NEW YORK — The highly polished blackware pottery of the Santa Clara region is some of the most famous and sought-after Native American pottery. Generations of women potters working with traditional techniques and motifs taught their daughters and other young women in their communities the art of pottery-making. Pottery is so ingrained in their heritage, one might even say that clay runs in their veins. This metaphor holds true for Pueblo potter Tammy Garcia (b. 1969-), who learned potting from her mother, who in turn learned from her mother, and so on. Garcia is the granddaughter of renowned Santa Clara potter Linda Cain and the great-great-grandaughter of Sara Fina (aka Serafina) Tafoya.
Garcia is a renowned potter who is equally skilled as a sculptor. Her blackware and redware vessels are cherished and have been described as bridging traditional and modern Native American pottery.
“Tammy Garcia’s pottery can be visually complex, using traditional motifs presented in updated and contemporary layouts,” said Danica Farnand, who is vice president and director of Native American art at Hindman in Chicago. “What I think sets her apart is her precision carving. The designs carved are crisp, and deep into the walls of the pottery, something that any collector can appreciate. This technique builds visual contrast.”
A deeply and elaborately carved Tammy Garcia redware jar with yucca decoration more than doubled the high end of its $3,000-$5,000 estimate to bring $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2023 at Santa Fe Art Auction. The yucca plant is strongly rooted (pardon the pun) in Native American cultures, and its leaves are often used as brushes for painting delicate designs on pottery. It’s no surprise, then, that potters such as Garcia often carve images of yucca and other native plants into their vessels.
Garcia reportedly makes fewer than a dozen vessels a year, so her pots command consistently strong auction results. A lustrous blackware pottery vessel having a geometric design made $8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019 at Cowan’s Auctions, which was acquired by Hindman earlier that year.
“This jar illustrates Garcia’s precision carving with a complex pattern, but beyond that, this piece was also sold in 2019,” Farnand said. “It has only been in the last five to seven years that the contemporary Native American art market has seen a real surge in the secondary market. Looking back at the auction records for Tammy’s work, as with others of her peers, you can see a marked increase in hammer prices starting around this time.”
Known for her storytelling, Garcia creates narrative vessels and sculptures that are inspired by her Pueblo heritage, such as a triptych in bronze, Crescendo, which holds the top price for the artist on LiveAuctioneers platform. It achieved $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers.
“Garcia not only works with clay, but also creates works in bronze and mixed metals. In 2005, she began a very successful collaboration with Preston Singletary, a Tlingit artist renowned for his glasswork. These works of carved glass ‘pottery’ are luminous sculptures that nod to the past while beautifully embracing techniques and mediums of today,” said Farnand.
A redware jar Garcia lavishly carved in deep relief contains various seemingly incongruent elements such as a parrot, geometric patterns, and corn stalks. Dated January 1997, this jar is among the ornate and technically challenging vessels of hers that collectors want most. It brought $8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Hindman. “This is a favorite of mine. This piece is carved with imagery of a parrot perched on a flowering branch, corn stalks, and cloud elements, with assorted geometrics filling the jar,” Farnand said. “What makes this example pop is that it is a three-color: red, orange, and buff, which is technically difficult to do.”
Equally deeply incised was a blackware pottery jar that featured cresting wave and winged elements and earned $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Hindman.
The market for contemporary Native American art is hot right now and moving at speed, according to Farnand. “Tammy’s work is among a growing number of artists whose art is highly sought after on the secondary market and continues to hold and grow in value,” she said. “The auction block loves Tammy’s work. Her larger pottery [pieces] can range anywhere from $4,000 to $14,000, depending on size and number of colors. Her bronze totems tend to sell between $4,000 and $8,000, and her glass sculptures with Singletary are in the $6,000-$10,000 range.” A fine example of the works she calls totems was Mardi Gras, edition 8/18, which took $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Hindman. This piece had provenance to the Blue Rain Gallery in Taos, New Mexico, which has featured her as an artist.
Similar in styling to her pots, an untitled 2014 bronze that realized $8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Hindman almost fools the viewer at a quick glance. An online photo makes this vessel appear to be made from clay, but the talented artist ‘sculpted’ it from bronze.
Be it her redware, blackware, or bronze sculptures, Garcia’s work attracts collectors for its homage to traditional and cultural Native American heritage while possessing a 21st-century sensibility. Describing Garcia’s oeuvre as elegant and precise, Farnand said, “For new collectors, her work has an instant, classic appeal. For seasoned collectors, her work builds upon and expands the innovative techniques of the matriarchs.” The lineage of Pueblo potters is in good hands with Tammy Garcia and her contemporaries who embrace innovative new practices and motifs that push past the once-firm boundaries that defined Native American pottery.