Clay Preparation. Before any ideas are thought of, you have to prepare the clay. I dig my own clay from deposits that have been in my family for several generations. Some of these deposits are known only by members of my clan. The clay in these deposits requires no temper, a substance which, during firing, prevents cracking from heat expansion. The next step is to soak the clay in water to hydrate it. During this process, we strain out any rocks, weeds, or other foreign debris. The clay slurry is then poured into the leg of an old pair of jeans, allowed to sit, while the water drains off. This continues until the proper consistency of the clay is reached. The next step is to knead, knead, knead–conventional potters call this wedging. Kneading eliminates any air bubbles and makes the clay plastic and easy to work. (Air bubbles and water are the bane of all potters, since either can cause the pot to blow up during firing.)
Then the molding process begins. Pottery came into this part of the world around 500 A.D., coming up from Meso-America. I still use the same, traditional method–coiling, pinching and scraping–that was brought up from this time, some 1,500 years ago. To begin, I break off small fists of clay from the big lump (which I keep in a plastic covering so it stays moist). I knead the clay some more. Then I mash this ball into a flat, which will become the bottom of my bowl, carefully working the clay to eliminate air bubbles. I then press this rough shape into my puki bowl (a small plastic bowl I line with a piece of old cotton T-shirt).
Coiling. After the base is smoothed out, I roll out my first coil, and start pinching it to the base. People often ask me how I get the shapes and designs for my pots. Actually, my ideas come from the clay as much as from myself. I find that the more I listen to the clay, the better my pot. So, its both of us. And, I study design books and go to prehistoric sites and look at the sherds scattered around. My work place is in Polacca. The site of Sikyatki is nearby, and I often go there. I am always awed by the work of the ancients. To think, I am trying to make pots like those long-ago geniuses. Makes you humble.
Pushing the coil into the bottom layer. I very carefully push the clay coil into the base, so I do not entrap any air. This is one of the big secrets in making a pot that will successfully fire. I have been making my living as a potter for some 10 years now. My teacher was my aunt, Dextra Quotskuyva Nampeyo. She taught my cousins (daughter Hisi, and Les Namingha) and me. She still gives me ideas and critiques, I owe her much. Under the Hopi matrilineal custom, I could add the name Nampeyo to mine, but I have taken my father's name, because I wanted to become a potter on my own. (Nampeyo, a member of the Corn Clan, was my great, great-grandmother.) I also go by the name of Koyemsi, which in Hopi means mudhead, a special clown. I sign my pots with the Corn Clan glyph and a mudhead glyph.
Finishing the still wet pot. By now, the bottom half of this pot is about complete. You can see that the clay is stiff enough to hold the shape I've made. We then scrape the inside and outside surface of the pot, so it is relatively smooth, which is what I am doing in the photo, left. So far, I have spent about 20 to 25 minutes on this jar. It will take another 30 minutes or so to finish it up, but putting together the clay is the easy part. You will note that the pot is fairly round, and that I have not used a potter's wheel nor a casting. In the photo, right, you will see an example of a pot finished to the drying stage. The walls are fairly smooth, and the thickness is pretty close to a quarter of an inch. After the pot has dried, that's when the sanding begins. The final wall thickness will be about one-sixteenth inch thick. Traditionally, Hopi have made very thin-walled, light-weight pots. While very attractive to the collector, these delicate, thin walls are a challenge for the potter.
Polishing. Working on the dried, sanded pot, polishing takes several hours, or more if it's a larger pot. The Hopi people are blessed by the clay deposits nearby. We do not use a slip or glaze to achieve the surface finish. Rather, the clay grains are fine enough that they can be polished to a smooth, shiny surface, which is maintained even after firing. We use a very smooth stone to do the polishing. I sometimes scout through the counters at gem and mineral shows to find a polishing stone that fits my hand. My favorite stone was given to me by my aunt, Dextra. When you find a good stone, they become very precious and are often passed down, generation to generation.
Drawing the designs. Usually I begin with a preconceived design. I start by drawing this design on the pot with a pencil. However, once I begin, the pot often talks to me, so I leave himself and the design open for changes. The size and style of the pot certainly influence the drawing, so it is often necessary to make adaptations. Designs don't always come easily. If I get stuck, I'll put the piece away and work on something else.
Painting. Most of the paints I use are vegetal. (There is one color I get with a mineral base.) For instance, the black paint comes from wild spinach, sometimes called bee weed. Around here, it grows by the sides of the road. I pick it, boil it, let it dry, then mix it to the right, pasty consistency; so that it will not come off during or after firing. All of my paints are made be me here in my work place. None are bought. On the right, you can see how the painted design looks before firing. It is rather dull, the colors are not at all like they will look after firing. Amazingly, Hopi clay turns from a dull grey to a beautiful, soft cream to amber color upon firing.
The final step, firing. We fire only with traditional, primitive, outdoor kilns. I start by building a big, wood fire, and let it burn down to coals. I put a grate over the coals (see left). Then we put down a protection for the bottom of the pot, usually large pot sherds (saved from pots that have previously broken during firing). Setting the pot on these (see right), I then surround the pot, but not touching it, with more sherds, pieces of metal, etc. Commercial places call this "kiln furniture." The pot(s) must be totally protected so that flames do not reach it. (Some buyers like to see a "fire blush," where the flames have touched the pot, since this shows the pot was fired the traditional way. I try to make mine pristine.) Then I build another wood fire on top, and cover it, while it is burning, with a thick layer of sheep manure (see left, below).
To assure a good firing, I sprinkle tiny cedar shavings over the top, and say a prayer. Technically, the sheep manure is not only a fuel, but smothers the fire, producing an atmosphere that is nearly oxygen free, called a reduction atmosphere. (This same technique is used by the Rio Grande Indians to produce their black pots.) As a point of interest, I prefer to get sheep manure in the Summer. Winter sheep manure tends to be thicker and denser, thus burning hotter and longer, causing more blow ups. You can say I "know my manure." I am told by the University that these fires typically generate heat in the vicinity of 1,700° F. (This temperature is high enough to make the grains of clay strongly bond to one another, but not high enough to melt the grains, a state called vitrification. That is why you should never put water into Hopi or Rio Grande pots.) After several hours, when the fire has totally burned down, I carefully unveil my new creation (see right). And, from a lump of clay, a thing of beauty has emerged. All the tension and uncertainty are relieved when I pull out a beautiful pot, unscathed, intact!