From beginning to beginning again

by Donna D’Orio

I do not remember a time when I was not drawn to utilitarian, traditional art forms. The texture of handwoven dishtowels, crockery bowls out of kilns from Kentucky and North Carolina, and hand-hewn axe blades were part of my everyday childhood world. It did not go by me unnoticed, the difference, when Tupperware entered into the kitchen — or when mass-produced sameness became the coveted items of the households I would visit. I must have been in sixth grade when I decided that, in some way, I wanted to be part of passing forward the wonder and beauty residing in the handmade.

I saw quite clearly that assembly-line production removed the maker from the deeper intrinsic process inherent in traditional, regional art forms. We became removed from the sources of natural materials and from the skills necessary to create with them. Not only has the relationship between maker and object been lost, but relationship to place and a moral economy has also been lost. There exists in a regional utilitarian art process — where access to native materials is available and valued, where tradition and stories have been kept alive — a sense of identity and belonging to both landscape and its mythology.

Many years ago, these aesthetics drew me to the traditional Southwestern art form of harvesting clay and hand-building utilitarian vessels. My first experience with native clay was in a little arroyo near my hometown in Colorado. I was part of a small vessel-building class. With my shovel, I worked along the walls of the arroyo, harvesting earth and hoping that by the end of the day I would have enough to make a small bowl. The earth I brought back did not resemble clay — it was a dry composite of loose dirt, rocks, twigs, insect carcasses and all sorts of organic matter. It seemed impossible that I would turn this into a vessel.

As I kneaded my little ball of clay, I felt I was on a timeless journey, an odyssey rooted in a faraway place that I had been before. This generative clay — from the land where I was born — took me back to the moment of first breath, first seeing and smelling, first moment of being birthed. From this internal place, I formed my little trinket bowl and beads. I thought, what a marvelous thing this is, to return to the beginning of things, to dig earth, make clay and birth form. I did not know at that time that I would go on to explore clay in the ancient practices of our native peoples of the American Southwest.

The clay I am so fortunate to work with is found in the mountains of New Mexico. Eroding sheets of Precambrian mica provide the deposits where traditional potters harvest their medium. Unlike commercial varieties, the native clay is made in small batches out of respect for our mother, the earth. It has unique properties that separate it from the clays production potters use with high fire glazes. It is primary clay, with nothing added — and the respect given to the dig supports a sustainable practice. Each clay maker has their way; they live in conscious relationship with the land and know her textures and colors. They know her seasons, when she is moist and forgiving or dry and closed. For the conscientious clay maker, this earth is not a lifeless object to be used recklessly. The earth is the breathing spirit of the mother who offers herself as a holy Eucharist to her children.  This is an amazing organic process dating back in the Northern Rio Grande region to AD 1300.

The vessels created from the local clay are both beautiful and utilitarian, used for cooking, holding water and the serving of food. Historically, the women were the builders of vessels, and the men dug the clay. The vessels were an important part of the provisioning for the family and community economically. A good cooking pot is handed down generation to generation, becoming a revered grandmother pot. On feast day, it is a beautiful sight to see a table laden with savory dishes freshly taken from the big outdoor ovens called Hornos.

Imagine a black clay pot brimming with red chili stew! The nature of the mica means that foods within are kept uniformly warm for an hour or more after cooking, unlike typical pots or pans used today. As a stew, soup, sauce or tea sits upon the stovetop flame, a cook will witness an array of perfectly uniform bubbles rising to the surface in a beautiful simmer. Sometimes, you can hear a vessel “sing” as its microporous surface breathes in and out, as if reveling in performing its essential work. I not only enjoy the creative process of building a pot, I enjoy equally as much drinking from them, cooking in them and presenting them at the family table.

Currently, I am working out of a small, private studio in Bend, Oregon where I employ the traditional form of coil-and-scrape handed down generation to generation. My vessels come in all sizes, from large cooking pots to water cups to tiny bowls meant to cradle sacred objects. The oral stories and blessings told and sung are an important part of each vessel’s birth. I am excited to share my process and the many oral stories I have gathered over time with others.

Donna D’Orio graduated from Marylhurst University with a degree in BA in Interdisciplinary Studies, in which she blended art and religious studies. Her clay vessels are available through her family collective’s Etsy shop or through personal request. She shares her artistic process at her personal website.