Pottery Production












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Mica deposit, Abiquiu, New Mexico





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U.S. Hill Pueblo micaceous clay pit




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Extracting mica clay at Petaca



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biotite.gif (8172 bytes)Micaceous clay is formed in primary deposits through the decomposition of mica beds, or it is formed in secondary deposits through the deposition of micaceous clays and minerals in ancient lake or alluvial systems.  There are eight mica districts in northern New Mexico.  Most of these date to the Precambrian period and occur within Proterozoic rock hosts.   Mica and micaeous clay were used for adornment and manufactured into pots by   Indigenous Peoples prehistorically.  Historically, mica deposits were mined for window pane among Spanish settlers and missionaries.  In modern times mica is used in the production of formica and talcum powder, and it has additional properties that make it useful as a good industrial insulator. Industrialized mica mining has a 100 year history in northern New Mexico, and over 74 active or inactive mines are recorded for this area.  The town of La Madera, New Mexico, where Felipe Ortega was raised, sits near one of the largest mica clay deposits exposed in northern New Mexico, the Petaca District.    Source analysis of micaceous sherds retrieved from archaeological sites demonstrate that Petaca has been used in the production of pottery by the Jicarilla for over 200 years.  Future studies may extend this date.


The formation of a micaceous pot begins with the very important selection of good mica clays.  These clays   must be relatively high in mica and contain as little debris as possible to make cleaning of the clay less labor intensive.  Debris includes large quartz, mica or schist pebbles, sands, gravels, and roots or other organics.  Selection of a good source is imperative, and the knowledge of source locations and their clay properties establishes an intimate relationship between the potter and the landscape that is carefully harvested for ceramic production.





There are generalized differences in the way a clay deposit is approached by Puebloan and Jicarilla potters.   Puebloan potters will typically exploit a clay deposit by digging laterally into an exposed embankment.  In Jicarilla practices, an exposure is located and digging begins directly down until the bottom level is reached.  The vein is then followed laterally.  These are general differences between how clay is harvested rather than hard and fast rules, but there are cultural prescriptions that acknowledge these differences in how the clay is approached.  Puebloans prefer not to dig "into the belly of mother" as this is somewhat of a violation.    Jicarilla practices account for this violation through prayer and through the ethic of economy in harvesting clay.  A clay pit can be exploited more effectively and sustainably by locating the parameters (the top and bottom) of the clay deposit before digging laterally into it.  Both cultures acknowledge the spiritual side of harvesting clay which intimately links individuals and particular valued landscapes.   All potters take seriously their commitment to conserve these resources for future generations.   Traditionally, women and two-spirits (or berdaches) were responsible for the collection of clays and production of pottery.  Today, the art of pottery production follows kinship lines primarily, with both men and women of an extended family practicing and experimenting with techniques developed by their ancestors. 


After appropriate prayers are made, and corn-meal is sprinkled in the four directions, Felipe extracts micaceous clay from pits he has located at Petaca. 






These clays are brought back to La Madera where they are placed in a gravel mixer.  The mixer serves to desegregate the clay and mica from other debris and bring it into suspension in a watery slurry. 




The slurry is then poured through window screen into a sheet-lined vat.  After several washings, the debris left in the mixer is dumped to the side of the vat.  Organics, such as roots, are caught in the window screen and discarded.  These steps are repeated until the vat fills with water and slurry. 





When the vat is filled and the majority of the clay has settled, one wall of the vat is slightly lowered to allow excess water to to be drained and small organics to be carried away.




The remaining water is allowed to evaporate away from the clay naturally over the next several days.  Regular mixing of the clay is important during these days to ensure the even distribution mica.   Once the clay has stiffened to the appropriate consistency, it is stored.   Although Felipe takes advantage of modern technology in order to process greater quantities of clay more effectively, the process of cleaning micaceous clay today is very similar to those practiced prehistorically by the Jicarilla.


The actual production of a pot begins with the selection of an appropriate puki.   A puki is any shallow vessel such as a bowl or basket  that will determine the ultimate shape of the pot.   Prehistorically, baskets were commonly used as pukis.  Today, any bowl will make a fine puki.

Pukimica.JPG (124595 bytes)Basket Puki lined with Mica. 

Basket by Lydia Peseta (Jicarilla)



The puki is first lined with mica dust to prevent the clay from sticking.     A "tortilla" is next made by forming a small lump of clay into a flat patty.   The tortilla is placed inside of the puki and air bubbles are removed by scraping and drawing the clay away from its center.  Air bubbles can become a nuisance during sanding, and are detrimental to the pot during firing.  Trapped hot air in the paste body will lead to serious structural damages in the pot. 

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Next, coils are formed and blended with the fingers, one after the other around the foundation in the puki.  The structural integrity of the pot is dependant upon the proper sealing of coils at this stage.  While coiling, it is important to think about the vessel's ultimate size and shape.  Flaring pots will be blended with fingers working outside while the thumb stabilizes and blends the inside walls.  Constricting vessels should be blended conversely.  Too much clay will cause difficulties later unless one is experienced and can balance the problems of premature drying and cracking with potential collapse of the wet form under its own weight.  Evenness in coil thickness is additionally important.   Rolling and applying regularly-sized coils will save time and frustration later. 

The ultimate shape of the vessel is determined by hand placement during the next step of wet scraping.  the vessel is first struck in even, upward arcs from the outside while being supported from the inside by the opposite hand.  Then the tool switches hands and scraping begins on the inside.  The outside hand lies gently cupped on the pot as scraping pushes clay outward.  The position and placement of this outside hand actually determines vessel shape since clay is being pushed into the hand by the action of inner scraping.  It is important at this stage to pay attention to both hands, but the outside hand is particularly critical.  Keeping your "pinky on the puki" as Felipe says, prevents the outer clay wall from being cut by the top margin of the puki.    Different scraping tools are used to remove more or less clay in order to smooth the walls and bring them to an even thickness. 


After obtaining the desired height and shape, the vessel will still have an unfinished rim.  It  is allowed to dry and stiffen for a bit in the shade, then a sharp scraper or knife is used to evenly cut the rim.  After still more stiffening, handles, appliques or designs can be added.  Vessels can become very dry and still accept additions.  The amazing aspect of micaceous tempered clay is the strength of the bond in the paste once the vessel is fired.   Many seasoned potters stare in disbelief when Felipe challenges them to add a handle or applique even after their pot is leather-hard.


Once dry, the pot is ready for sanding.  Dried micaceous pots are very hard given the abundance of mica in the clay body, and sanding is the most time-consuming part of the process.  Sanding begins with a piece of sandstone to even the walls.  It ultimately ends with a fine sand paper to remove coarse lines.  Carelessness in the initial formation of walls or imperfections in wall thickness will lead to intensive and tedious work, but there is no substitute for good sanding in the ultimate perfection of a micaceous pot.

When sanding is finally completed, the pot is ready for a slip.  Micaceous slip is made from clay that has more abundant and larger flecks of mica in order to add that special luster so characteristic in this tradition.  Clay slip is made into a wet slurry and applied with a clean sponge in rapid but light circular strokes until it is completely dry.   This burnishing is repeated several times to build up the slip.    Afterwards, the slipped pot is buffed with a dry clean cloth that is sprinkled with a hint of oil. 

Then comes the drying.......Dry pots will normally not explode in the kiln, so special care is taken to ensure pots are baked in the sun, or dried at low temperatures in an oven.

More drying.........


Then the moment of truth arrives.  Will inattention to small details throughout this long process of creation lead to the demise of your now coveted "child?"   Ethnographic documents reflect this worrisome phase.  Firing by Jicarilla women and two-spirits was usually a private matter that was only attended to on a need to know basis.  Even today, witchcraft and malice can contaminate a kiln and lead to the demise of an artist's work.  At the very least, the potter should not have powerful sexual thoughts or wish ill will on anyone during firing.  Coyote stories are definitely off-limits, and although it helps greatly to fire on nice warm mornings, Felipe has been known to fire in the dead of winter surrounded by snow.

Normally, firing takes place in an open, rock lined pit.  Vessels are placed on a metal grill over a small fire, and cedar is added in box-fashion until all the vessels are covered.  As the flames engulf the pottery, they turn bright red.   After a short but intense baking, the vessels are brought out.  Felipe commonly will add horse hair to the surface of these smoldering pots.  The hair coils and burns away,  leaving the oils to permeate the surface in delicate designs.   Often during firing, charcoal or logs that touch the pots will reduce their surfaces to black, leaving what are commonly called "fire clouds."   Unreduced surfaces turn a golden red to white depending upon the heat in that particular portion of the kiln.  Open firing can be intimidating to many potters because it represents an uncontrolled firing environment, but in the hands of an expert, pit firing of micaceous clay lends a wonderful element of surprise.  Each vessel takes on its ultimate personality through unforeseen color combinations produced by its particular placement in the kiln.

And finally, the pot is brought into the kitchen where it is cleaned.  Water is boiled in it to remove loose clay and mica from the pores, and seasoning begins with your first cooked meal.