Experts bring craft to Carroll

Tradition: Two Native American sisters from New Mexico teach students how to make Acoma pottery.

July 04, 2004|By Jessie Parker | Jessie Parker,SUN STAFF

Two Native American sisters collected rocks and yucca leaves from the mountains near their home in New Mexico. They hiked three miles to a secret mesa to mine for clay and then gathered firing materials. A few weeks ago, they shipped everything to Westminster for a class they were teaching in the ancient art of pottery making.

Common Ground on the Hill brought Delores Lewis Garcia and Emma Lewis Mitchell, two experts in the tradition of Acoma pottery, to McDaniel College last week to lead a workshop on their craft.

Daughters of famed potter Lucy Lewis, the sisters rarely leave Acoma Pueblo, preferring to practice their craft close to home, where they learned by watching their mother turn clay into pottery.

Potters for more than a half-century, they travel a few times a year to give workshops, and Common Ground, the college's summer music and arts festival, was on the list this year.

Ken Hankins, a McDaniel ceramics professor, said that unlike others in their village, Garcia and Mitchell have resisted switching to modern methods of pottery making.

"They're doing what they were taught by their mother and grandmother, doing everything the way it's been done for years," Hankins said.

Students enrolled in the pueblo pottery class followed Acoma methods to create seed pots, bowls, dishes and decorative pieces. The sisters use only natural materials gathered from their home.

In preparation for the class, they hunted for minerals to grind into brown, tan and gray paints, which would eventually change to black, orange and white. Students made brushes by chewing on bitter-tasting yucca leaves for about an hour, until only a few fibers were left.

"She's putting a lot of work into grinding the material up," Hankins said, watching the 64-year-old Garcia prepare materials for class. "You could probably do this in a few seconds with a machine, but she doesn't want to do that."

Garcia and Mitchell collected and shipped about 20 pounds of clay for the workshop, as well as three large boxes of dried cow manure for firing material.

"It's not easy to do, but we still continue the tradition," Mitchell, 72, said. "I like the hard work. I mean, how else can it be done?"

Students used basic tools to create pottery, painstakingly shaping and painting the pieces. The class was filled with students of all abilities - from beginners to experienced art teachers looking for ideas to bring back to their classrooms.

"It's nice to be an artist, you can incorporate everything," said Pamela Malkin, an art teacher at Sykesville Middle School.

Jennifer Fisher, 29, said the sisters' teaching methods were different from what she was used to: They focused on family stories and hands-on learning instead of lectures and strict instructions.

"They gave us a piece of clay about the size of our fist, and what we got out of that was incredible," she said.

Experienced potters said the clay felt different from what they were used to.

Garcia and Mitchell were careful to use every bit of clay. They saved shards of old pots to put into new clay, to transfer the spirit of the pottery.

"I've been amazed by the cultural differences," Fisher said. "We all live in the same country."

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