Santa Clara blackware: rooted in Native American tradition

A monumental and ornate blackware vessel by Margaret Tafoya attained $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2018 at Cowan’s Auctions.

A monumental and ornate blackware vessel by Margaret Tafoya attained $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2018 at Cowan’s Auctions.

NEW YORK — Santa Clara blackware pottery is renowned for its sleek and nearly metallic black finish that is typically carved with Native American imagery or geometric elements. Pueblo potters in this region of New Mexico, particularly the Tafoya family, are well known for their handcrafted vessels, which traditionally have been made by girls and women. A few men potters, however, have seen their work perform well at auction, and have become more well known in recent decades, including Joseph Lonewolf, Nathan Martinez, Greg Garcia, and Jerry Sisneros.

Native American pottery is highly sought after, and among the most distinctive forms is Santa Clara blackware, which is characterized by its finish and its incised decoration. Blackware tends to feature traditional Native American motifs such as rain clouds; feathers, especially eagle feathers; bear paws; and the horned Avanyu serpent, a design pioneered by Margaret Tafoya (1904-2001). The Avanyu was said to be the source of life-giving liquids, including blood and water.

Geometric patterns are also commonly used. Deeply carved designs are arguably most valuable, but these works of blackware can also have impressed or painted decoration. Sgraffito-style decoration is increasingly popular on these vessels with contemporary Santa Clara blackware potters.

This large jar by one of Margaret Tafoya’s 12 children, Virginia Ebelacker, realized $3,600 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Santa Fe Art Auction.

This large jar by one of Margaret Tafoya’s 12 children, Virginia Ebelacker, realized $3,600 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Santa Fe Art Auction.

The deep black color of these elegant pieces is said to have come from much experimentation, and by stifling the fire while the coil-formed pottery is being fired to reduce the oxygenation. This creates a lot of smoke, and results in that smoke being trapped in the vessel’s surface. The carbon in the smoke gives the pottery its black color.

This Margaret Tafoya vessel sold in November 2019 for $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Dallas Auction Gallery.

This Margaret Tafoya vessel sold in November 2019 for $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Dallas Auction Gallery.

While many women in the Santa Clara Pueblo made blackware, the Tafoya name comes up repeatedly in an examination of pottery traditions here, and the family helped make the style of pottery famous around the world. Sara Fina Tafoya (1863–1949), whose native Tewa name was Autumn Flower, served as the matriarch. She and her husband, Geronimo, who was called White Flower, made blackware having a smooth highly polished finish. Sara Fina Tafoya taught her children the art of ceramics, including her aforementioned daughter, Margaret, who was known as Corn Blossom. Santa Clara blackware pieces have to be carefully polished while the clay was still damp. Additionally, the potter has to use the right amount of pressure when polishing: too much might scratch the vessel, and too little won’t give the piece a desirable high sheen. “Her work reflects the shift of the Santa Clara Pueblo pottery tradition from solely utilitarian to artistic,” according to the website of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

The Tafoya family is said to have produced more pottery than any other pueblo, and the girls in the family all learn the traditional techniques of how to source local clay and use open-flame pits to fire the pottery, as well as using symbolic designs.

A large Nancy Youngblood 32-rib swirl melon bowl earned $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Santa Fe Art Auction.

An impressively large 32-rib swirl melon bowl by Nancy Youngblood, Margaret Tafoya’s granddaughter, earned $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Santa Fe Art Auction.

Margaret herself had 12 children, and eight of them continued the family’s potting tradition, which today extends to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was best known for large and symmetrical storage vessels, which she carved before polishing. Their surfaces were described as nearly flawless. Family members absorb these Santa Clara blackware traditions but then make them their own. For example, Nancy Youngblood (b. 1955-), Margaret’s granddaughter, makes bowls and vessels with ribbed swirls on the outside that are favorites among collectors. Margaret’s sister, Christina (Tafoya) Naranjo (1891–1980), also passed pottery traditions down to her descendants. Her great-great-granddaughter Tammy Garcia (b. 1969-) earned a reputation for ornately decorated vessels that feature geometric designs.

A Tammy Garcia vase made $8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019 at Cowan’s Auctions.

A Tammy Garcia vase made $8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019 at Cowan’s Auctions.

Native American pottery has long been collectable, and Santa Clara blackware continues to enthrall collectors. In a variety of styles ranging from a double-spouted wedding vase—a coveted form—to ribbed melon bowls, storage ollas, or even figures, these works are a link to a long tradition in pottery-making and are elegant additions to any home.

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