Friday, June 17, 2011


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In the recent years the world has had a chance to experience women in an entirely different way. Society has gotten a taste of women artists that have emerged all over the world. There are a number of American Indian women that have rare and amazing ability when it comes down to art and pottery. Some women potters have chosen to go as far as leaving their reservations in order to peruse a college education in pottery and the arts. These women have made it known that they want to take their talent to the professional level and they are special in their own way. But on the other side, there is a group of women that have not chosen this road. Instead, this other group of women have chosen to maintain a traditional Indian lifestyle. They stay on their own reservation and only learn what others teach them and grow on their own gifts and talents. They use there own ideas and experiment in new ways to make their pottery express who they are as individuals. They have reached the professional level by sticking to traditional, rather than educational. One of these extraordinary women is Dorothy Torivio, who has taken her special talents and taken pottery to a new extreme.

Dorothy Torivio was born in 146 (Peterson 1). She lives on the Acoma Pueblo located in New Mexico. Thus, Dorothy is proud to be an Acoma potter. Dorothy lives on the Acoma reservation where she is well recognized for her gifts and special talents in the arts. There is a constant demand for her unique pots in her reservation and also around the world. Each one of her pots is done based on the Acoma styles and traditions that she believes in very strongly.

The people of the Acoma Pueblo are known to be possibly the oldest inhabited village in the entire United States (Taret 1). The Pueblo has been around for centuries and they have an ongoing tradition of producing high-quality pottery. The Pueblo is also known as the “sky city”. Sky City is situated on a 67-foot-high sandstone rock in the mountains and it is away from all other civilization (Taret 1). (about 7,000 feet above sea level!) Today, approximately 5,00 people live on the Acoma lands and the land is owned collectively by the people (Taret 1). They believe strongly in equality and no one can be considered dominant unless it is in a specific field of authority. If you visit the Pueblo during the spring season, especially on the weekends, you will find a lot of activity going on. Most of the potters display their pieces at the Sky City Visitors Center (Taret ). Each piece that is displayed follows the traditional guidelines of Acoma pottery.

Each Acoma potter starts their pots with the traditional coil and that is the style that they use to make their pottery. Getting the air out of the clay, making the coils and putting together the coils requires a high degree of skill and expertise. Acoma pots are special in the fact that they have extremely thin, but strong, walls. Acoma pots are known for having thin walls and that is their best quality (Dittert and Plog 4). Before the piece is fired and decorated, it is first painted with a kaolin clay slip. Kaolin slip is a very thin white powder that keeps the clay from shrinking in the fire (Dittery and Plog 44). This is very important because Acoma pots are already very thin and when you dry and fire clay, it shrinks on its own . The majority of Acoma pottery is made from a plain clay painted with either a smooth white slip, white on black slip, or black on white slip. The most common colors that are pained on the pots are black, orange, and brown. Acoma has produced substantial amounts of black and orange designs. Also common to Acoma pottery is the fine line designs, animal motifs, and interlocking scrolls (Dittery and Plog 44). Black and white designs on these pots are often optical illusions that tease the eye of the beholder. Some pots are so finely painted with a one strand yucca brushes that the concentration and patience that is required to make such a piece is immense! Designs on Acoma pots may contain anything from deer, flowers, and birds to very fine-lined geometric patterns. They do both organic designs and geometric figures (Dittert and Plog 45). But, on the other hand, they are known to paint such animals as owls and turtles to add to their artistic style and creativity.

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Acoma pottery has one major flaw and that is its wiliness to pit (Dittery and Plog 47). Pitting, also known as sprawling, are imperfections found in the pots. Generally these are caused by impure clay or expansions and contractions of the clay when it is fired. Most often these pits are caused by small pieces of sand in the clay that do not exit the clay after the firing. It may be a couple days later, after the pot has been fired, and artists are still finding pits in the surfaces of the clay.

Beginning in the mid to late 80’s some Acoma potters began to resort to the use of commercial greenware and molds to make their pottery (Hedren 1). Greenware pots are commercially made pots that are painted and decorated by the artists. These are not traditional pots because they are not made by the potters themselves. Resorting to greenware was not because Acoma potters did not have the talent to make their own traditional pots, but rather it was to meet an increasing demand. Consumers wanted more pots then the artists could make! The forms of greenware which are often used is either animals or very large jars and vases (Hedren 1). This non-traditional pottery has been accepted and sold ever since by well known and respected dealers. Though Acoma potters seem to have a tradition of using greenware pots, Dorothy however, does follow this tradition and makes all of her pots by hand.

Traditions always have to start from somewhere and looking back to the past can bring new inspirations and insights, especially to a potter’s life. A lot of Dorothy’s ideas were inspired by the works of Lucy Martin Lewis and Marie Chino, both famous potters in the previous Acoma generation (Dillingham ). These women began to adapt prehistoric designs that serve as a basis for the designs that Acoma potters use today. Both Lewis and Chino started the generation of Acoma pottery and made it known for its creativity and excellent quality. Dorothy also has a family that inspired her also to help her become the best potter that she could be.

Her mother, Mary Valley, a potter herself, taught her how to make pottery and till this day she still helps with the firing of her daughter’s pieces (Peterson 76). Dorothy uses a traditional yucca brush with all of her pieces. She also believes that all the ideas for her decorations come straight from God. The Acoma people are very religious and they feel that anything you take from Mother Nature is a gift, no matter how big or small it is. Dorothy holds true to these beliefs and is a very strong religions woman herself. Her daughter also contributes to her mother’s success. She helps gather the clay, grinds the mineral rock pigments, and chews the plant fronds for her mothers brushes (Peterson 77). It is truly a family effort! Style and perfection have always been a theme to Dorothy and she did not show her pots to the world until her technique was completely flawless.

Dorothy’s technique is very unique. It is impossible to analyze the mathematical precision of these designs. She, however, does not write down any of her designs. Each design is made up in her head and then put directly on the pot. Dorothy does not believe in writing stuff down because if it is her own ideas and thoughts, then they are good enough the way they are when they first enter her head. The way she goes about painting her pots is amazing. She first looks at a pot and visually divides it in half, then in quarters, then eighths, sixteenths, and more, and keeps dividing until there is no room on the surface (Peterson 78). She produces some of the most eye-catching pots that covered with designs such as spirals or her famous four-pointed star pattern, in which the four points of the star represent the four directions (Peterson 78). These four directions can represent the different turns that life takes. Spirals of black and white triangles swirl around her pieces that always rise to a very narrow opening at the top of the pot. All of her pots are traditional seed pots and they each have a small opening. A trait that she is known for is painting in the negative (Peterson 78). All of her designs are the opposite of the way a normal human mind reads it. The positive and negative shapes alternate and repeat continually. You get a sense of your eyes wondering all over the pot. Dorothy’s work is recognizable by that distinctive optical illusion quality. Sometimes Dorothy can only go as long as 45 minutes before she has to step away and take a break. She gets a lot of headaches from staring at her designs and they make her dizzy. Some of her pots take her up to six months just to paint the designs! They even drive me crazy, she says.

Dorothy was inspired by old Acoma designs seen in the archives of the Wheelwright Museum (Strueuer 1). However, all of her designs are unique and personal and she came up with the idea of repeating one design element over the entire pot.

She has received a lot of awards for her eye catching pieces and she is known world wide for her talents. A lot of her works have appeared in many museums including the prestigious National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (Strueuer 1) Dorothy’s works have increased in value each year and will continue to do so in the future.

Dorothy does not think of herself as a genius; she thinks what she does is only natural.

“One day Dorothy was having an exhibition of her pottery in a art gallery, at which she was being honored. A man approached her saying that he was a mathematics professor, and he had been trying for a long time to figure out on his computer how she did the designs until he finally arrived at the solution. Whereupon Dorothy laughed, pointed her finger to her brow, and said, My brain is my computer. (Peterson 6)”

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