SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – Rose Williams can’t understand why her family keeps telling her to slow down, take a break, get the rest her 94-year-old body has earned. So every morning, the Navajo matriarch gets up and goes about the business of melding earth, fire and water into beautifully burnished, collectible pots.
“It’s neither work nor play for her. That’s just what she knows,” explained her great-nephew, Ron Martinez, who accompanied her on a recent visit to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
Williams sat at a table in the museum’s Case Trading Post, next to a plastic bag full of clay dug from a seam near her home in the Shonto area of the Navajo reservation in far northeastern Arizona. Her tools were assembled in front of her: a dried corn cob, an old plastic pill bottle – perfect for smoothing the inside of a pot – and small rocks, for polishing.
“Sometimes you’ll find her outside looking for pebbles. She always finds one in this parking lot,” Martinez said.
Williams’ bent fingers grabbed a handful of the clay and deftly worked it, rolling it between her palms into a long coil, then slowly pinching the coil into place atop a bowl-shaped chunk of clay she had just fashioned to serve as the pot’s foundation. Rows of coils smoothed by the corn cob would form the pot, which would then be fired in an open pit and swabbed with warm, melted pitch from pinon trees.
Williams didn’t know quite what shape this vessel would take.
“I’m going to take my time making this pot, and I’m not sure what it’s going to be,” she said in Navajo, with Martinez interpreting.
Williams’ pots range in size from about 6 inches or so – the traditional size in which to boil herbs for ceremonies – to one that is nearly 2 feet tall, took two months to make and is for sale at the Case Trading Post for $1,800.
It’s a drum jar, which would be filled with water and have deer skin stretched over the top to form the drumming surface for ceremonies.
Navajo women have been making pottery for hundreds of years for use at home and in ceremonies, although production fell off once trading posts made metal and plastic cookware available. Traders rejected the traditional dark brown Navajo pottery as “mud pots,” according to the late Susan Peterson of Scottsdale, Ariz., a ceramics artist who wrote Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations. The book was the exhibition catalog for a 1997 show Peterson curated at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C.
Navajo blankets and jewelry were more profitable in the tourist market, she wrote. But then museum curators began to take notice of traditional Navajo potters, and Williams was the first to break into museum markets and fairs, in the 1950s, according to Peterson.
Close to 40 when her husband died, Williams turned to selling pottery – an art she had learned as a girl from her grandmother – to help feed her family. She bore 15 children, of whom 10 survive. Three of her four daughters are full-time potters, and many other Navajo potters have been taught or influenced by her.
Williams also has a small flock of sheep, a tradition some of her neighbors have abandoned.
“What essentially is Navajo is to keep working … and to have a flock of sheep,” Martinez said.
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