In 1960, Karen Abeita was born in an Albuquerque hospital to a Hopi-Tewa woman named Lenora Nahoodyce Abeyta. Lenora had married an Isleta Pueblo man named Isidor Abeita, Sr. and moved from Hopi to Isleta Pueblo (which move was counter to tradition) but she returned to Hopi after Karen's birth.
Karen grew up in a traditional Hopi-Tewa home, a member of the Kachina/Parrot clan. She still lives a very strong traditional life where she speaks her native tongue and actively participates in tribal dances and ceremonies.
Karen says she has been a potter since she could first put her hands in the clay bucket. Her grandmother, Mamie Nahoodyce, and her great-aunt, Patty Maho, and great-grandmothers, Po’Tsah-Weh, Pong Sayah, Kweh–Kah and Paqua Sayah, along with several other aunts, Joy Navasie, Beth Sakeva and Sadie Adams, were all well respected potters. Karen, however, credits her childhood friend, Fawn Navasie, with being her primary teacher. With her expertise and patience, Fawn taught Karen how to mold large pots, how to fire using sheep manure and, most of all, how to respect the clay and never forget to pray. She also believes that putting your heart and mind into what you are creating is the ultimate reward in the end because in front of your eyes is something you've created.
Karen says she thanks the clay for letting her be who she is. Her pottery is all hand coiled. The only tool she uses is a piece of gourd to shape her pots. Her pots range from 3 inches by 2 inches to almost 24 inches in diameter and 18 inches in height. The painting is done with brushes made from the yucca plant and the paint is made from the mustard seed plant. The boiled-down paint is poured onto a painting stone and rubbed back and forth to mix with black hematite. The painting is one of the most important procedures. An artist can paint the most beautiful design on pottery but if the paint wasn't mixed properly, it will all rub off. After the painting is complete, the pottery is then fired outside with sheep manure. This can take up to 6 hours so patience is key. Cooling off too quickly or uncovering too soon will result in the pottery cracking. Karen prefers to allow the pots to cool slowly, taking most of a day, unless she does the firing in the evening and uncovers the pots the next morning.
The designs Karen paints on her pottery are usually duplicates of designs she's found on pot shards in the ancient village of Sikyátki. Today, Sikyátki is in ruins and the ground is littered with thousands of broken pottery shards. To Karen, the ruins are a gold mine. She says she has never seen duplicates of the same design. She also says she loves to stand on the highest point in the ruins and let her imagination free to take her back in time to when the village was alive. What did a potter feel like when she was uncovering her just-fired pot? Was she excited? Did everyone in the village come to see the latest masterpiece?
Karen says when she makes her journey to the ruins, she walks around and draws whatever designs she sees among the broken shards. After filling several pages with designs, she goes home and begins to paint what she calls "a shard pot." A shard pot can consist of hundreds of designs, none of them ever the same size, shape or style. It is also very time consuming to paint: a small shard pot can take eight days from sun up to sun down to paint. It is a style she has worked long and hard to create and it still continues to evolve as she finds new designs.
Her pottery has taken her to many places. By invitation, she went to see the large collection of Sikyátki pottery in the vaults of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Previously she had only seen complete Sikyátki pottery in pictures so seeing the actual pots that had been made and used in the early 1300’s about two miles from her home was like a connection from the past to the present. In her own words: "Here I was surrounded by rows and rows of shelves loaded with pottery from Sikyátki. I took out my sketch book and a pencil, quickly sat down and began copying designs. I applied to the biggest Indian art show in North America, the Sante Fe Indian Market, and was selected as one of the upcoming new artists from among several hundred applicants. I knew in my mind that there was no turning back." All the hard work and long hours were about to pay off. She soon proved to herself and the world that she, too, is an excellent traditional potter.
Since then Karen has participated in at least 19 SWAIA Santa Fe Indian Markets and has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Helen Naha Memorial Award. At the Lawrence (Kansas) Indian Art Show she has earned several ribbons, including Best of Show. She has also won Best of Division, Traditional Hand Painted Pottery at the Heard Museum Guild show and a 1st Place ribbon for Traditional Pottery at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. Karen most recently went home with a 1st Place ribbon from the 2015 Heard Museum Guild show.
Knowing that only the very best earn the Helen Naha award and to be counted in the company of award-winning Hopi-Tewa potters like Rondina Huma, Steve Lucas, Mark Tahbo, Rainy Naha and Dianna Tahbo, Karen feels that she has achieved a major goal in her life. Another goal she set for herself is to put all the designs she has collected from the ruins of Sikyátki in a book.
Karen currently lives in Polacca on the Hopi Reservation with her husband Darryl Daw.