Preface to Mud Woman


Nora Naranjo-Morse

I thought that I would write an essay about what I resonated with in Nora's work, but I found that she had said it so much better than I ever could in the preface to her book Mud Woman that I decided instead to let her say it herself. Those sentences put in boldface clearly apply to any endeavor, not just art.
For hundreds of years Pueblo people have treasured their powerful relationship with clay. Veins of colored earth run along the hillsides of New Mexico, covering remote trails with golden flecks of mica. Channels of brown and scarlet mud wash across the valleys, dipping and climbing with the sprawling landscape. Intricately woven patterns of clay fan out under the topsoil, carrying the life of pottery to the Pueblo people.

Initially, the Towa (people) gathered this mud and processed it to make vessels for day-to-day use. Family members ventured out to surrounding foothills that held this precious commodity. Even today, when a vein is located and uncovered, a prayer is offered to Nan chu Kweejo (Clay Mother), acknowledging her generous gifts to us:

Nan chu Kweejo,
na ho uvi whageh oe powa,
di huu joni heda di aweh joni
hey bo hanbo di koe gi un muu.
Wayhaa ka yun un maa bo,
wi un tsi maai pi.

Clay Mother,
I have come to the center of your abode,
feed me and clothe me
and in the end you will absorb me
into your center.
However far you travel,
do not go crying.

This prayer continually renews our relationship to the earth, her gifts, and Towa.

Nan chu Kweejo invites me to celebrate in a unique and limitless form of cultural expression. Sounds of clay slowly filtering through sifting screens, mud slapping rhythmically against open palms, even the wild popping of cedar when firing pottery all become important elements of celebration. Subtle lessons from Clay Mother awaken my appreciation for daily rituals, connecting me to the Pueblo worldview. A Ladybug explores the caverns of a clay form on my worktable. I offer her direction across the moist, cool surface. In doing so, I hear my echo, deep in the walls of coiled earth. I am no more or less than the Ladybug. Her presence is a gift to my studio. Hearing my echo, I am reminded of an essential element in the Pueblo worldview.

Plant, animal and human life cycles, nurtured and guarded, are held equally in a larger vessel called earth. The symmetry of earth's vessel depends on our respect for earth's balance and our caretaking of these cycles. Gathering this knowledge as I do clay, I am impressed by the spiritual strength of these lessons. This cultural rooting encourages me when I explore my own creative vein. I am excited and challenged by simple lines, new shapes, and textures. I weave my experiences as a modern Pueblo woman into this fiber of clay work, centuries old.

Every day, clay is a part of my routine. I move easily in and out of any one of the many steps included in completing an earthen form. Soaking mud, sieving it through screens, draining excess water, mixing in volcanic ash with bare feet - each step is time consuming and laborious. People unaware are surprised by all that is involved in clay work. Every finished piece holds a history of culture and time, and of constant, caring attention. The hours invested preparing the gathered mud are important for readying pliable clay and for preparing myself for the creative process. The simple act of doing opens creative channels. Time is measured only by the sifted buckets of volcanic ash. I sieve long enough in one place that ants march freely across my feet.

Unharried work opens my mind to imagination. I travel with the ants as they busy themselves collecting building supplies; their body forms and movements become my creative inspiration. Unspoken ties connecting me to clay strengthen and clear a path for thoughtful awareness of my surrounding. Birds call to one another from across an open field. I stop to listen to their hellos, and I am impressed by the multitudes of life cycles thriving continuously on just an ordinary day.

Gia (mother) has been an influential part of my commitment to clay. I remember her nimble fingers curving in and around smooth surfaced bowls. As a child I was her helper, learning the skill and method of pottery from her example. There were never measurements or formal instruction, rather stories introducing Nan chu Kweejo's powerful presence, and motherly advice about my sagging jars or crooked bowls. Gia's manner of instruction, cultural teachings, and spirited determination planted the seed of dreaming an idea and cultivating it to fruition. Baking bread, raising children, sculpting in mud, dreams large or small are valuable as daily rituals for a life flowing with creativity.

In preparation, I knead handfuls of clay as images of people, their gestures, city skylines, the ocean, television noise, and more fill my thoughts.Uncensored imagination, along with the purity of childlike play, explodes on my worktable.

Layered coils begin to build and drain my supply of all that I absorb as a human being, a Pueblo woman, a mother, wife, and friend. The micaceous and Santa Clara clays I use are porous and absorb water quickly into their mass. At times I feel the essence of who I am being digested in each coil, connecting me forever to each piece and again reminding me of the symmetry of life cycles that Towa hold sacred.

From journeys across oceans, experiencing other worldviews, to enlightening trips to the grocery store, people and their ways fuel my curiousity, inspire, and continuously educate me. Traveling has given me the opportunity to appreciate my tradition even more. I carry my cultural roots proudly, sharing it, and in return, receiving unforgettable moments that feed my awareness as a human being.

While teaching in Germany, I traveled by train with my four-year-old daughter and two hundred pounds of clay. I was unable to understand the language, and the train system completely perplexed me. I was lost and afraid of missing my next train. Taking pity on me, two older travelers, both sturdy, matriarchal-looking women, approached us. They spoke German. Relieved by any type of assistance, I handed them our tickets and shrugged. Surmising our situation in an excited exchange, both women gathered my daughter and the bags of clay and pulled me hurriedly to the train.

Pushing us into closing doors, neither woman stopped talking as they waved good-bye. Tears welled in my eyes as I tried to thank them; they knew, without words, my appreciation. I wanted to tell these German women that they reminded me of my aunts in another village far away. Moments like this, as well as other experiences, are intrinsic to my creative process. With so much of myself invested, oftentimes it has been difficult to let go of my work. I liken it to older mothers letting go of their children who are anxious to leave the nest for their own life's flight.

In recent years, the popularity of Pueblo pottery has escalated to such a degree that the effects of demand have shifted, changing the more natural course of our clay methods. Our relationship to Nan chu Kweejo and the symmetry of the Pueblo worldview, conflict many times with the dominent society's values, values that encourage the demand and commercialism of Pueblo pottery. Seventy years ago, when Gia was a child, Towa worked together, making large storage bowls for communal food supplies. Energy and skill were shared in molding magnificent vessels for the common good of all villagers. Today the act of creating has become an individualized process, limiting, for the most part, an important element of community exchange.

While growing up in the fifties and early sixties, curio shops were a familiar sight. They dotted reservation borders along highways well traveled by motoring tourists. These establishments became increasingly popular, serving as a profitable outlet for Gia and other Pueblo women selling their pottery. Loudly colored Thunderbirds and other stereotypical Indian designs, decorated curio store fronts. Tourists were welcome to come and see "live Indians" demonstrate their crafts right in the store. It was not unusual to see Navajo men stamping silver jewelry on a worktable conveniently set up by the coke machines. Fluorescent tomahawks and plastic war bonnets were sold alongside rubber spiders and slides of the Southwest. Postcards of the proud Navajo herding sheep into an orange sunset sold for a dime, next to the images of historical buildings in Santa Fe.

On the days we ventured into the curio stores to sell Gia's pottery, storeowners attempted polite conversation while scrutinizing her black, polished vases. Tapping each bowl for a ring would determine how well they were fired and whether or not there were surface cracks. With furrowed brow, the owner pointed out flaws, which to him devalued the pot. If a particular shape or pattern of design became popular and sold quickly, Gia was asked to bring several more of the same on her next visit. The look of confusion on Gia's face when trying to comprehend an arbitrary standard for work she had done most of her life is forever printed in my mind. The poem, "Mud Woman's First Encounter with the World of Money and Business," characterizes similar, present-day attitudes toward a finished clay form.

Several summers ago, during a weekend arts and crafts show, I was impressed at how greatly business influences Native American art. Thousands of dollars changed hands during two days of selling. Pottery, painting, and jewelry were only a few of the art categories judged. Ribbons were handed out for artwork considered the best in its division. Top prizes validated artists to collectors who bought award-winning pieces at astronomical prices. Some parents sold their children's artwork for unreasonable sums, suggesting to buyers that first pieces from a budding artist might be a reasonable investment. A frenzy of buying blanketed the booths of art as hundreds of people clamored to see the Indians and their artwork. In all of this I wondered how my people's creative integrity would survive.

My work does not generally conform to standards set by the present Indian art market. I exercise my creative license in a menagerie of characters that travel through time, inspired by culture and personal experiences. The results are forms like Pearlene, whose thirst for adventures educate her to life's lessons. Pearlene fluctuates between confusion and clarity, reverence and mischief, while searching for her niche in life.

The frequency of her presence on my worktable symbolized personal life situations and the resulting explosion of new ideas. Pearlene tested new waters in my creative growth, challenging stereotypical perceptions dictated by the market for Pueblo pottery.

After a slide and poem presentation on Pearlene's importance in my creative growth, a retired schoolteacher from the Midwest approached me. Winking, nudging me gently, she whispered, "Honey, I'm a Pearlene, too." That whispered confession enlightened me to the universal appeal of art. Pearlene was the connecting link between that teacher and me for a few memorable moments. These precious moments serve as nutrients in my life, inspiring my creative approach. Pearlene became popular. At poetry readings, people were anxious to hear of her latest adventures. Gallery owners requested Pearlene in salable sizes for the Christmas rush.

A businessman from California offered to mass produce Pearlene; however, the image of my clay friend in plastic, lining curio shops across the Southwest, frightened me. The effects of demand once again threatened to alter the flow of my natural creative process. Realizing her charm might be jeopardized by demand, I coiled one last Pearlene. My decision to explore new avenues of creative expression marked a milestone, which was symbolized in this last piece. In making her, I also coiled a companion for Pearlene. The balance created by adding another person in the final Pearlene would now permit me to close this chapter with a sense of dignity for both of us. In doing this, I began to understand the phenomena that has taken place for generations between Earth and Towa. The influence of this relationship continually fuels my desire to create, and in that desire I have found life-giving nourishment. I am a vessel coiled by layers of life's experiences.

In the Tewa language, there is no word for art. There is, however, the concept for an artful life, filled with inspiration and fueled by labor and thoughtful approach.

The process of recording my life through clay and poetry results in an exciting volley of creative expression for me. Three-dimensional clay Pearlenes were often inspired by poems written months or even years before. In return, poems began to formulate images, complete with personality, physical detail, and motive. This collection of poems and clay forms documents a fifteen-year milestone of creating, fueled by life's gifts. From Nan chu Kweejo to the matriarchs in the German train station, all continually add to my possibilities for an artful life.

I gratefully acknowledge all my brothers and sisters, who, in their own way, supplied me with endless memories and a powerful foundation for these words: especially my sisters, Rina Swentzell and Dolly Naranjo and my brothers Tito and Michael Naranjo for their support and objective criticism. Special thanks goes to Vickie Downey, Laura Tohe, and Larry Evers, as well as to Zakary and Eliza, who feed me daily with life-giving nourishment, koo da wah haa.

You may now hear Nora "read" one of her poems, "Singing Water Woman". The sound file (aiff) is 2.7 Mb.

A RealAudio file (only 238 Kb) is also available if you have the RealPlayer installed.

Nora's bronze sculpture, Khwee-seng (Woman-Man), is currently included in Exhibition VI of the series Twentieth Century American Sculpture at the White House.

From Mud Woman, Poems from the Clay , University of Arizona Press
© 1992 Nora Naranjo-Morse
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