This is the last of three catalog entries about this group of pottery. Each begins with the same introduction.

Carrying almost no design except for burn marks, with only subtle suggestions of form, this small grouping of effigies stands in stark contrast to the 11 other beautifully decorated pots by Nathan Begaye in this collection. At first look these unpainted pots seem plain and uninteresting, like a Zen rock garden without flowers.

Spend some quiet time with this sheep herder and her flock, however, and these three enigmatic pots become immanent, evocative, and somewhat disturbing.

Their maker was a prodigy and an irascible human being whose conflicted life spun out-of-control and who died young.  Among his oeuvre, this unpainted set might be unique; at least I have never seen another like it.  Nathan was born to a Hopi mother and a Navajo father.  Although his pottery is characterized by its tremendous variation in form and design, all other examples of Nathan’s pottery that I am aware of draw from his Hopi ancestry and carry pueblo-derived iconography.  In contrast, both the theme and fabrication of the three pots under the rubric 2022-16 reflect his Navajo heritage.

Although they are a set, the three effigies will be discussed in separate catalog entries as items 2022-16a, 2022-16b and 2022-16c.  I tried writing them as one entry, but found the result so complex that it was awkward.

Bisque-fired ram:

Form:

This ram effigy is much like its ewe counterpart, except that the triangular ears of the ewe have been replaced by large curved horns indicating its gender. Like the ewe, all four sides of the figure are dimpled, giving the figure definition.  The micaceous white slip completely covers the tan clay of the body, with only suggestions of the tan clay body showing near the left horn and revealed by the scratched inscription on the bottom:

  • Nathan B
  • Hopi Navajo
  • cloud cypher
  • 3-7-91

…….being the date of creation.

Design:

Unlike its sister ewe, but like its guardian shepherd, this ram effigy carries a large black area that runs across is left ear to its hindquarters.  Slight black smudges appear on its left limbs and right horn and front limb. As before, these black marks reflect a traditional Navajo firing.

Design Analysis:

Like its sister ewe, this ram has an impressive visual impact, both when viewed alone and when part of the three-pot set.  In part this impact is the result of that disturbing gaping mouth, in part because the soft features of its body create a sensuous look and feel. The yawning holes create a bond of relationship between the three sculptures but also are reminiscent of decapitations. The soft, abstracted, form of the effigies and their fire-cloud finish blur their identity and suggest a universal theme of relationship and caring. These sensuous and disturbing features are at cross purposes and thus add tension and interest to ram effigy. Had they been formed with heads, the relationship would have been sweet, like a holy creche.  As noted in the analysis of the shepherd effigy, emotions of both safety and fear are incorporated in the relationship between a shepherd and her flock.

This set of three figures is the second time effigies by Nathan appear in this collection.  The first, a Hopi Maiden (2019-20), has a more realistic form, though her lower torso is abstracted much like the three-piece set discussed here.

A review:

I have become particularly enamored of Nathan’s pottery since buying my first piece nine years ago.  The order in which I purchased the twelve Nathan Begaye pieces in this collection, however, does not reflect the order in which they were produced.  Since all except the oldest are dated, it is possible and instructive to reorganize this pottery into the sequence in which they were made:

Name                              Catalogue number     Date produced

Red slip pot                             2013-01                   about 1973

Star jar                                     2018-10                    10-30-86

Shepard with sheep               2022-16a,b,c              3-2&7-91

Moon face canteen                2017-06                     1-25-94

Anasazi-inspired bowl            2019-24                     10-25-96

Maiden effigy pot                   2019-20                      12-5-97

Lizard/toad pot                      2014-04                     1-16-00

Shard pot                                 2013-10                      6-14-00

Incised canteen                      2013-09                      1-25-02

Incised serpent pot                 2022-15                      1-25-02

Tawa plaque                           2017-07                       2005

Nude male bowl                    2015-02                       9-5-06

 

I see three periods of production here:

First, the red slip pot (about 1973) is extraordinary because of its size, bulbous shape, thinness, dramatic red color and its Sikyatki-inspired but innovative design.  Very few Hopi or Hopi-Tewa potters of any age can do work this fine.  That it was done by a boy in his early adolescence is unnerving.  Its Sikyatki style is the most traditional among the Begaye pots.

The second category of pots, from 1986 through 2002, contains 9 of the 12 pots in this collection and represents Nathan using his full creative power.  Each of these pots has a unique form or design that could not have been predicted from the other eight pots in this group.

The final group of two pots have a poignancy about them that is not apparent in his earlier work.  These are among the last pots Nathan created before he stopped potting several years before a long illness and his death in December of 2010.  While the Tawa plaque is full of blessing and seems to incorporate the artist into this vision of hope, the note that Nathan wrote to acompany the plaque is full of bitterness and dispair.  Finally I read a similar message of personal despair into the image of the nude, truncated, Native male on the 2006 bowl.  For me this image is the emotional equivalent at looking at Emile Serate’s painting of a freshly butchered cow.

Nathan stopped making pots sometime during the last five years of his life; he died on December 21, 2010.  However the collection does contain a drawing he made dated 4-13-2008:

It’s speculation on my part, but drawing on a piece of paper is a simpler process than forming, painting and firing a pot, so perhaps Nathan turned to drawing as an artistic outlet during his final years when  he was ill. Unusually –but like Tawa plaque 2017-07-– Nathan added his middle name “Scott” when signing this drawing.  The image of a creature with symbols emerging from its mouth is an ancient Hopi motif; see bowl 1997-05 in this collection.  Such images are generally understood as germination prayers, though it is not possible to know what a potter 600 years ago intended.  I have no idea what meaning, if any, Nathan attached to this drawing, but germination and renewal might be concerns of a person near the end of his life. Blessedly the drawing does not reflect the anger I perceive in the poem accompanying pot 2017-07  or the image on plate 2015-02, both created during this period of decline.

Purchase History:
Purchased on 12-3-22 with a phone bid from South Bay Auctions, Lot #258.