CPM February 2009
For many generations the Zuni people of New Mexico used pottery for practical uses, a container for food or a item to trade for necessities. Later, as tourists were lured out West, it was sold as souvenirs. During the first half of the 20th century, many Zuni artisans abandoned pottery-making for more lucrative art mediums, and this shift remained until the 1970s when a revival of pottery inspired a new generation. Though they are creating new artistic pieces, many potters feel that their “contemporary” work is merely a rediscovery of their ancestor’s secrets.
Noreen Simplicio, an accomplished Zuni potter, first learned the process of pottery-making in 1979 at her local high school. She attended a pottery class, aimed at rekindling this traditional craft among Zuni youth. During a high school art show, Noreen sold her first pot, and from then on she was hooked. Over time, she perfected her craft and became known as an imaginative and resourceful potter, creating many types of pottery and mixing traditional and commercial pottery techniques. For example, Noreen digs her own clay, the pink clay unique to Zuni pueblo, and constructs the vessel by hand, without the use of molds. Though she prefers natural paints, she uses commercial paint to augment her color palette if she feels it is necessary. The color is applied with commercial paint brushes and the piece is fired in a modern kiln rather than using the traditional method of outdoor firing.
Encouraged by her blossoming success, Noreen became a professional potter in 1982, and has been rewarded for her hard work with awards and recognition. She feels strongly that pottery-making should not be forgotten by the Zuni people, and in 1990 she went back to the high school she once attended to teach pottery to a new generation of teens.
The Zuni design jar in Tohono Chul’s collection is an excellent example of Noreen’s clever imagination and artistic skill. It is her favorite pottery form, a water jar known as an olla, characterized by a wide bulbous body and a distinct sloping neck. She has decorated the lower three-fourths of the olla with fine line patterns, large medallions and the traditional Zuni deer with heartline motif. The piece is painted with the traditional Zuni dark brown slip over white slip. Noreen constructed a miniature pueblo village scene on the olla’s sloping shoulder. A close examination of the olla reveals tiny, realistically painted human figures performing traditional tasks. In 1989 this piece won the Curator’s Award when it was exhibited at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.
Our Park founders, Richard and Jean Wilson, purchased the unique piece and donated it to Tohono Chul in 1989. Over the years they have generously donated artwork from their personal collection to us so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come.
Bernstein, Bruce. “Acoma, San Ildefonso and Zuni Pottery at the National Museum of the American Indian.” American Indian Art Magazine. Autumn 2004. Pg. 78 – 85.
Hayes, Allan and John Blom. Southwestern Pottery Anasazi to Zuni. Flagstaff: Northland Publishing, 1996.
Jacka, Jerry and Lois Essary Jacka. Beyond Tradition: Contemporary Indian Art and Its Growth. Flagstaff: Northland Publishing, 1991.
Lamb, Susan. A Guide to Pueblo Pottery. Tucson: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1996.
Nahohai, Milford and Elisa Phelps. Dialogs with Zuni Potters. Zuni: A:shiwi Publishing, 1995.
Tohono Chul Park has a small, selective collection of Southwest Native American pottery, basketry, weaving, and carvings. The collections emphasize works dating from 1940s to the present that illustrate the interconnections between Native peoples and the land, plants and animals.
In 2006, with future gifts of objects promised to its collections, the Park expanded and upgraded its storage and exhibition facilities to better preserve the growing number of objects. TCP displays its collections on a rotating basis at the Desert Discovery Education Center so that people can learn more about the natural and cultural diversity of our desert environment. Each month a piece from the collection is profiled online on our website.