo’s mature style are:

1) A tension between linear and curvilinear elements often represented as a contrast between heavy and delicate elements.

The design on bowl 2014-07 is a simplified version of the “bird handing from sky band” design first seen among Nampeyo’s work on bowl 1993-04. (See Appendix B.) Most renditions of this design consist of a linear body with a curvilinear element emerging. As usual, here the linear element is relatively heavier, thicker and more substantial than the curvilinear portion of the design, which thins as it approached its point. While bowl 1993-04 is the archetypal rendition (closely following an ancient Sikyatki original), in the design of bowl 2014-07, Nampeyo has added two energixing variations.

By omitting the typical red lunette, Nampeyo gained room to innovate. By extending the arc of the curvilinear element of the original Sikyatki design and bringing it almost full circle, it becomes almost parallel to the more substantial “body” below. These innovations allow Nampeyo to create an almost linear section of the curve as it approaches its point and is parallel to the heavier body below. Conjointly, Nampeyo has drawn the top boundry of the linear body slightly concave, a pattern seen on both the Sikyatki original design and her early Revival rendition (1993-04). The result is both contradictory and parallel: the curvaninear element has a subtheme of linearity. The linear element has a subtheme of curvavinearity. The basic contrast between linear and curvaninear tension in the design is both clear and subverted by detail. This complexity delights the eye. I have seen this pattern on only one other Nampeyo bowl that was offered by a Santa Fe gallery. (See note below.) Nampeyo has prodiuced a variation of a Sikyatki theme, but made it an original rendition

Thus Bunzel could have had Nampeyo and this bowl 2014-07 in mind when she wrote:

“(W)omen are no longer dependent on ancient pottery for their ideas…(there is now) a considerable amount of free invention…(The) surprising exuberance (of design) is due to the very high development of the inventive facility among Hopi women. These potters constantly invent new patterns, or rather new variants of typical Sikyatki patterns, be cause it is as easy as paining the old ones and very much more enjoyable (1929:56-57).”

2) A deliberate asymmetry of design.
By definition, the “bird hanging from sky band” design is fundamentally asymmetric
and I believe this why Nampeyo repeatedly returned to it it over the entire span of her Sikyatki Revival painting career. On this bowl the curve emerges past the midpoint on the linear element. Each end of the linear body has a pair of symmetric black tails, but the tails on one end are pointed and include a curved white area. On the other end the tails have curved ends, are solid, and extend into the red design. Pairs of similar tails at each end of the body unify the design, but the difference between the two sets creates an asymmetry that energies.

3) The use of color to integrate design elements.

There’s not much painted surface on this bowl, but what there is includes two areas of red. One sits between a set of black tails and the black “window pane” element. A similar red area is drawn on the other side of the window pane, but then it extends and becomes the red curve. The red areas thus include both linear and curvilinear portions of the design, unifying these areas and thus the overall design. A simple mental exercise highlights the effect: imagine how fragmented the design would be if the linear body were painted entirely in black with a red curcve stuck on top.

4) The use of empty (negative) space to frame the painted image.

This is the most striking feature of bowl 2014-07. Earlier renditions of the “bird hanging from sky band” design by Nampeyo are a close copy of the ancient Sikyatki bowl that served as a model (See 1993-04 and Appendix B.) This classic rendition contains four main elements: 1) a red lunette, 2) a linear avian body, 3) a shrine/butterfly image, and 4) curvilinear elements.

Apparently as she gained confidence with her Sitkatki Revival design, Nampeyo was willing a adapt the original design to her current need. On small canteen 2010-11 Nampeyo omitted the red lunette and the avian body (# 1 & #2 above), thus creating substantial empty framing space around the design in spite of the small size of the vessel. Similarly on bowl 2014-07 Nampeyo has omitted two of the original elements to the same effect. As with the canteen, the red lunette (#1 above) is gone, but in contrast to the canteen Nampeyo includes the linear avian body (#2 above ) but omits the shrine/butterfly element (#3 above). Nampeyo was willing to play with ancient design and create variations in order to better realize her own inner aesthetic.

Of the Nampeyo bowls I have seen in person or published in the literature, the use of negative space to frame the design is most dramatic on bowl 2014-07. The linear avian body spans most of the interior, but by omitting elements of the original motif, Nampeyo has provided substantial negative space below this element. Above, the thin curve floats freely withing the unpainted area. If I were to take a photograph of the interior of bowl 2014-07, cut out all of the painted surfaces and rearrange the design into a solid form, I suspect the painted areas would cover perhaps one-third or less of the interior surface of the bowl. Because it is mostly empty, the interior of bowl 2014-07 presents a striking image.

With Bunzel, I believe such power of image is not calculated:
“(S)ensation and intuition play a larger role than intellect in the creation of design (1929:53)..”
5) The use of a thick above a thin framing line on the interior rim of her bowls.
The bowl has the expected thick-above-thin framing lines. As is usual, the thick line is without a “spirit break.” Oddly the thin framing line appears to have a small break
that seems deliberate, though it might just mark the start and ending of the brush stroke.

6) Nampeyo’s painting is confident, bold, and somewhat impulsive compared to the more-studied, plotted and careful style of her daughters, descendents and other Hopi and Hopi-Tewa potters.
As I have noted before, this is the most subjective of the criteria I use to define a “Nampeyo,” pot, but it is perhaps the most telling. After all, a potter might meet all of the behavioral criteria, but it is the overall visual impact of line on clay that has the most weight.

The framing lines of the design on bowl 2014-07 are of consistent width. I judge them “confident” since they do not show start and stop marks but seem to have been drawn with one continous motion.

The defining of the curved element is particularly telling since it was formed by coordinated brush strokes that create a form that narrows as it reverses direction approaches its apex. So cleanly formed was the black outline of this red curve that I cannot tell if the brush was rotated as the painter’s hand moved across the surface of the bowl or if the orientation of the brush remained steady and the painter’s body (or the bowl) was rotated to maintain the correct orientation. Similar control was required for the curvilinear element on bowl 2002-03 by Nampeyo, but that example is both circular and solid black, easier I am supposing than the drawing of the black lines that curve back on themselves and frame the red element on bowl 2014-07.

The drawing on this bowl is not perfect: for example the unpainted inclusions in the two pointed black arrows are of different sizes and the straight lines that both frame the window-pane design and form it are not perfectly parallel. That’s the “impulsive” sensibility of the painting that is distinctive of Nampeyo’s work.

I have no doubt bowl 2014-07 is by “The Old Lady.” Truth be told, I had the same recognition when I first saw a postage-stamp-sized image of the bowl on my computer screen and I am surprised that other collectors did not recognize its provenance and bid up the price far higher than the amount I paid.

Two comments resonate with me when I am spending time with bowl 2014-07. Although I have cited them before, they are worth repeating here.

First Bunzel, who had the grace to talk with southwestern potters from a variety of traditions about their experience:

“…the creative spirit is only rarely vouchsafed. However, at infrequent intervals a person thus gifted does appear to bless humanity. One of the qualities of genius is the ability to experience mentally what has not been experienced sensually and to embody this unique experience in tangible form. When such a person functions in the field of art, he may produce those sudden mutations in style that mark the history of arts among all peoples.

….in each case the revolution in style can be traced to a striking personality.

Nampeyo, a potter of Hano, revived and adopted the ancient wares of Sikyatki. Undoubtedly the original stimulus came from outside, but it was Nampeyo’s unerring discrimination and lively perception that vitalized what would otherwise have been so much dead wood. She did not copy Sikyatki patterns; her imagination recreated the Sikyatki sense of form…. (1929:87-88).”

Finally, J.J. Brody’s comments about what makes a “great” pueblo pot:

“The symbolism,” he said, is “below the level of consciousness.” The form is simple
and basic geometric; the painting reinforces the form; the painting lines are crisp,
controlled and harmonious; and “most of all” the pot is “dynamic,” a source of
perpetual discovery. He concluded: “you should feel the handwriting and character of
the artist” (1990b).

Bowl 2014-07 represents the best work of an innovative genius; its simple, powerful image delights the eye. Across time and cultural differences the beauty of its maker’s vision is clear. This is a great pot.

Purchase History:
Bowl 2014-07 was purchased with a telephone bid from Allard Auctions, Lot #107, 3/8/14 in Mesa, AZ (receipt on file). In 2012 a strikingly similar Nampeyo bowl was available at Fine Arts of the Southwest for about 17 times the purchase price of 2014-07. It remained undold 5 years later. 90 years ago Nampeyo pottery was a bit cheaper. Bunzel writes of Tom Pocacca, Nampeyo’s brother and owner of the only store at First Mesa: “Tom gets for a water jar by Nampeyo two to five dollars, depending on the size, ---the five dollar size being exceptionally large for any place. A twelve-inch bowl by Nampeyo, seventy-five cents. The work of other potters is cheaper (1929:5). “ When asked about any provenance for bowl 2014-07, Steve Allard wrote that “Unfortunately I don’t have much I can pass on. I got this from a friend in Scottsdale who deals in Indian stuff. He purchased it from a lady in Glendale, AZ who ended up with it after her mother’s death. She knew nothing about any of the things she had (and had no interest in it).” Lucky me.