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142. Micaceous clay bean pot with two handles and lid

My first encounter with micaceous pottery in the Olson- Brandelle collection was startling. Holding the pots, I realized they are much lighter than they look. According to potter Virginia Duran, the walls of Picuris ceramics are thinner and, therefore, the pots are lighter than their Taos counterparts (Trimble 2007:36). Holding the works up to the light, I also was stunned by the sheer brilliance of the shine from the mica. It is amazing to know this clay came straight from the ground, undiluted and unalloyed, in its current condition. The fact that clay like this existed naturally is enough to make me a fan of work from this region. For me, the pots have a proud, commanding authority.

Picuris, New Mexico, is one of the Eight Northern Pueblos of the southwestern United States. Founded by speakers of the Tiwa language, this pueblo was once one of the largest in the area; however, since the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the population has dwindled, and today numbers less than 300. Nevertheless, Picuris potters continue to practice their art, producing the beautiful micaceous pottery for which their pueblo has been known throughout the centuries.

This type of pottery gets its name from the kind of clay used for it. Mica, a mineral found in the mountainous area surrounding the Picuris/Taos region, is glittery and gritty, and is part of the composition of the clay that is mined and transformed into pottery. Because of the natural attractiveness of the sparkling clay, Picuris and Taos artisans traditionally did not paint their pottery surfaces. While in the past potters used clay composed throughout of mica bits, modern Picuris potter Virginia Duran (Cats. 144 and 145) has said the pueblo has had to be sparing with their micaceous vein. She has "given her pots their sparkle mostly with a slip of mica rubbed on before firing" (Trimble 2007:36).

Although the surface is left unpainted, the traditional firing process-completed outdoors in a type of dense bonfire- may add color and individuality through "fire clouds." These irregular, smudge-like marks on the finished pot are produced when the heated smoke contacts the open pottery surface. These discolorations are similar to the shapes of clouds; hence they are known as fire clouds. The effect is almost impossible to control and is considered by some to be a welcome accidental outcome of the traditional firing process.

The most common shapes found in Picuris pottery are bean pots and tall vases, which are utilitarian forms with specific applications that do not encourage innovation. During most of the 20th century, this lack of need to alter design allowed micaceous pottery to remain relatively free from outside influence, in contrast to other Southwest Puebloan ceramics that were in higher demand from collectors, tourists and the general public. Until very recently, micaceous pots existed almost entirely as functional works and were not regarded by anyone as "art" (Trimble 2007:38). Picuris micaceous pots endured because of their superior heating and cooking qualities. "The high-fired micaceous clay vitrifies and becomes waterproof " and can withstand high temperatures (Trimble 2007:37). The ceramic composition is such that, once heated, it can keep food hot for many hours without additional heat. These factors have kept the use and production of micaceous pottery alive, regardless of trends in more "artistic" pottery.

This anonymous bean pot with handles was dated to the early 1900s by Rick Dillingham. It is dark in color and light in weight. Most likely used as a cooking vessel for multiple types of beans, this piece is fairly traditional. The fire cloud effects and the bump design pattern on the sides are humble, basic decorations.

In all the time the Picuris have been producing pottery, they have retained their traditional style. Even today the vast majority of the pottery coming out of the Picuris region is simple, functional and traditional. Taos Pueblo, their nearby neighbor to the north, has largely embraced the novelties of feature and technique introduced through commission requests from collectors; yet the Picuris retain their ancestral styles and methods (Hayes and Blom 1996:150-52). For the Picuris, pottery making is about tradition, not market appeal. Success is defined by how well you honor your ancestors, and how well you can make a functional, strong piece of pottery.

-David Smith (Augustana 2011) AR-343

Artist unknown (Picuris, New Mexico), Micaceous clay bean pot with two handles and lid, overall dark fire cloud and “bump” pattern, dated by Rick Dillingham to ca. early 1900s, Ceramic, hand coiled and outdoor fired, The Olson-Brandelle North American Indian Art Collection, Augustana College, (107-135 PIC) 2005.1.110 a, b