Of all the Nampeyo pots in this collection, jar 2005-16 best represents the fully-developed Sikyatki Revival aesthetic that marks Nampeyo as “genius” and made her famous.
The most eloquent evaluation of Nampeyo’s work by a contemporary was written by Ruth Bunzel. By the time she interviewed Nampeyo (during the summers of 1924 and 1925) the “Old Lady” was blind and could no longer paint her designs. While she lived for almost 20 additional years and continued to form pots, her career as a designer and painter were over and could be assessed. Bunzel wrote how
“the creative spirit is only rarely (bestowed)…. 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 yet been experienced sensually, and to embody this unique experience in tangible form. When such a person functions in the field of art, (she) may produce those sudden mutations in style that mark the history of the arts among all peoples…(Such a) revolution in style can be traced to a striking personality. Nampeyo, a potter of Hano, revived and adapted the ancient ware of Sikyatki. Undoubtedly the original stimulus came from the 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 (1972:87-88).”
Writing “An Appreciation of the Art of Nampeyo” in Plateau Magazine shortly after Nampeyo’s death in 1942, Mary-Russell and Harold Colton specify the nature of Nampeyo’s creative spirit:
“Her work was distinguished from that of Hopi potters by a sense of freedom and a fluid flowing quality of design, together with an appreciation of space as a background for her bold rhythmic forms…. There are many fine potters today….It is noticeable, however, that the majority of these potters do not consider unused space as a factor in design, but cover their forms completely with combinations of elements and motifs….with possible exception of her daughter Fanny, the use of space as a positive factor in design in not evident (in the daughters’) as in the mother’s work. For this reason the work of Nampeyo has a character all its own, which may be readily recognized by students of the Hopi potters art (1943: pp 44-45).”
Barton Wright traces the development of Nampeyo’s style:
“She began first to duplicate and then expand upon the Sikyatki examples…The genius of Nampeyo was to grasp the possibilities (Sikyatki) pottery offered and then to explore every aspect for her creative purpose. (Her duplication of Sikyatki ware) soon passed and she went on to express her own creativity. Her subtle changes in the configurations of Sikyatki design elements gave more fluidity to curvilinear lines….isolated (Sikyatki) motifs were abandoned, leaving an uncluttered background space as an integral part of the overall decoration. This use of openness, one of the most distinguishing aspects of Nampeyo’s pottery, creates a classical elegance… (1993:36-37).”
Robert Ashton echoes the sentiments of both Bunzel and the Coltons, when he describes Nampeyo’s “sense of freedom, design and appreciation of the shape and space of each vessel…. In comparing the pottery of Nampeyo to that done by her fellow potters, she was equaled technically; but as an artist she was unsurpassed (1976:31).”
Having only seen the eBay listing of 2005-16, Ed Wade wrote (8/20/05) that “All traits suggest that this is definitely a Nampeyo c, 1900. The delicacy of the recurved eagle wing feathers is one indicator. The negative motif of a W or M at the top of the eagle tail as well as the negative rectangle above the red banded eagle tail feathers within which is a motif that looks like ‘Bat Man’s’ head gear. All this is her hand.”
Other Nampeyo pots in the collection:
Nampeyo pots acquired before 2005-16:
Pot 2005-16 is a striking example of the distinctive style of form and design celebrated by Bunzel, the Coltons, and Ashton. No pot in the collection displays the fully developed creative spirit of Nampeyo as well as this pot.
When this Nampeyo pot was acquired, 181 Hopi/Tewa pots were part of the collection. Potters from all three Hopi mesas and numerous families are represented in the collection. Seven of these pots are substantial products of the “Old Lady’s” hands. One additional pot was likely formed by Nampeyo and painted by Annie. Four additional pots were formed by Nampeyo when she was blind, painted by others and signed “Nampeyo.” Six generations of Nampeyo potters are represented in the collection. Even within this context, 2005-16 is “sui generis,” unlike anything else.
For example, while the design elements of 1993-04 are not an exact copy of a widely published older Sikyatki pot, the spirit and aesthetic of the two pots are identical. Nampeyo retained the Polacca ware white (though not crackled) slip on 1993-04, but the spirit of the pot is pure Sikyatki. As Holly Chervnsik notes in her thesis (2003:16), pot 1993-04 challenges Bunzel’s assertion that Nampeyo did not directly copy Sikyatki designs. Bowl 1993-04 is a relatively early product of Nampeyo’s imagination and she seemed still tied rather closely to the work of ancient potters and the white kaolin slip characteristic of her own day.
The “man-eagle” design on bowl 1988-01, like the design of 1993-04, is based on an ancient Sikyatki design (Fewkes, 1973:59), but here Nampeyo has modified the basic design by omitting the core of the bird body and developing the two wings into facing bird images. While innovative, the design of 1988-01—set against a plain, uncluttered background, and floated directly on the clay body without the use of a slip—is somewhat static.
Before the purchase of 2005-16, a small shallow dish by Nampeyo (2002-03) probably best demonstrated her genius. While the shape of the bowl is ordinary, the simple design is not. The curvilinear avian image is formed of elements reminiscent of Sikyatki ware, but here Nampeyo has assembled them into a unique design of great motion, grace, and energy. The elements are not balanced: Nampeyo has added a series of hairlines to the inner swirl to insure that the image remains energized. As the Coltons observed, space is used as a positive factor in the design: framing lines contain the motion, but otherwise the design whirls in flight through empty space. The design of 2002-03 captures the unique genius of Nampeyo’s eye. The eagle feather design on 2005-16 is symmetrical, yet on neither 2002-03 nor 2005-16 is the design static; both pots generate energy and motion. The curvilinear shape and unbalanced design on 2002-03 create such energy; the artistic devices on 2005-16 are more subtle.
Of the four other ceramics in the collection in 2005 that were probably both formed and painted by Nampeyo, one is a pot of rather ordinary shape and design (2002-11). Another is a canteen that contains a number of design elements that are characteristic of the “Old Lady’s” work (1999-03). The third is an early bowl with an incurved rim and a complex Sikyatki avian design that may have been painted by Annie (1996-05). Kramer accurately characterizes Annie Nampeyo (Healing) as her mother’s “silent helper.” Bowl 1996-05 illustrates that even experts can disagree about whether the mother or daughter painted a pot. Yet a comparison of the studied, delicate, and busy design on a pot undoubtedly made by Annie (1994-02) with the simpler more elegant design of 2005-16 starkly confirms the Coltons’ assertion that Nampeyo’s economy of design and use of space were unique. Finally, 2002-09 is a large jar with variations of the fine-line bat-wing design that, though technically imperfect, represents much of the genius of the Nampeyo family. The jar was probably made by Nampeyo and several of the design elements seem characteristic of her work. The overall layout of the design and some of its elements, however, seem more like the work of Annie; probably, both contributed to the design of this jar.
Five pots in the collection before 2005-16 were formed by Nampeyo but were painted by a daughter. A redware bowl was probably formed by Nampeyo and painted by Annie (1997-05). It is likely that Nellie painted 2003-07 for her mother, while Fannie painted 1985-01, 1997-01, and 2002-12. At the time 2005-16 was acquired, seven other pots in the collections were painted with variations of the “eagle feather” design. The two with design elements most like 2005-16 are by great-granddaughter Adelle Lalo (1987-01) and great-great granddaughter Darlene Vigil (1988-02). The other five pots were derived variations of the classic 2005-16 design (1989-02, 1991-03, 1992-02, 1995-03, and 2000-05).
Nampeyo pottery acquired after 2005-16:
Much of the analysis of 2005-16 that follows was written in 2005 and is based on what I understood then. The experience of writing the analysis trained my eye to see Hopi pottery differently. Perhaps as a result (or perhaps by chance), by September 2009 I had purchased nine other pots that I believe were probably formed or painted by Nampeyo.
Of the seven of these post-2005 pots that seem to have been both formed and painted by Nampeyo, the design of 2006-02 clearly incorporates the contradictory design elements that characterize 2005-16. Although broken and glued, this small bowl demonstrates the unique genius of Nampeyo.
Canteen 2009-10, although worn and eroded, has a design that is similar to bowl 1993-04, with framing lines and two crescent “wings” ending in prayer feathers. On both pots the crescent wing(s) encircle abstract design element(s). These two pots incorporated several of the elements that I argue (below) are characteristic of Nampeyo’s Sikyatki Revival style.
Small bowl 2009-08 is a transition pot that stands between Nampeyo’s earlier Polacca ware and the development of her Sikyatki Revival style. The inside has a traditional Polacca crackled white slip, but (unlike Polacca ware) the outside is smooth and stone-polished. The interior foot print and dotted-line motif is inspired by local petrogliphs and does not draw from either Polacca or Sikyatki sources. Strikingly, the monochromatic design on this early bowl incorporates all of the six design elements (except the use of color) that I argue (below) are characteristic of Nampeyo’s later Sikyatki Revival style.
Four other pots do not seem to fit generalizations about Nampeyo’s work. Bowl 2009-17 was formed and painted by Nampeyo and was apparently used in her home for several decades for making piki. Except that it is unslipped, the bowl has a classic Polacca “C” shape and Polik’Mana design. The lack of slip defines bowl as “Walpi Polychrome,” a transitional pottery type. As such, it clearly displays only two of the six design techniques that I argue (below) are characteristic of Nampeyo’s later Sikyatki Revival designs.
Seed jar 2008-06 is a Nampeyo four-moth design, but this style of painting is more detailed and precise that the “classic” Nampeyo style defined below and it lacks the iconic Nampeyo device of using blank space to set off and frame the design. The design on bowl 2006-11 is purely abstract and geometric, and is different from all of the other Nampeyo pots in the collection.
An effigy pot (2007-16) probably was made during a short period when Nampeyo was responding to Harvey Company requests to make representative pottery that was designed for the tourist trade. As such, it also does not reflect the six design characteristics that I argue (below) define Nampeyo’s Sikyatki Revival style.
Two other pots were acquired after 2005 that were probably formed by Nampeyo but painted by a daughter. Bowl 2006-01 shows a version of the Sikyayki “man eagle” design that was painted by Annie as a young woman. Jar 2007-12 was formed by Nampeyo but painted by Fannie. Since it is an eagle-tail design, it is discussed below.
For a complete listing of the pots in the collection by Nampeyo see the Artist List. Note that in this list she is represented by three categories: 1) Formed and painted by Nampeyo, 2) Formed by Nampeyo and painted by a daughter (unsigned), and 3) Formed by Nampeyo and painted by a daughter (signed).
After 2005-16 was acquired, eight pots decorated with variations of the eagle-tail design were added to the collection. Seven of these pots are by descendents of Nampeyo.
Most interesting perhaps is the small jar 2006-15. If it was indeed made by Nampeyo and painted by a young Fannie, it would be one of the earliest pots decorated by Fannie that is known. Especially important within the context of this discussion would be that, under her mother tutelage, Fannie painted the curvilinear wings with the same light touch (though not the skill) that her mother used on jar 2005-16. Once she was a mature painter of her blind mother’s pots (2007-12) or pots she had made herself (2009-01), Fannie’s eagle tails were heavier and were terminated with a round ball. An eagle tail pot formed and painted by Annie (2009-04) has a similar heavy treatment of the tail design and also terminates the design with a small ball. (See the discussion, below, for additional details of the contrast between Nampeyo and her daughters in their treatment of the eagle feather element.)
Three eagle-tail jars in the collection were made by Rachael Shamie (2007-09, 2007-17, and 2008-16). Nampeyo’s device of using a series of dots to unbalance the design can be seen on a large pot by Rachael Shamie (2007-17) modeled on a circa 1905 pot by Nampeyo. Among the entire collection, Rachel’s sister Jean Sahmie produced a large jar (2008-10) with a design that—in form and spirit—is most like 2005-16.
See “Eagle Tail Design” in the Category List for a complete listing of pots in this collection using variations of this design.
Some Nampeyo pots not in this collection:
The “Painted Perfection” exhibit includes two Nampeyo pots with a delicate wing design dating from 1903 to 1910 (Struever,2001:32 and 37). These two pots are further discussed below. An article by Barton Wright features a Nampeyo jar with delicate eagle wings much like 2005-16 (Wright,1993:34). The University of Pennsylvania Museum has a Nampeyo eagle-tail jar that, from a photograph, appears to be while-slipped (Sekaquaptewa and Washburn, 2006:39 and Brody, 1990:96 #70). The eagle feathers on this jar are heavier than on 2005-16 but lighter than most drawn by her descendents.
The lightness of the four incurved feather designs on 2005-16 is distinctive, even among Nampeyo family pottery. The famous 1901 photograph by A.C. Vroman (Webb and Weinstein, 1973:73) shows Nampeyo surrounded by 22 pots, two by daughter Annie (Kramer, 1996: 79). Three of these 22 pots are jars with the eagle-feather design. It is difficult to tell from a photograph, but the incurved “wing” feathers of the top left pot in the photograph seem more substantial and less delicate than a similar jar just to the right of Nampeyo. The eagle-tail jar, sitting flat on the ground, seems to have the most delicate rendition of these tail feathers and is most like 2006-17. Another photograph taken by Vroman at the same time (Webb and Weinstein, 1973:72) shows two eagle tail jars (perhaps the same jars as in the other photograph) and both seem to have more-substantial painting of the eagle feathers. The Vroman photographs suggest that Nampeyo’s drawing of this wing element either varied or that Annie was the painter of the pots with the more substantial eagle tail elements.
Her youngest daughter Fannie and many of Nampeyo’s descendents have painted versions of this eagle-tail design. Except when Fannie was learning to paint under the tutiledge of her mother (2006-15), she and descendents consistently painted the incurved wings with a boldness and thickness that emphasizes this design element rather than the incorporated background space evident in Nampeyo pot 2005-17. (For example, see jars 2007-12 and 2009-01 in this collection.)
This generational contrast can be seen on two Nampeyo pots and two pots by her daughters (Fannie?) that are not in the collection.
First, in the catalog of the exhibit “Nampeyo: A Gift Remembered.” (Cusick, 1984, Plate 16) shows Nampeyo pot collected by William Austin in 1905-1910. The jar has delicate wing elements that highlight the enclosed empty space and this pot is “attributed to Nampeyo.” This Nampeyo jar is now part of the collection of Mr. & Mrs. Dennis Lyon. In the Jacka’s Beyond Tradition, (1988:56) five Nampeyo family pots are shown, the top left pot by Fannie and the bottom left by her mother. Both pots are painted with the eagle-tail design; the incurved wings on Fannie’s pot are bold and more substantial, while Nampeyo’s are thin and less intrusive—similar to 2005-16. The Nampeyo pot depicted in Jacka is the same Austin/Lyon jar discussed above. A third (top view) of this Austin/Lyon Nampeyo jar is published in Struever.2001:28, fig 32.
A second (spectacular) Nampeyo jar with delicate wings is part of Struever’s personal collection, serves as her gallery emblem, and is shown in Struever, 2001:31, fig 37. In contrast, Plate 10 in Cusick (1984) shows an eagle-feather jar with heavy, substantial wing elements and is cited as “probably painted by a member of Nampeyo’s family” (Fannie?).
An eagle tail pot by Fannie was sold by Skinner; a photograph of that pot is on file with the documentation for 2007-12. All of these eagle-tail designs by Fannie or other family members have a substantial, bold eagle feather design that is radically different from the delicate design by Nampeyo on 2005-16.
A recent revival:
The delicate wing design was not used again until Nampeyo’s great-granddaughter Dextra Quotskuyva began to paint the eagle-tail design in the 1980s. See Struever (2001: figure 28 and pages 54, 56, and 57). Most striking is the Dexter pot on Streuver (2001:56) which has many of the design elements and almost exactly the spirit of pot 2005-17. Dextra’s daughter Hisi Nampeyo (Camille Joy Quotskuyva) has done an eagle-tail pot with an even more delicate wing design than her great-great grandmother (Struever, 2001:92). This recent revival of the delicate eagle wing motif can be seen in two jars in the collection: 2007-09 by Rachael Shamie and 2008-10 by Jean Sahmie. Of the more than dozen pots in the collection with an eagle wing design, the pot by Jean is the closest in form and spirit to 2005-16.
An evaluation of 2005-16:
Given our knowledge of Nampeyo’s style and its context in this collection and among known Nampeyo pots and the pots of her descendents, how should we aesthetically evaluate 2006-16? Although small in size, this seedpot is visually powerful and reflects the work of Nampeyo at her prime. The pot’s impact is a function of both form and design.
Barbara Kramer (1996:181) describes the shape of 2005-16 as “made during early Period 2 (fig. 9).” Period 2 is defined by the years 1900-1910 and Kramer’s evaluation of “early” Period 2 supports our dating of pot 2005-16 as 1900-1905. This shape was “predominant about 1903 (and was quite flat) in profile with… sharply angled upper and lower walls. The widest diameter was about halfway between top and bottom, and the shoulder tapered to a short standing neck (Kramer, 1996:169).” As almost every commentator on Hopi pottery (including Kramer, 1996:169) has noted, forming such a sharply angled pot of coiled wet clay without having the pot collapse under its own weight is very difficult. This is an old Sikyatki form that was revived by Nampeyo and variations became her “signature” shape. The term “Sikyatki Revival” should be used to describe pots of this era that are slipped, as in the case of pot 2005-16, with clay that is the same as that used for the body of the pot.
Wade & McChesney (1980:98) and (1981:458-461, discussion 456) show Polacca Polychrome Style D (Sikyatki Revival) pottery produced from 1890-1900 decorated with a variation of the “eagle-tail” design. This is commercial ware designed to be traded at Keam’s trading post for Anglo manufactured goods. The term “Sikyatki Revival” implies an ancient model, though I have not seen photographs of Sikyatki pots with the eagle feather design. Curtis included a small “eagle feather” design Hopi pot in a 1900 photograph (Brody,1990: 4). The Blairs report that elements of the Nampeyo eagle feather design can be traced to the prehistoric Basketmaker III culture and later Sikyatki and San Bernardo designs. They note that this design is “characteristic” of Nampeyo’s work and is “considered to be ‘owned’ by the Nampeyo family,” and they discuss the construction of this design in detail (1999: 92-93).
Pot 2005-16 was probably produced within five or ten years of the Polacca “D” ware published by Wade and McChesney. Kramer (1996:170) says that Nampeyo “painted this (eagle feather) design throughout her career, each time with variations. She painted the design with particular grace on her low-profile Sikyatki-shaped jar of Period 2,” which describes both the shape and the production date of 2005-16.
One advantage of the wide flattened shoulder of this form was that it provided a large expanse for the design. Perhaps two-thirds of the top surface of 2005-16 is painted; the bottom half is without design. As the Blairs note, “Empty spaces or an economy of design indicate that Nampeyo knew exactly when creation was complete (1999:92).”
Think of the design on 2005-16 as being composed of three major elements: 1) the red square framing the pot’s small mouth, 2) the four delicate incurved “wing” designs and 3) the four groupings of three “tail” feathers, including the square design above the feathers. With only about one-third of the total pot surface decorated, the pot has great power because of design elements and the use of negative space as an active element in the design.
These design elements are:
First, the design perfectly fits the pot. When looked at from the side, the design “floats” on top of the plain bottom, which gives the pot a feeling of lightness. This light feeling is continued on the top surface by the thin, delicate incurved wings enclosing large areas of empty space. A heavy hand with these incurved wing elements would draw the viewer’s attention to the positive design. In contrast, the delicacy of the wings Nampeyo painted creates a design that encourages the viewer’s eye to linger on the enclosed empty space. These wing elements end at the widest part of the jar. Like lakes surrounded by oceans, the smaller empty spaces enclosed by the wings flow from the mouth of the design down into the larger empty space below. This downward flow is counterbalanced by the gentle inward curve of the wing ends.
Second, in contrast to the incurved wings on 2005-17, the tail design is rigid, linear, and heavy, but contains contradictory elements. The red color of the three-pronged red “comb” visually connects this area up to the central red square around the mouth of the jar. The three dark feather tips pull the viewer’s eye down to the jar edge. The simple “batman” design at the top separates the central red square from the red on the feathers. Around the central red square, four groupings of this tail design are interspersed with four of the eagle feather designs. The resulting tension between alternate heavy-linear and light-curvilinear elements generates much of the pot’s energy.
Third, there are a series of small details of design that contradict major elements and add energy and tension to the overall design. The empty space enclosed by each curved wing is slightly disturbed by the two parallel lines drawn at the apex, but, again, because these lines are so delicate, they simply arrest the sweep of the viewer’s eye and add interest. As noted above, the incurved ends of the wings interrupt the outward flow of the enclosed space. The two lines inset into the shoulder of the curved wings contradict the overall curvature of this element and create contrast. The pointed and curved elements of the batman design above the feathers contradict the linearity of the overall tail design and gives this heavy design some non-linear lightness. Even within the batman design there is a tension between the black pointed and curved elements and the small negative square.
In short, what looks at first like a rather simple balanced design is full of contrast and contradiction. Overall, the delicate incurved wing design contrasts with the heavier three-feather design; curved elements contrast with linear elements; design contrasts with empty space. The result has delicacy and dynamism, design and space. Although the design is symmetrical, these tensions create great visual energy. The lingering image in the viewer’s eye is monumental, though the pot is small. By 1905, Nampeyo had found her style and her innovative talents were in full flower.
Speaking at a Recursos de Santa Fe conference on “Historic & Modern Pueblo Pottery” on October 18, 1990, J.J. Brody spoke about what makes a pueblo pot “great.” “The symbolism,” he said, was “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).”
By these criteria, 2005-16 is a great Nampeyo pot. We should remember that this labored, detailed analysis of form and design would probably be very foreign to “the Old Lady.” We do not know how she used words to describe her craft, but one suspects that her pottery was more the result of genius combined with Sikyatki shards and experience than it was the result of studied analysis.