Speaking as a gallery owner who travels the area, we'd have to say that the best, traditional Santa Clara pottery comes from the Roller family. They certainly have the finest finish of any contemporary Santa Clara potters. There is only one way to achieve this finish, and that is to use a very fine slip, and to spend a lot of time polishing the unfired pot's surface. This is a slow and arduous task, but it shows in the final product. So, we are pleased to have our friend Cliff Roller tell you about part of their process. Cliff and his brother Jeff, and his mother Toni are active potters. (Cliff's grandmother was Margaret Tafoya.)
< Cliff Roller, Santa Clara Potter
Following are Cliff Roller's own comments:
We don't know any other way but the traditional way of making pots. Is it the hard way? I don't know, it just the only way we work here. Making a pot takes a lot of work, and it's not terribly scientific, I suppose. People say that if the traditional method of forming, polishing, or firing, is so difficult, why don't you try an easier way. We don't know any other way, that's the way it's done. We understand this way, the traditional way.
Moisture is our worst enemy. If a piece is not absolutely dry it will be destroyed in the firing, anything from a small explosion to a surface pop. Most of our drying is done in the open air. Just before firing, we will put the pieces in an oven at a low temperature, just to be sure the pots are completely dry.
First we build a small fire of dry cedar [juniper] kindling. This dries out the ground and everything around the firing area. Then above this small fire we set a wire crate or grating. (We have several sizes, according to the size and height of the pots being fired.) Inside the crate, we place the pots. At this point, they have a reddish color, because you are just looking at the polished, unfired slip on the outside of the pot. It's a red color.
Then we set the warmed pots in the crate, carefully placing them so they won't get scratched or fire marked.
After the pots are all placed within the crate, I cover them with a tin lid made to fit the crate. This helps to keep the wood, coals, or manure from falling on the pots. We try our best, but pottery is not always perfect. My grandmother said that is fine--it is normal--because you're not perfect. A small imperfection is good because it shows the piece was hand made.
One of things we have to be careful about is to fire on a day when there is little or no wind, and not rain. Wind whips the fire around and can easily mark a pot.
Here we are building up the fire again, with the cedar kindling. We then stack pine slabs around the crate. These come from a local saw mill, they are the first trim with bark on one side.
We then build a fire on top of the cover. The complete setup turns into an inferno. We let this go for about 20 to 30 minutes, peeking inside to check the temperature of the pots. When the pots turn a glowing red, they are ready. If the pot is going to be red, we rake off the coals at this point and take out the pots. This is the "oxidation" part of the firing, and the reaction that produces red pottery. A scientist from the University came up here one day and measured the temperature of the pots. He said that they were about 800º F. Red pots are the most difficult to produce, because the least little thing can damage the color–a breeze, a puff of smoke. If we want to produce a black pot, we now smother the entire setup with horse manure.
When you smother the fire, it goes out, or rather smolders. Technically, this produces an oxygen-free atmosphere in the firing area, a "reduction" process. After you've done it so long, you get to know just how big a fire to build for the amount of pots you have. Now it looks easy, but it's taken a lot of years to get this know-how. When I was a kid, I used to come out and help Mom. I've been at it ever since. Then, I just took it for granted, not realizing the importance of it and how, if you don't do it right, you ruin the pots and loose all that money.
We leave it smothered for an hour or so, then uncover the pots. Finally comes the moment of truth, when we find out if all of our work has paid off. We carefully uncover the crate, being very careful not to drop any coals on the now-fired, black pottery.
Man, those came out perfect. Look at 'em!
After firing, the only thing we do is to dust off the pots with a clean, soft, cotton cloth. (You can't use a synthetic material because it will scratch the surface.) We sometimes wash the pots with soap and water. This surprises some people, because most know that Santa Clara pots are low fired, meaning that they are not vitrified, no traditional pots are. However, this washing, doesn't soak them. If you put water in them, they'd be ruined in 24 hours. Wash 'em like dishes and dry them right away.
Some people ask us what we put on the surface of our pots to make them so shiny. Truth is, I don't put anything on the surface of the pots. They are shiny because of the slip we use, and the time we spend polishing them, before firing.
Personally, I enjoy making small to medium size pots. I used to make big ones, but not any more.
We dig our own clay from the Santa Clara clay banks. I'm about ready to go out to get some more clay. I'll get enough to run through the summer, probably enough to last to Thanksgiving, about four barrels.