LINEAGES OF MICACEOUS POTTERY
It is only through a vast web of relationships that the clay pots I offer can emerge. My experience with the craft of micaceous pottery is inextricable from place.The pottery I make is one iteration of a centuries-old tradition from this region. I learned to approach this clay under the guidance of master potter Felipe Ortega, following the traditions of his Jicarilla Apache ancestors. Micaceous clay cookware has been used throughout northern New Mexico by many different people; though the manufacture is most closely associated with the Jicarilla Apaches and the Pueblo peoples of Taos and Picuris, whose ancestral lands bear these mica-rich clays.
My apprenticeship took place in the shadow of Owl Peak, in a beautiful little valley perfumed by cedar, sage and piñion pines. As an apprentice, I learned the reverence and ceremony that accompany the tending of the clay pits and the gathering of clay. I learned how to clean and process the clay for potteries. A large portion of the work I undertook was finishing Felipe’s pots. In pottery, it is the knowledge of form that is most crucial. Felipe built and waterscaped his pots and I sanded and polished them. The process of making a micaceous pot is one of constant refinement, while in dialogue with the material.
Parallel to my work with the clay, I learned to cook with fire at Owl Peak Studio. A large Amish manufactured cast-iron stove called the Kitchen Queen reigned supreme in the kitchen, with a large firebox on one side and a full size oven on the other. Outside, two beehive shaped clay ovens called hornos produced the most delicious roasted meats, vegetables, loaves of bread and pies. Together they taught me a little of the subtle art of cooking with fire. With no knobs to turn, I learned to influence and adapt to the temperature. It requires attention and skill to judge when to add wood or seal the oven with mud, and just where to move a pot to keep it simmering. Like learning a new dance, the motions were awkward at first, but as I grew accustomed to them, I cooked with a new grace and satisfaction.
The walls of Felipe’s house, an old adobe that belonged to his grandmother, are slipped with a pale gold sparkling coat of clay. I often think of that house as a gracious bean pot, slowly tempering me into a person in love with the materials and places that sustain me.
My teacher, Felipe Ortega, came to make micaceous clay cookware in part because he hated the beans his mother served him, cooked in a metal pot. In his late teens, his grandmother told him she wanted a bean pot like she grew up with — one of the old style micaceous clay ones. He found the last woman in the area who was making them in the Jicarilla Apache tradition — Jesusita Martinez of the Ollero band, who had learned from her grandmother around 1900. For centuries, the Jicarilla Apaches maintained a semi-nomadic lifestyle over a large territory that held these sacred places of shining earth. As I understand from Felipe, his ancestors would visit the clay pits during certain of the warmer months and would clean clay and make pots there. The making of pottery belonged to women. After they’d finished and fired their pottery they might continue to other seasonal camps. This way of life was irrevocably disrupted by the U.S. army in the 1890s when most of the Jicarillas were forced to move to a reservation across the state in Dulce. A few Jicarillas did not leave and were adopted in by their Hispanic and Tewa neighbors, becoming the ancestors of my teacher, and his teacher, Jesusita.
Felipe’s brief apprenticeship with the blind woman was ended by her death in the following year. He would spend the rest of his life working with micaceous clay. He found that in a clay pot the beans were transformed into something truly delicious. Felipe was an excellent cook, educator and potter, who spoke six languages, held a Masters in Theology and traveled widely. He taught in Switzerland and Mexico and his pots are collected in the Smithsonian. His relatives estimated after his death in 2018 that he had taught over 12,000 people. His life’s work helped to revive the use of micaceous clay cookware in northern New Mexico.