This collection contains 5 other pots by Nellie, who has a reputation of being an indifferent potter and painter.  Occasionally one finds a superior example of her work (cf 2010-04) and pot 2024-05, described here, is one of these well-formed and painted examples.  The pot is basically a tourist canteen, but the addition of feet and a slit on its front has transformed it into a standing bank.  On the basis of the curlique nose the shape is sometimes referred to as a bird, other times as a squash.  In any case, pot 2024-05 is an unusual shape, has an unusual function and is unusually well-made.  This is also a trick bank; its design can  be seen as depicting four different creatures.


The canteen requires a discussion of additional dimensions to be fully described:

  • The width of the body without the handles is 6.375-inches.  Although the handles are each 1-inch wide, they only project 0.59375-inches each because they are not perpendicular to the body.
  • From the back of the canteen to the framing line is a distance of 2.8125-inches. From framing line to the apex of the conical beak the height is 3.1245-inches, with a surface slope of 5.6875-inches.
  • The money slot is 0.75-inches long and 0.375-inches wide.
  • The two rectangular feet are only 0.1875-inches tall and are 1.5625-inches long and irregularly vary from 0.5625-inches to  0.875-inches in width.

The walls of the canteen are almost one-third of an inch thick; the pot is heavy for its size.  Slight scabbing  indicates that the pot was slipped with a grey clay that blushes gold-tan in the heat of a dung fire.  The left side of the pot (viewer’s perspective) fired a darker color, both front and back, than the right side.  A dark firing smudge covers most of the flat backside.The burnishing striations are almost invisible on the conical front and only slightly more discernible on the rear of the  canteen.  The handles at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions on the canteen body are particularly small and thin and are bent upwards.  The money slot is cleanly cut through the thick wall of the canteen.  The pot is clearly signed “Nellie Nampeyo” on its backside. The “e” in Nampeyo is small, as would be expected of a signature by Nellie (Appendix E.)


Except for two red triangular shapes on the beak of the canteen, the design is all black.  Following the convention of her mother (cf 2012-13, 2017-05 or 2019-12), Nellie has drawn thin-over-thick framing lines just in front of the handles of this canteen and these serve as the base of the design.  Much of the thin framing line has been absorbed into the design elements.

In addition, the design area is structured by two sets of parallel lines.  One set of 4 horizontal parallel lines (a “3-lane highway”) runs from thin framing line to thin framing line across the nose just above the red elements of design and divides the overall canteen design into top and bottom halfs..  A second set of 5 parallel lines (a “4-lane highway”)  bisects the  three-lane highway just above the nose, and rises vertically to the 12-o’clock position on the canteen ending at the money slot, thus dividing the top half of design in half.

The designs in the quadrants on  the upper half of the canteen mirror each other.  Five pairs of design elements are drawn in this space, each of the four walls of the space serving as the base for one design element with the remaining element free-floating in the center of the space:

  1. Descending from the slot, two blade-shaped elements together form a lunette that curves downwards.
  2. Below the first elements, and based on the thin framing line on either side of the canteen, two wave-shaped forms point gently toward the beak.
  3. Anchored on the three-lane horizontal  highway that runs across the beak, two low and wide hill forms flank the four-lane highway that rises vertically from the beak.
  4. Similar (but slightly shorter and taller) hills are based on the vertical four-lane highway and project into the unpainted space and thus complete the circuit of designs around the unpainted center of each quadrant.  From the apex of these hills a short comb of four parallel lines project into the unpainted space.
  5. A fraction of an inch from the tips of the combs an unpainted right triangle floats in the center of the unpainted area.

“Foreground/background reversal” occurs when a viewer’s eyes see a design against a background and then the design and background shift positions so that the background now is seen as the design and the initial design becomes the background.  This design trick was frequently used by Nampeyo (see Appendix F) and other potters painting in the Sikyatki Revival tradition.   Usually foreground/background reversal applies to a small element of design in a complex pattern of elements.  On canteen 2024-05 the entire upper half of the canteen shows foreground/background reversal.

The design on the lower half of the canteen, below the horizontal three-lane highway, is composed of four design elements that mirror each other on opposite sides of the beak:

  1. As the vertical four-lane highway extends downward and crosses the horizontal highway, it transforms into a three lane-highway that runs to the point of the beak.
  2. A thin line begins at the point of the beak and curves towards the framing lines, then descends and then rises forming an inch-high curlicue in the unpainted area. The area between this line and the upper corner of the design is solid black so that this curlicue element has a wide, solid base with a 90-degree corner.
  3. The areas on the beak between the horizontal highway and  the curlicue lines are painted red and form two triangles with a curved hypotenuses.
  4. At the center of this red area, on both sides of the beak, are unpainted triangles.

Design Analysis:

After about 1900 small tourist canteens were frequently made at Hopi, but I have never before seen one transformed into a bank by the cutting of a slit, nor have I seen another canteen with feet.  I have seen a few examples of canteens with curlicue beaks, but the form is uncommon.This is an inventive and complicated shape and Nellie demonstrated a high degree of skill in forming it.  Careful burnishing is another indicator that Nellie invested time and care into the formation of this pot.  The handles are too small to hold this rather large and heavy canteen and are simply ornamental.

The painted design is complex and can be viewed as depicting four different creatures.

Creature 1: Batman

With canteen 2024-05 standing on its feet,  the entire upper half of the design —the 4-inch by 7-inch lunette— displays foreground/background reversal.  The painting changes from black designs in an unpainted space to an unpainted Batman mask set against a black background.  As Batman, the mask displays curved horns atop its head, triangular eye slits, a large black nose—with nose hairs(!).  This image makes particular sense if the protruding red form is seen as the beak of the creature wearing the Batman mask.  In this view the unpainted triangles on the beak represent nostrils.  This Batman mask was a design developed by Nellie’s mother Nampeyo (cf 2005-16).

Creature 2: Scary cat

When I began to closely examine the design of this canteen, I was surprised to find that three different “creatures” could be distinguished in the design.  I naturally looked at the canteen standing upright.  My 18-year-old grandson Brandon pointed out that an additional creature could be distinguished by turning the canteen 180 degrees.  Look at the canteen lying on its back with only the “upper” half of the design visible, oriented with the spout and money slot at the lower edge of the design.  In this orientation the unpainted Batman mask becomes the face of  a scary Halloween cat.  The pointed blade-shaped areas are the cat’s ears; the two unpainted triangles its eyes; the central elongated seed shape becomes the nose, with the combs of parallel lines the cat’s whiskers.  Below is a gaping black crescent-shaped  mouth.

Creature 3: Condor

The red beak can be seen as having a life of its own. If the canteen is laid flat on its back (with feet pointing at the viewer) so that only the lower half of the design is visible, an entirely different image presents itself.  The design below the beak is also black-against-tan, but does not display foreground/background reversal.  The red design displays two triangular unpainted eyes separated by a 3-lane highway running along crest of the beak.

The long black curlicues  sprouting from the points of the red element are central design elements of the ancient “eagle-tail” design  made famous by Nellie’s Mother and subsequent generations of her descendants (cf 2005-16 and 2017-09). Though called “eagle-tails,” these  forms most likely represent macaw feathers.

As seen here, attached to the red avian face, these curved elements become huge wings propelling the red-faced bird forward through the unpainted “air” surrounding the design. Flying directly at me I see the enormous wingspan of an American Condor that historically occupied the landscape around Hopi or perhaps a B1 bomber on patrol flying directly at me.

Creature 4: Total face

When the design is considered as a single pattern of decoration, the Batman mask covers the upper half of the face, the red beak is at the center of the face, and the long curving feathers become whisker-like and frame the throat. The upper set of triangles remain as eyes, while the lower set of triangles on the red beak are nostrils above the red beak mouth.  The two sets of triangles help unify the design.


These four creature patterns of design are enabled by the unusual jutting form of the canteen.  Of course I don’t know whether Nellie intended to depict one, two, three or four creatures on this canteen.  I can only comment on what my eye sees; what is the design’s potential.  I suspect that Nellie’s imagination was more active than mine and the four creature images were intended.  There is a children’s game called “Where’s Waldo?” that challenges children to find a figure in a complex background.  I think Nellie was having similar fun here: presenting a child with a bank and a challenge to find all the creatures painted on it.  It took this old man a while to figure it out.

Although they are energized by foreground/background reversal, the two designs on the upper half of the canteen have no forward motion.  In contrast the lower condor design surges forward through space in a somewhat threatening manner leaving curlicue eddies in its wake.

As the only red design on the canteen, and occupying the central and prominent nose, the red element is the central visual focus of the design. Since  it is part of three of the four creatures, it helps unify the overall decoration of canteen 2024-05.

I was surprised to find that canteen 2024-05 has such an unusual and well-crafted shape. I was surprised to find that the design is so well painted.  At first glance I found the design curious but apparent.  I was surprised by the unraveling of the design into four distinct creatures; the conceptualization of the design is complex. The interrelationships between design elements that create these four creatures is imaginative, humorous, and effective.   That’s a lot of surprise, skill, imagination, complexity and humor in one pot.  As noted above, Nellie is generally dismissed as an indifferent potter and painter.  Pot 2015-05 is evidence that she deserves better.

Purchase History:
Purchased on Ebay on 5-25-24 from Michael D. Higgins in Tucson, AZ. When asked email about provenance, he wrote: “Not much provenance on this particular piece — local (and) elderly couple who were moving to Delaware. I bought most of their collection…I doubt if the couple ever went to Hopi. I saw receipts from some of the other pots and they were from some shop in the Chicago area, I believe, but they didn’t provide any info on the pot you bought. Her husband was pretty ill (and) has since passed away last year in Delaware.” The pot arrived with a carefully composed letter, which reads in part: “The Hopi pot (2024-05) came from a local collection. The elderly couple were originally from the D.C. area and most of their collecting was done there. After they moved to Tucson, I think their collecting really slowed down. I bought their collection…They couldn’t remember where all the pots came from…..I wish I had some great provenance to share with you."