Treasures from the Basement: The Pottery of Acoma Pueblo

This third entry is the first in the series to focus on pottery in the modern era, beginning around the mid-to-late 19th century. This may seem to be quite a chronological leap forward, considering the pottery we have discussed thus far came from around the time of Spanish contact or just after, but there is a very simple reason for this: the mission system. From the time of Spanish conquest until 1846 when the United States took over the four corners region, the pueblos lived under enforced Catholicism in one form or another. Traditional religion and crafts were suppressed and labor diverted to the projects of the occupiers, and fending off increasing raids by the nomadic cultures that moved in to the area.

The change in colonizers by no means eased the hardships of the pueblos, but it did increase opportunities for trade as more people passed through the southwest. Slowly at first, but with increasing momentum, the pueblos (now confined to small islands of reservation land) brought the artistic traditions of their ancestors back in to the light of day and developed them into new, highly distinct local styles.

Acoma: City in the Sky

The Acoma reservation is composed of a number of small villages, though the rest are (almost literally) overshadowed by the old Acoma Pueblo, continuously occupied since long before the arrival of the Spanish. Perched 350 feet above the surrounding scrubland on top of a sheer-sided, white-pink mesa is a network of interconnected adobe buildings in the traditional pueblo style, accessible only by narrow staircases and ladders – at least until a road was carved out a few decades ago.

As strikingly beautiful as the setting here is, the pottery matches it effortlessly. Early in the revival, Acoma potters displayed a particular aptitude for large, thin-walled, black-on-white ollas with designs strikingly similar to those of ancient Chaco and Mesa Verde - with the addition of what would become pueblo’s signature: a wide, red-orange band just inside the lip. As time went on, polychrome became standard and other persistent motifs emerged: orange flowers, prominent feather designs, and checkerboard patterns, but the presence of ancestral Puebloan inspiration remains strong. Unsurprisingly, there have long been rumors of large caches of ancient pottery in nearby caves that Acoma potters use to educate themselves.

Lucy Lewis
(c.1898-1992)

The vast majority of pueblo pottery from before the 1960s-70s is unsigned, but a few potters established themselves as masters long before this and, accordingly, felt the need to leave their mark. Of the two figures that loom large at Acoma, Lucy Lewis is undoubtedly the most famous and collected. She excelled at both the whimsical designs that appealed to tourist markets and the refined minimalism that drew serious collectors, all while maintaining impeccable quality and productivity throughout her long life. Like many of the other iconic pueblo potters, her descendants have carried her style forward and many are significant artists in their own right.

Marie Z. Chino
(1907-1982)

Though Lucy Lewis may be more famous, it could be argued that Marie Chino was the more influential of the two. She started early, winning her first award at 15, and was trailblazing not too long after, probably incorporating ancient Mimbres culture designs even before the older Lewis. Setting herself apart with her intricate black-on-white line work, she established ways in which potters could push their technique forward while still employing ancient motifs. This set the tone for many Acoma potters to this day, even those far outside her considerable roster of achieved descendants and students.

We are lucky to have a large collection of Acoma pottery here at the museum and all of it can be viewed on our online database. In addition, several pieces, including a few by both Lucy Lewis and Marie Chino are on display now in our Collections: Teaching Through Time exhibit.