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Thursday
Nov082018

Acoma Water Vessel 

A hand-cut staircase was the original way to enter Sky City, the place of the People of White Rock. The stone stairs lead up a cliff wall to the top of the mesa, where the Acoma people have their centuries old village; the place Willa Cather called, “cloud-set  Acoma.” An island rising out of a vast expanse, still much as it was hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. The place of Sky City is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the United States. Once an ancient ocean bed, high sandstone rocks like fortresses grow up from the old ocean floor. Sky City rests upon one of these mesa tops, 357 feet up, built between 1100 and 1250 AD, it is still inhabited today by the Acoma people.

Simon Ortiz said in the book of photography by Lee Marmon, The Pueblo Imagination:

Aacqumeh stdah. Daistih-meh studah.

   I am an Acoma person.  Here is wherefrom I am.

When you see Aacqu in the distance, say looking from the mesa to the north above Ghoomi Springs, just before you descend into the Acoma Valley, you think that or you say it out loud. 

An exceptional place, a place it is said, "that always was." Even though the dwellings are austere and small, the views alone are worth any sacrifice of comfort. There is no source of water, so those who live there must bring up all they need for cooking, bathing and drinking just as they always have, though now they can bring it up by truck.


Francesco, came to replace the water heater (our contemporary water vessel) in my city residence last fall. While he was working we had a conversation about the convergence of cultures here in New Mexico. He shared with me that his wife is from Acoma pueblo. They reside and work in Albuquerque now with their five young children. His wife is the honored lineage bearer for her Grandmother╩╝s water vessel. An earthenware jar that was used to hold precious water, it is painted with patterns which encircle the form, in the style of the Acoma people.

Francesco told me that his wife had this pattern tattooed on her left shoulder in reverence to her ancestry, her Grandmother╩╝s history and her own. It is a pattern that runs deep like the water itself. I cannot imagine how the vessel has survived at least four generations.

Acoma pottery is traditionally painted with fine geometric patterns that have a curvilinear grace, a oneness with the roundness of the vessel. They often have absolutely exquisite designs. Usually three colors, a white ground with black lines and red-ochre details. I believe that the Acoma pueblo descendents must have a centuries old connection to the Mimbres and Anasazi pottery designs, ancient pottery from the southwest region which is now part of New Mexico. 

One contemporary Acoma artist, Dorothy Torivio, uses just black lines on the white clay, striking a net of connections with the forms of circles, and six-pointed flower shapes. The pots have very smooth surfaces made from fine clay. The lines are painted on the vessel, not with brushes but with fibers from a yucca plant. Yucca are spiky plants with long thin and pointed leaves. An Acoma potter, with a beautiful smile, showed me how to cut a spike and pull back the skin with his teeth, to expose the thin hairlike
fibers within. When the fibers are exposed they spread out into a fan shape and the resulting tool looks just like a brush, an organic natural brush. Holding it in my hand, there is a delicacy to it that invites me to try it with paint on canvas.

Some words I came upon in a gallery in downtown Albuquerque, where Dorothy Torivio shows her work, describe the process of creating the pottery:

Authentic Acoma pots are made from local, slate-like clays. When traditionally fired, these clays produce a very white vessel. After they are fired, these clays also are strong enough to allow the production of very thin walls. ... the Acomas use both mineral and vegetal based paints for their designs. The characteristic white backgrounds allow the Acoma potters to produce crisp black images, as well as richpolychrome designs.

The people knew how to live in connection with the Great Spirits of the air and land and little water, in harmony with all that is.  Their vessels were not art for arts' sake, but considered constuctions with beautiful function. I wonder if we as a society would be more cautious with our water usage if we had to carry our water each day, not in plastic vessels but in ones carefully crafted and hand-formed of fired clay?

Something of a holy relic now, this water vessel from Acoma, I want to know more.  I want to ask a whole lot of questions.  And I want to see the holy water vessel in person.  But Francesco does not respond to my message to interview his wife.  I am still thinking about it over a year later.  Like a vessel, the story holds water.

 

Excerpt from a book in progress, The Forever Wilderness of Mother

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