Variations of the fine-line migration design on bowl 2021-17 are widely available in the market and are the most the commonly painted design by members of the Nampeyo family. The artist’s mark on this bowl identifies its maker as Lena Charlie.  These two statements, however, rest on considerable ambiguity.  First, the meaning of this design is often explained, but  may be a recent invention developed to paint a purchase with meaning that attracts potential buyers.   Second, the lineage of the artist is uncertain and is defined several different ways in the literature. Over the past century the “fine line migration design” has become perfected and somewhat lifeless with its frequent repetition.  However, bowl 2021-17 belongs to an earlier folk art tradition. Ironically because the design on the side of bowl 2021-17 is imperfectly plotted, this rendition of the migration design seems fresh and  vibrant.  The placement of the maker’s mark on the interior of the bowl is very unusual and may tell us something about the artist’s frame of mind. The bowl is an interesting mix of issues.


From a 3-inch base the bowl slopes upward 3.5 inches to a thick 0.375-inch wide lip.  For a pot of such modest dimensions, this bowl may have the thickest walls of any pot in the collection.  Indeed the outer edge of the rim projects slightly over the walls, increasing the width of the pot’s edge.  I think the thickness of the walls was intentional to allow for the rim decoration, discussed below.  Both the exterior and interior surfaces are carefully polished, the surface smooth without polishing striations.  There are only slight variations in the golden blushing, noticeable particularly on the bottom exterior.


The top edge of the rim and about 0.1875-inches of the exterior surface below the rim are painted black, though the width of the exterior portion is irregular. Emerging from the inner edge of this band on the rim are 117 short lines that extend across the rim to its inner edge. These short lines are not exactly evenly spaced but were drawn with care.  I have not seen this rim decoration before and it suggests that the artist had formulated her design before forming the pot, the thick walls and slight edge designed to support this unusual design.  Centered on the interior bottom of the bowl is a black  2-inch high image of a corn cob with leaves, the mark of “Lena Chio (Charlie),” her Tewa name translating as “Blue Corn” (Stanislawski et al, 1976:64).

About 0.25 inches below the lip on the exterior of the bowl three thin framing lines encircle the pot, forming a two-lane “highway.”  A similar set of framing lines lies below the exterior panel of design.  Although these parallel lines do not touch, both sets of framing lines are casually drawn and wander a bit around the surface of the bowl.  It is clear where the yucca brush was lifted, resupplied with paint, and then replaced on the surface to continue a line.

Apparently the “migration design” was derived from designs found on ancient pottery, but according to Barbara Kramer “Nampeyo rarely painted the complete migration design on her jars, showing an impatience to embellish the rigid pattern (1996:185).”  Daughters Annie and Fannie seem to have fully-developed the design and made it a family trademark. For a discussion of the development of this design, please see the catalogue entry for pot 2002-09.

The migration design has variations, the two most popular being either “open” (2012-20) or “tightly painted” (1983-01).  Jar 2021-17 has the more open pattern. In either case the design is self-limiting: drawing one element out-of-place increasingly distorts the placement of subsequent design elements.  When drawn perfectly, the overall design is centered and elegant (cf 2007-05).  Such perfection is not the case on bowl 2021-17.

Pendant from the top framing lines is a red element with a smooth upper surface and pointed lower edges that encircles the bowl. A similar red element, its orientation reversed, rests on the lower framing lines. On bowl 2021-17 the distance between these red points is not consistent.  Four of the five spaces between the points on the top red element are about 3.719-inches wide, but the remaining space is 2.875-inches wide, a difference of 0.844 inches. Four of the five spaces between points on the bottom red element are about 2.875-inches wide, but the remaining space is 2.375-inches wide, a difference of 0.5-inches.  The distance between these red points defines the space available for the the upper and lower ends of 5 black S-shaped frets that parade around the center of the design panel.  To fit into the irregularly defined space on jar 2021-17, the central black frets need to stretch and contort to fit between the upper and lower red points.  Thus the pattern of design is not regular.

All of the black S-frets have the same elements, however. Crossbars at the midsections of the frets link each long form to its neighbors. As is usual with this design, the wing ends have a rounded cap set above a linear section.  The linear section is composed of three parallel lines (a “two-lane highway”) followed by a wide “esplanade” containing three black dots, followed by a second two-lane highway.  Below to the right are a set of two isosceles triangles of slightly different lengths, the tallest toward to outside of the wing. These complete the “wing” element, which is found at either end of each S-fret. Thus, with 5 S-frets on the jar there are 10 depictions of these wing shapes.  The body of the frets, and thus most of the design on the bowl, consists of parallel lines.  These vertical lines are cut diagonally by other lines to form a series of “Xs” that bundle the vertical lines into sets.

Design analysis:

The rich fire-blushed color of the surface highlights the black and red paint of the design.

When drawing the upper and lower elements in the central design panel of the migration design, it seems that Lena intended a standard distance between points but miscalculated and in both panels ran out of room for one section.  On today’s fine art Hopi pottery, this would be a gross error, but such spontaneity of design is core to how folk art is produced.

As noted in the opening paragraph of this catalog entry, there is  uncertainty about the meaning (if any) frequently attached to the “fine line migration design” on bowl 2021-17.

Speaking to Charles King about her work, matriarch Dextra Quotskuyva (Nampeyo) said of the fine line migration pattern:

“This is the one design that was really stressed for us to use, the migration pattern.  Nothing but lines, representing the migration of all the people to all the places, incluiding down below and up above.  [The pot being discussed] has seven points at the top and bottom.  All the x’s represent life from the bottom and top, telling you the universe is one.  The thin lines, I just wanted to paint them real fast and real close to try and include everyone (King, 2017:37).”

Hopis believe that they live in the Fourth World and when they emerged from the sipapu and were give instruction by Masau’u, the various clans wandered until they came together at the three mesas and their migration ended.  The Hopi and Hopi-Tewa people are deeply committed to a sense of the unity of life and thus the need to respect and support people who do not live on the three mesas. Hopi support for the Owl and Panther program in Tucson and the Barbara Chester Award (an international award for clinicians who work with torture survivors) are current examples of these values.

Thus explanations of the fine-line migration design that emphasize 1) migration, 2) a Hopi [Hopi-Tewa] commitment to care for the world, and 3) the unity of all life have deep roots in Hopi and Tewa culture.  Whether the ancestral  women who developed this design, or even Nampeyo 500 years later, attached such meaning to this design is problematic.

Commenting on his version of this design [1994-11], Jake Koopee added an additional twist of meaning: he said that he was “particularly careful to draw the fine lines close together following the belief that the closer the lines, the longer the potter will live.”

Of course modern potters from First Mesa who patiently explain the meaning of the migration design to a tourist are free to attach whatever meaning to their design that they wish.  It’s their culture and their art.  I retain some doubt whether such meaning was historically attached to this design.  Nevertheless, I am not of Hopi or Tewa-Hopi heritage and the artists are, so their words should perhaps carry more weight than my own.

When the bowl is viewed directly from above, the large corn identification mark is highlighted by the surrounding unpainted surface, this space framed by those 117 short radial lines, themselves bordered by the solid black rim.  The layout is much like an engraving surrounded by a mat set into a detailed frame, with much the same effect.  The central corn image dominates the view.

Hopi values emphasize modesty and a submergence of the self into the group.  This is a major reason why most pottery from First Mesa was not identified by maker as late as the mid-1970’s. (Stanislawski et al, 1976:50 citing Dozier, 1954:296). When used, the usual place to draw an artist’s identification mark is on the exterior bottom of a pot, where it cannot be seen.  This is the first time I have seen an artist mark on the interior bottom of a pot.  Since this mark is framed and highlighted when the bowl is viewed from the top. it seems that Lena was unusually proud of her work. It is ironic then that we clearly know the maker of bowl 2021-17 but are not sure of who she was.

Barbara Kramer says that Lena Charlie

“lived on the plaza in Hano.  A family member explained that her father was Corn clan, so she was a niece of Nampeyo…If (Nampeyo’s) daughters were not available, she would sometimes carry (an unpainted pot) to Lena Charlie (for painting) )Kramer, 1996: 175 and 139).”

Remember, however, that descent at Hopi is matriarchal, which might make relationship through the father less significant, or remembered.

Al Alexander, Jr. of Adobe Gallery (Santa Fe) quotes Maurice Bloom, a long time, well-respected authority on pueblo pottery (now deceased) as saying:

“According to one source, Lena Chio Charlie (1888-1978) Corn Woman was a granddaughter of Nampeyo of Hano and Lesou. She was the daughter of their oldest son, Qoo-ma-lets-tewa (Mad Bear), who died in the year 1918 because of the flu. She married her second husband, Victor Charlie, in 1928. (Personal conversation with Maurice M. Bloom).”

If this is correct, then the Lena Charlie’s relationship to Nampeyo would be especially close.

Charles King recently tried to resolve these difference in identity and wrote:

“Lena Chio Charlie is also known as “Corn Woman”. Her signature is a corn hallmark which was meant to represent Blue Corn. She was Katchina Clan and lived below the mesa just below “the gap” leading up to the top of First Mesa. Lena Chio (Charlie) is known to have been an active potter from 1933 to 1961. She married her second husband, Victor Charlie, in 1928.  She was the mother of Sunbeam David and grandmother of noted katsina carver Neil David. She was a sister of Irene Shupla and aunt to Kenneth Shupla.  She was also related to Sadie Adams.

I spoke with Rainy Naha about Lena, as she was her father’s aunt.  So as of 1/25/2020 this is some of the most recent information on this important potter.”

Rainy Naha’s explanation exactly follows the lineage of Lena that is outlined in Gregory Schaaf’s book Hopi-Tewa Pottery, 500 Artist Biographies, which I find frequently contains errors.  On the other hand, Rainy Naha should certainly know her family, so maybe Schaaf is correct.  Hopi and Hopi-Tewa have blood relatives but also close clan relatives who often have the same titles (in English), so there may be cultural reasons to be confused about Lena Charlie’s identity.

These issues aside, bowl 2021-17 stands on its own as a compelling pot, not in spite of inexactitude of painting, meaning of design, or uncertainty of  the artist’s lineage, but because of them.  Such details characterize the heritage of American folk art, of which bowl 2021-17 is an engaging example.

Purchase History:
Purchased at an online auction of Pook and Pook, 10-27-21, Lot #345.