Charmae Shields-Natseway


Acoma
Charmae Natseway photo
Lidded ceramic box
 

Born in 1958, Charmae Shields-Natseway is a member of the Yellow Corn Clan of Acoma Pueblo. She says she has been working with clay since 1976. She comes from a distinguished family of Acoma potters that includes her mother Ethel Shields and her grandmother Dolores Sanchez. From them she learned the fundamentals of constructing pottery using the ancient method of hand coiling and pinching that has been passed down among Pueblo potters for generations. "My mother has been making pottery most of her life," she says. "I started back in seventy-six when we moved back here from Tucson. I needed a way to be self-employed and I needed money, so my mother taught me."

Long-known for her exquisite seed pots, Charmae is also renowned for her unique forms of lidded/plugged pottery shaped as cylinders, pyramids, boxes and flasks of superb quality. "I just got tired of seeing the same shapes over and over," she says. "A few years ago I made seed pots in a flat, circular form. Now I see them all over the place, so I stopped making them."

She gathers her natural clays and slips from within the bounds of Acoma Pueblo. After pulverizing the clumps of clay to a fine powder, sifting the clay for pebbles and impurities and then processing with water and other natural pigments into a fine workable medium, she begins to hand coil her vessels. When the vessels are dry, she sands them to remove any excess and to give the raw pottery a smooth finish that she will decorate with precise designs accented with colors derived from local plants and ground minerals.

"I try to always do the best work I can," she says, "and it's a challenge to be the best. Sometimes I feel there is not enough opportunity for up and coming artists. I think they're having a harder time than we did a few years ago. But, it's always good to see new artists coming up with new styles and taking different directions."

When asked if she considers her work to be traditional or contemporary Charmae responds, "I've gotten a lot of my ideas from prehistoric pottery, like the Mimbres designs, and from older Acoma pottery. Also from my grandmother's pots. I've made canteens, bowls, bean pots, ladles and plates for ceremonial use. Those are traditional. But my designs are sometimes traditional and sometimes contemporary. Sometimes, too, I make pots that have designs which at first look similar, but if you look real close, you can tell differences. I suppose it comes from using similar design elements over the years. After awhile, it's, like, hard-wired in your brain."

A bit later she says, "They say that the clay is where we come from. I consider my work a part of me. I feel good when someone buys one of my pieces who is really going to appreciate it. But, when we do sell it, we give a part of ourselves away."

Charmae is married to Thomas Natseway, the award winning Laguna miniature artist. She signs her pottery as: "Charmae Shields Natseway, Acoma, N.M.", followed by a corn stalk denoting her family clan.


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Acoma Pueblo

Acoma from the air
Sky City

According to Acoma oral history, the sacred twins led their ancestors to "Ako," a magical mesa composed mostly of white rock, and instructed those ancestors to make that mesa their home. Acoma Pueblo is called "Sky City" because of its position atop the mesa.

Acoma, Old Oraibi (at Hopi) and Taos all lay claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited community in the U.S. Those competing claims are hard to settle as each village can point to archaeological remnants close by to substantiate each village's claim. Acoma is located about 60 miles west of Albuquerque.

While the people of Acoma have an oral tradition that says they've been living in the same area for more than 2,000 years, archaeologists feel more that the present pueblo was established near the end of the major migrations in the 1300's. The location is essentially on the boundary between the Mogollon (Mimbres), Hohokam (Salado) and Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) cultures. Each of those cultures has had an impact on the styles and designs of Acoma pottery, especially since modern potters have been getting the inspiration for many of their designs from pot shards they have found while walking on pueblo lands.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado ascended the cliff to visit Acoma in 1540. He afterward wrote that he "repented having gone up to the place." But the Spanish came back later and kept coming back. Around In 1598 relations between the Spanish and the Acoma took a really bad turn with the arrival of Don Juan de Onate and the soldiers, settlers and Franciscan monks that accompanied him. After ascending to the mesa top, Onate decided to force the Acomas to swear loyalty to the King of Spain and to the Pope. When the Acomas realized what the Spanish meant by that, a group of Acoma warriors attacked a group of Spanish soldiers and killed 11 of them, including one of Onate's nephews. Don Juan de Onate retaliated by attacking the pueblo, burning most of it and killing more than 600 people. Another 500 people were imprisoned by the Spanish, males between the ages of 12 and 25 were sold into slavery and 24 men over the age of 25 had their right foot amputated. Many of the women over the age of 12 were also forced into slavery and were parceled out among Catholic convents in Mexico City. Two Hopi men were also captured at Acoma and, after having one hand cut off, they were released and sent home to spread the word about Spain's resolve to subjugate the inhabitants of Nuevo Mexico (while Spanish monks did make the almost fruitless trip, Spanish military never did make an appearance in Hopiland).

When word of the massacre (and the punishments meted out after) got back to King Philip in Spain, he banished Don Juan de Onate from Nuevo Mexico. Some Acomas had escaped that fateful Spanish attack and returned to the mesa top in 1599 to begin rebuilding.

In 1620 a Royal Decree was issued which established civil offices in each pueblo and Acoma had its first governor appointed. By 1680, the situation between the pueblos and the Spanish had deteriorated again to the point where the Acomas were extremely willing participants in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

After the successful Pueblo Revolt and the Spanish had retreated back to Mexico, refugees from other pueblos began to arrive at Acoma, fearing the eventual Spanish return and probable reprisals. That strained the resources of Acoma until the Spanish returned and residents of the pueblo had to make a hard decision. Many of the refugees chose to try a peaceful solution: they relocated to the ancient Laguna area and made peace with the Spanish as soon as they reappeared in the region.

Over the next 200 years, Acoma suffered from breakouts of smallpox and other European diseases to which they had no immunity. At times they would side with the Spanish against nomadic raiders from the Ute, Apache and Comanche tribes. Eventually New Mexico changed hands, then the railroads arrived and Acoma became dependent on goods made in the outside world.

For many years the villagers were content on the mesa. Now most live in villages on the valley floor where water, electricity and other necessities are easily available while a few families still make their permanent home on the mesa top. The old pueblo is used almost exclusively these days for ceremonial celebrations.

Acoma's dense, slate-like clay, allows the pottery to be thin, lightweight and durable. After the pot is formed, it is painted with a slip of white clay. Black and red design motifs are added using mineral and plant derived paints. Fine lines, geometrics, parrots and old Mimbres designs are commonly seen motifs. The traditional paintbrush for Acoma potters is made from the yucca plant.

Historically Acoma was known for large, thin-walled "ollas," jars used for storing food and water. With the arrival of the railroad and tourists in the 1880's, Acoma potters adapted the size, shapes and styles of their pots in order to appeal to the new buyers.

Acoma Pueblo is home to noted potters of the Lewis and Chino families, as well as many others. Acoma potters felt it was an inappropriate display of ego to put their signature on a pot up into the mid-1960's. The 1960's is also a time when the primary white clay vein mined by the Acomas passed through a layer of widely distributed impurities, impurities that passed through the pottery making process and appeared only in the firing. Or worse yet, sometimes well after firing. The clay problem was so bad it affected virtually every potter in the pueblo and every pot they made. So many pots spalled that even the best potters sold them anyway, often signed. Thankfully, by the late 1960's they had dug through that layer of clay and into a deeper layer that didn't have the problem.

Acoma Pueblo c. 1923

Acoma Pueblo c. 1932

Map showing location of Acoma Pueblo

For more info:
at Wikipedia
official website
Pueblos of the Rio Grande, Daniel Gibson, ISBN-13:978-1-887896-26-9, Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2001
Upper photo courtesy of Marshall Henrie, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

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