The Mimbres and Acoma Pueblo Pottery

Dr. Leona Zastrow | Santa Fe Monthly - January 8, 2013

Art of a vanished race...

This story includes personal reflection from my many years as an art teacher at an American Indian Boarding School, St. John’s Indian School, in Laveen, Arizona. These memories emerged when Alena Hart asked me about American Indian or Native American pottery that was only back and white in color.

I thought about my years of teaching pottery to teenage Indian students. These students came from many reservations to attend this private boarding school. Mary Lewis Garcia, of Acoma Reservation,  sent her children to this school. Garcia is a famous Acoma potter and a wonderful friend. She brought her mother, Lucy Lewis to the school numerous times. I asked her to demonstrated her pottery techniques and tell the students about the designs she painted on her pottery. nbsp;She told the students how she researched pottery chards from her reservation and learned that the chards were from the ancient Mimbres peoples.  Her mother related that in the 1950’s she went to the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe to visit the Indian Arts Collection.

Kenneth Chapman,  who was then SAR's director, showed her examples of Mimbres pottery and discussed the pottery designs with her. Lewis and her family members studied the Mimbres designs and began to incorporate them in their pottery designs.

Mimbres pottery, New Mexico, circa A.D. 800–1150

Who are the Mimbres people?

According to J.J. Brody in his book, "Mimbres Painted Pottery," the Mimbres people lived from about 1000 AD to 1200 AD in southern New Mexico and then disappeared. 

When they disappeared, “their art was effectively erased from all knowledge.” Brody provided information about the Mimbres artists and their designs. He also indicated that the artist “uses pottery as a surface on which to paint pictures.” The pictures were of designs with geometric fine line designs. Specific characteristic of the Mimbres artist were their painting of naturalistic designs of birds, rabbits, and stylized people. "Art of a Vanished Race," by Giammattei and Reichert, provides 40 plates of classic black-on-white Mimbres designs.

Both the Mimbres and the Acoma artists usedsimilar tools and materials to paint black designs on a white surface. Both used yucca for brushes. Both used the mountain bee plant and iron oxide to create the black paint.

Acoma pottery

Who are Acoma Pueblo people?

Acoma Pueblo is located 60 miles west of Albuquerque. This federally recognized tribal nation resides on approximately five million acres that have been continuously occupied for more than 900 years. The majority of tribal members live in three village; Sky City or Old Acoma, Acomita, and McCartys. Acoma people have made pottery for more than 1000 years that is noted for the lightness of the pot and the thin, shell-like outer area.

The gray clay is painted with a white color slip and decorated with black designs- painted with yucca brushes. The black color is made from the Mountain bee plant and iron oxide.

Black-On_white Eyedazzler Seed Jar, C. 2000

Dorothy Torivio (b.1946), Acoma

Acoma potters have continued painting Mimbres designs on their pottery. The family of Lucy Lewis is well known for using Mimbres designs on their pottery, including two of her daughters, Mary Lewis Garcia and Emma Lewis. Here are photos of their work and descriptions:

Both of these pots were painted with black designs on a white clay slip background. Garcia’s pot has white lightening design on ablack triangle shape. Emma Lewis's turtle is round in shape and painted with fine lines in a kiva shape. Both were traditionally made and pit fired. Also, Garcoa’s pot has pit-firing markings.

The next two pots pictured were also made by Acoma potters using the Mimbres designs. The first one was a black fine line seed pot made by Maria Z Chino. She is considered an Acoma matriarch whose pottery helped revive prehistoric pottery. She decorated the seed pot with black fine line designs on a white surface of clay slip. Observe the star design emerging from the black fine line designs. Also notice the over lapping of the black designs.

Another Acoma potter, Diane Lewis, made the second seed pot. She, also, paints Mimbres designs in her pottery. This seed pot was painted with black Mimbres designs. The upper body of pot has a series of black feather designs followed by black fine line designs. The lower section has a Kachina figure that is pulling animals with Mimbres designs.

Although Diane’s last name is Lewis, she is not related the Lewis Lucy family. Her parents are Edward and Katherine Lewis.