Colorado-based sculptor Pahponee (Kickapoo-Potawatomi) is featured in two articles in the fall issue of First American Art Magazine: Matthew Ryan Smith’s “Clay Cultures and Muddy Waters: Northeastern Woodland Ceramics” by Matthew Ryan Smith and “Mettle to Metal: Native Women Sculptors Reign and Pour” by RoseMary Diaz (Santa Clara Tewa). So we selected Pahponee’s elegant Water, Earth, Sky (2008) to grace the cover of FAAM No. 20. There’s much more than meets the eye of this exquisite bronze vase, as the artist explains.
FAAM: You are discussed in two of our feature articles, one about Northeastern Woodland ceramics, and another about Native women working in bronze. You just happened to be at the perfect intersection for this issue. I was wondering what the strengths of these two very different and very challenging artistic media are.
Pahponee: I think the strengths of pottery is that of all art mediums I believe it is the most diverse of all mediums of art that exists in the known world, and what I mean by that is every culture that has existed has had a pottery practice of some kind. What that means is that there are hundreds and thousands of different ways to create pottery, based on each culture that has come before us. There are 573 federally recognized native tribes, so there are more than 500 ways to make a pot.
People don’t maybe know this necessarily around the world, or they might not even really know it so much even in North America, but our people [the Kickapoo and Potawatomi]were the descendants of the Mound Builder cultures, and [some]of the oldest pottery cultures in North America.
You have to be strong to do pottery, first of all.
FAAM: It’s very physical.
Pahponee: It works your body over. You have to have endurance. You have to be malleable yourself in order to work clay, and I think the thing I’ve learned to love about it the most it’s just so diverse. It never ceases to amaze me what the clay can teach you. Just when you think you know it all, you don’t. For me, that’s the strength of its personality.
I love the fact that it’s raw, it comes right off of under our feet, and I love the fact that it’s the very earth that holds us up, so it has to be strong. I can’t say enough good things about clay. A good strong pot will last for years to come. It requires strength on many levels to work in clay.
Bronze is a whole other animal. In order to make a cast bronze, you have to have a prototype to case. I know every bronze artist is probably a little bit different, but what I have found that works for me is to make my prototype out of clay just like I would if I was making a pot for someone. I give that pot to the foundry; hopefully, it will make it through the molding process and survive it. The foundry makes a perfect replica of my pottery form, in bronze instead of clay. The Bronzesmith uses a lost-wax casting technique, so it’s very precise.
Literally, the strength of bronze is its strength, because bronze is mostly copper, and I always joke, I always call them my California pots because people out in California like to buy the bronze over the clay because of the earthquakes. They don’t worry about the bronze falling off the shelf, because it won’t break in the same way that a pot would if it fell off a shelf. And so the bronze is literally a strong medium because of the materials that it is made from.
I also have observed in the bronze process through the years that because it goes to a higher temperature, it requires a higher temperature to create a bronze than a pot. It’s also a very laborious job. I mean there’s a lot of bending and lifting, and bronzes are heavy once they’re done. Bronze requires the person to also have endurance and strength. It’s a very hands-on process.
Pahponee: The other thing I really like about bronzes is color. When I was in college I thought was going to be a painter, but the clay got ahold of me so that changed everything. But I’ve been able to satisfy my own personal need to have a lot of color in my life by working with bronze.
When I work with my clays, they’re all earth tones. They’re subtle even though I try to be as vivid as I can with each piece. When I first started working on bronze, I had a stereotype. I thought everything was going to look like the Liberty Bell.
FAAM: With the green patina.
Pahponee: But the technology is so advanced nowadays. I remember asking Ed [Reilly at Bronzesmith Fine Art Foundry], I asked what color palette do I get to have. Is it brown or grey or what do I get to pick from? He goes, “Oh, whatever color you can think of we can do.”
That spoke volumes to me. I said I’m in, I want to learn this process, I want to take my pottery creations that are one-of-a-kind originals, and I want to make limited editions of some of them because I believe that the story I tell in clay can also be told in bronze in some of my designs.
On the one that’s on the cover, the Water, Earth, Sky, the original clay pot that I made for that, it survived the casting process and the molding process.
FAAM: That’s a miracle.
Pahponee: Yes, and I brought it back home and I cleaned it up, and it sold at the Heard Museum, so it’s up in Chicago, now, that original white vase that we cast that blue one from. It’s like they go together. Maybe they’re two different mediums, and maybe they’re processes and steps vary quite a bit, but to me, they work hand-in-hand.
FAAM: Could you talk about the specific piece that’s on the cover, the Water, Earth, Sky vase? I’m curious on that neck there’s this beautiful texture. What is that texture on the neck of this piece?
Pahponee: Water, Earth, Sky is a creation story. It’s my modern storytelling about creation and how since we’re people of the lakes, I’m Potawatomi and Kickapoo; my heritage comes from the Great Lakes.
FAAM: Where copper is so important.
Pahponee: Yes, and I wanted to talk about the power and the meaning of water: water is everything. It’s the very essence of whom we all are. So I started at the base with the lapis blue water down below, where you see the swimmers, and so down below in the water are creatures that only live their lives in water, their whole existence is water based. You have the whale, and you have fish, and you have turtles, and they’re swimming in that lapis blue water, whether it’s ocean or whether it’s Great Lakes. They are a part of that body of water their entire existence.
Moving up the vase, you’re going see that it goes into more of a turquoise colored background. In that area are all of us two-legged and four-legged. Up in the middle earth, we have the bear, the four-legged, we have buffalo pictured on one side of the vase. We have the story of the three sisters, because in our tribe the three sisters are corn, bean, and squash, and they are women of magic; they’re auspicious beings.
Then farther up the vase the sky lightens up to more of a light turquoise color, and in that area of the vase are all of the fliers, everything that lives in the sky, whether it’s a butterfly, hummingbird, the star nation, the whirlwind which in our tribe represents the very essence of the air we breathe. It’s where everything comes from, the great spiral. I’ve got shooting stars on there—the sky beings and the constellations.
Then when you get to the neck of the pot, what I had in mind was what looks like a cloud layer. On the neck, we did a gold veining, and it looks layered—like cloud layer in real life, the heavens. That’s the upper world.
I have lines drawn behind each character. Each character on the vase protrudes; it’s a low-relief carving. Each character is hand-polished, just like if you were making a bracelet or earrings. It’s been hand-polished, so you see the actual color of the bronze, but because we painted the background I wanted there to be life force connecting all things. In our tribe, we have line drawings that connect everything. So that line drawing behind the bear, and behind the butterfly, and behind the tortoises that goes the full length of the pot—those symbolize all of our relations. Everything is connected through life’s living force.
So, Water, Earth, Sky, is really just it’s a modern version of an ancient story of our history, of creation, and it’s one of my favorite pieces that I’ve ever done in terms of just the way I shaped it. The colors, I wouldn’t change a thing about the color. I think the message is loud and clear. It’s meant to tell us about where we all come from, from a Great Lakes perspective
You can see Pahponee’s work in person at the Sorrel Sky Gallery, 125 W. Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, or at her Santa Fe Indian Market booth 611 PLZ on the Plaza, August 18 and 19.