Andy Ward
traditional SW pottery

Potter’s Secrets and Information Freedom

Traditional southwestern potters are notoriously secretive about sharing information. This pattern may, as far as we know, extend all the way back to the earliest days of ceramics in the Southwest, but I doubt it. When pottery first began appearing in this region, the technology spread rather rapidly, indicating that people were sharing technologies freely with one another. Surely there have been exception in prehistoric times, the technology involved in creating Sikyátki polychrome never spread beyond the Hopi mesas, while the contemporary technologies for producing glaze ware spread through most pueblos. Certainly the most widely distributed prehistoric pottery styles must have been shared eagerly, even zealously to reach the extents they did, glaze ware is an example of this as is Gila Polychrome, both of which still perplex potters today.

Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso

Native American potters have reason to be suspicious of sharing information with European Americans, after centuries of abuse, secrecy is now understandably a part of their culture. Still, there are those exceptional persons who have generously shared information about their art, people like Maria Martinez. While many of Maria’s contemporaries kept the details of their work a secret, lest they be imitated, Maria shared her techniques freely with other potters, journalists and tourists alike. The result? Maria was widely recognized in her time as one of the greats, and certainly she was, but part of her notoriety came not just from her skill, but from her willingness to share information, it made a better story in the press, she got more coverage than her contemporaries because she was willing to share details of her technology, and more notoriety allowed Maria to get premium prices for her wares. But beyond what her sharing did for her personally, what did her sharing of information do for the wider community? The following groups all profited from Maria’s openhandedness:

  • Her family. Down to this day, some 33 years after her death, the family of Maria Martinez profits from the name she made for herself.
  • Her pueblo. San Ildefonso is regarded as one of the great pottery making pueblos, this reputation was built, at least partially, and some would say largely, by Maria.
  • The larger pueblo world. Maria’s reputation brought attention to pueblo pottery as a whole and greater respect for it as an art form.
  • Non-native artists. No doubt many artists all over the world, myself included have benefited from the information Maria freely shared.
  • America and American culture.
  • The worldwide community of artists and art appreciators.
  • Etc.

Who today can we compare Maria Martinez to? Someone within the community of  southwestern porrery, someone who has graciously shared technology, clay sources and other information related to the art. Someone whose actions have benefited themselves, their family, their community and the wider world. I would nominate Juan Quezada of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua.

Juan Quezada of Mata Ortiz

Some Pueblo potters may covet the position in the art world occupied by the non-native potters of Mata Ortiz. Their pottery in ubiquitous in southwestern art stores and galleries and their work commands respectable prices. Juan Quezada built this pottery empire by sharing information freely with his neighbors and with tourists and art collectors, instead of killing the golden goose as is always the fear with potters sharing this kind of information, he has instead reaped the benefits, those benefits include:

  • Creating a wider market and greater demand for Mata Ortiz potteries.
  • Building his own reputation as a master potter and thereby getting premium prices for his own work.
  • Benefiting his entire village and even his region by creating jobs and promoting tourism.
  • And on and on…

The point is that sharing information about a potter’s technology may appear initially to be a bad idea, that it protects the potter’s unique advantage and market, but the facts favor sharing information freely as the more profitable and beneficial approach. And yet it persists in all areas of southwestern ceramics, both native and non-native.

Ceramic information wants to be free

Without trying to draw any parallels between my art and that of Maria Martinez or Juan Quezada, I stand firmly in their camp, the free flow of information faction of traditional southwestern potters. That is why, instead of keeping my clay sources a secret or keeping tricks or technologies to myself in fear of others emulating them, I post such information on this site. I believe that free information always benefits the wider community, while keeping information to oneself is, by definition selfish and really in the end hurts everyone, including the one holding this information as the above examples illustrate. As Richard Stallman put it

I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.

It is my belief that southwestern potters would all benefit by adopting a similar stance and such an attitude could stimulate a second golden age of southwestern pottery, a new florescence of this art, such as we have seen in Mata Ortiz ceramics in recent years or that occurred among the Salado in the 1300s as Gila Polychrome and related types spread across the Southwest like wildfire. We owe it to our craft and to the wider community of practitioners and aficionados to lend a hand and share information for the benefit of all.

As an aside I will also point out that I respect other potter’s right to keep secrets if they so choose, and would never knowingly divulge other potter’s secrets. Although I would encourage them to embrace a more open approach to information.


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About Andy Ward

I am an independent researcher, writer and artist interested in all things Southwestern. Southeast Arizona is my home and area of primary interest.

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