Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Mica Mines and the Pottery that Glitters Like Gold, Part Two: Felipe Ortega!
When last we met, we had embarked upon some exhilarating rambles around various Northern New Mexico sites, exploring the ruins at Posi Ouinge, poking around an abandoned mica mine, and finally, settling in for a lengthy soak in the mineral springs at Ojo Caliente.
Having discovered beautiful, glittering, apparently mica-rich pottery sherds at Posi, I became curious to learn more about this type of pottery, and my curiosity was soon richly rewarded. Shortly after that adventure I reconnected with a good friend with whom I had lost touch for some 15 years; I was astonished to learn that she had previously lived very near Ojo Caliente for some time, working as the apprentice for a famous Jicarilla Apache medicine man and potter in the nearby village of La Madera.
A quick google search revealed that the man she spoke of, Felipe Ortega, was indeed highly regarded among pottery aficionados, and that his specialty was, of all things, sparkly micaceous pottery created from local mica-rich clays! Felipe's website is a goldmine (mica mine?) of information on the rich history of micaceous pottery; I pored over every page and link, and before long I became quite fixated upon the idea of driving back out to the area to visit Felipe at his studio and learn more about his pottery firsthand. I hesitated for some time, however, fearing that my visit might prove an unwelcome distraction to the renowned Apache potter, but my friend insisted that Felipe was an affable fellow who was happy to welcome visitors to his remote studio, and she was certainly not mistaken!
Felipe's website provides excellent directions to the studio, and I soon found myself driving back through Ojo Caliente, keeping an eye out for the "pigs" sign on the left outside of town that marks the turn onto State Road 111.
The scenery along 111 is so lovely I just had to stop and take some pictures!
A sign points the way toward La Madera:
Arriving in La Madera, one passes the prominent and cheerful-looking store Apache Drums. I sure was curious to stop in and check it out, but they were closed.
A little further up the road on the left, right after the pink house, is Felipe's home and studio, Owl Peak.
Felipe was taught how to use the local clay to create a traditional bean pot by a Jicarilla Apache elder, Jesucita Martinez, back in 1969, and has continued ever since to create micaceous pottery on the same plot of land on which he was born. He is often credited with preserving and reviving the centuries-old tradition of micaceous pottery production among the Jicarilla Apaches and beyond; he generously shares his love for the craft with anyone who shows an interest. Through classes and workshops that Felipe has taught as well as personal apprenticeships, potters the world over have acquired the traditional techniques for creating true Jicarilla Apache-style micaceous pottery.
Lately, Felipe enjoys spending more time in the studio creating pottery, trusting former apprentices, many now masters in their own right, to offer classes and workshops to beginners interested in learning the craft. He has written an excellent article, "The Art and Practice of Jicarilla Apache Micaceous Pottery Manufacturing," that offers detailed step-by-step instructions on the production of a traditional micaceous pot. Anyone interested in exploring a more in-depth, anthropological analysis of the importance of clay in the Jicarilla Apache culture will greatly enjoy his article "Ceramics for the Archaeologist, An Alternative Perspective."
Some examples of Felipe's craft shimmer in the morning sun by the door to his studio.
The morning was chilly, but a stout wood stove well-fed with cedar logs kept Felipe's studio warm and cozy:
Bright morning sun bathed the room with light as Felipe assembled the few materials he needed to create a pot. So adept is Felipe at his craft that he moved from one step in the process to the next very swiftly indeed, explaining each as he went, offering anecdotes relating to Apache history and micaceous pottery production, and cheerfully fielding all of my questions, while a finely formed pot took shape before my very eyes!
Bags of micaceous clay, collected each Spring from ancestral clay pits nearby and used throughout the year, are neatly stacked against a wall of the studio.
Felipe takes his seat at the low work table and forms a "tortilla" of clay to serve as the base of the pot:
A "puki" is a shallow vessel that serves as a support for the base of the pot, allowing the walls of the pot to be built up. Traditionally a ceramic vessel, today a shallow, turquoise-colored melamine bowl makes a fine puki! Before being put into service, the puki is coated lightly with cooking oil, then dusted with fine mica flakes; this prevents the clay from sticking to the walls of the puki:
The clay tortilla is positioned in the mica-dusted puki:
Then the inside is smoothed with a potter's rib and prepared for the addition of coiled clay walls:
A ball of clay rolled back and forth between the palms of his hands quickly becomes a "snake" of clay that Felipe adds to the wall; several snakes are formed and added to the wall in quick succession until the desired height is reached:
The process of adding coils and pinching them together to build up the walls is quick, taking only a few minutes to reach this height:
Now Felipe scrapes, smooths, and thins the coiled walls with a potter's rib, defining the overall shape of the pot:
This one will be a traditionally shaped bean pot, so named because one can indeed cook beans in it. I may have failed to mention that aside from being beautiful to look at, micaceous pottery can certainly be used to cook food in! The Apaches used their micaceous pottery right on the fire to cook beans and stews, and so can you; the mica acts as both an excellent temper and an insulator, allowing the fired vessel to be heated directly over a fire (or your stove) without cracking and then to hold in the heat to keep your food warm!
The bean pot Felipe has been working on will have a short, fluted neck, but the vessel body he has made thus far must rest and firm up a bit so that it can support the weight of the clay that will be added for the neck. At this point the vessel was set aside while we retired to the kitchen (or rather, I retired, while Felipe continued his work at the kitchen counter, this time forming and cooking delicious actual tortillas).
The focal point of Felipe's kitchen is this impressive wood-fired cooking stove, but look behind the stove at the wall . . . do you notice that familiar golden iridescence? All of Felipe's walls are plastered with micaceous clay that radiates a warm glow throughout the house!
And remember how I mentioned that you can cook in micaceous pottery? Here's the proof! Felipe cooked up this delicious chile sauce in a pot that he made in 1974 and that still serves him well to this day!
Before long we were joined by Lee Moquino, a young potter and friend of Felipe's who participates in many aspects of local Pueblo Indian culture. By the time the last tortilla was cooked, a group had assembled around the kitchen table, eager to tuck into a hearty chicken stew, to which we all added spoonfuls of that fiery, micaceous pottery-cooked chile sauce and scooped up with those delicious, freshly made tortillas.
After that wholesome and filling lunch, Felipe, Lee, and I headed back out to the studio, where Lee (who comes from a family of accomplished potters and has discovered that micaceous clay suits him very nicely) started working on a pot and Felipe continued his bean pot. The body of the pot had firmed up sufficiently to allow more coils of clay to be added to create the neck.
Coils are added, then scraped and formed into the desired shape:
Meanwhile, Lee's pot was coming along nicely!
Lee and Felipe had an easy, comedic rapport that kept me in stitches. Here, Felipe gives Lee a good natured ribbing: "Why'd you make your pot look so ugly," after which he explained to me that in Apache tradition, a pot is never referred to as "beautiful" until after it has survived the entire process of creation and firing.
Then, before I had even realized he had done it, Felipe had tidied up his bean pot, started on a lid for it, then set them both on a sunny shelf to dry while he went outside to prepare for the firing process.
That bean pot still had a journey ahead of it before it could be fired . . . sanding, applying slip, polishing . . . but Felipe had a group of pots that he was not only ready to fire, but also intended to drop off at his gallery in Santa Fe that very evening!
I wasn't sure I was understanding the timeline correctly; I had envisioned the firing process being rather time consuming, but I would soon learn otherwise (and so will you!). I hope you will stick around for the third and final installment in my "Mica Mines and the Pottery that Glitters Like Gold" series to see how Felipe fires his micaceous pottery . . . It's so hot I think you'll actually feel the flames!