Pot Heads

Bodies, birds and animals pervade the Casas Grandes pottery at TMA.

One day about 700 years ago, a woman living in Paquimé, in what's now northwest Chihuahua, Mexico, picked up some clay and began fashioning a pot.

She rolled the clay into long coils in her hands, and then pinched the coils together to form the smooth surface of an olla, a pot that curves out in elegant ellipses, an oval rather than a sphere.

But the potter didn't stop when she had the curve she wanted. She was going beyond the utilitarian: She wanted to make a cat. Working carefully, she pulled the soft clay into the pointy snout of a housecat, perhaps in honor of the very cat that was mewling at her feet. Then, for good measure, she crafted another cat head on the other side, so that her olla devolved into a satisfying duality, a two-headed cat. Later she painted slanty cats' eyes in black on the yellowish clay, and around the olla's bulbous curve she traced out intricate geometries.

The result of her labors, the forthrightly named "Ovoid Olla With Feline Features," is now on view in a charming exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art. Talking Birds, Plumed Serpents and Painted Women: The Ceramics of Casas Grandes is the first full-scale museum exhibition of the work of this indigenous people, who disappeared before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. In 1584, the explorer Obregon reported finding a large abandoned city in a sweeping plain below the Sierras, southeast of what is now Arizona. A complex of several thousand adobe rooms with ballcourts and plazas (thus "Casas Grandes," or "big houses"), Paquimé was littered with thousands of fine ceramics painted in black and red.

To a modern sensibility, the output of Paquimé's prodigious potters is delightful and occasionally downright witty. Grinning snakes coil out of the ollas, rearing their three-dimensional heads into space. A full-blown parrot head emerges from another pot, its tail sticking out right where it should be, at the opposite end of the olla. A painted figure on the side of one pot is half rabbit, half bird, a surprisingly harmonious marriage that has spawned a long, lithe, swift-looking creature.

The potters did not neglect their fellow humans. "Effigy" figures are elaborations on the olla, with human heads, arms and legs added to the basic pot. These anatomically correct characters seem to have definite personalities. One woman lies on her side asleep, her slumbers undisturbed by the olla pot rising up out of her belly. A "naturalistic" woman looks up curiously at the world, her hands resting casually on her legs. A hunchbacked man, painted in checkerboard black, has his affliction highlighted in red. A woman in childbirth is an image for the ages: She rests her hands on her knees, and the rounded head of the child she's about to bring into the world is pushing against her vulva.

The heyday of the Casas Grandes culture was 1200 to 1450 A.D., and serious scholarship and archaeology has begun only recently, according to TMA curator Joanne Stuhr, who also wrote a historical essay for the exhibition catalog. So it's not easy to know whether the people making and using this pottery thought of its imagery as sacred, or profane.

The robustly endowed males and generously rounded females likely have to do with sexual prowess and fertility. Scholars have nailed down certain symbolisms, particularly in the geometric shapes whose intricacies spin gracefully across the clay. According to Stuhr, Ernest Christman has written that the icons served the same function as the stained-glass windows in European cathedrals, where Christians who were otherwise illiterate could easily "read" the pictures of Christ and the saints in colored glass. Likewise, the people of Paquimé readily understood that zigzag lines on pots stood for lightning, a stairstep pattern meant a mountain, and dots represented water or rain.

Macaw birds, frequently depicted in the artisans' paint and clay, were highly esteemed, Stuhr tells us; they were associated with "shamanic transformation," a common Mesoamerican belief in the ability of souls to change shape. Plumed serpents, another staple of indigenous iconography in Mexico, may have represented the struggle of light against darkness.

If the natural world was all-important in Paquimé's religion, it clearly was an important instigator for its pottery production. Stuhr writes that these people lived on a fertile plain where the Casas Grandes River flowed year-round. The river provided fish for eating; the trees on its riverbanks served as fuel and timber, and the well-watered soil yielded up corns, beans, squashes and gourds. Most importantly, the soil had abundant deposits of clay for the potters.

Trade routes may have carried in artistic influences from West Mexico and the American Southwest; in fact, some of the seated figures look surprisingly like the contemporary "storytellers" made by Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. But the painting is particularly exquisite: Sometimes the artists almost give up their charming cats and snakes entirely for the singular pleasure of abstract triangles and intersecting spirals, painted in rich earth red and black.

While concentrating on its 100 fine pots, gathered from assorted collections including the Heard Museum and Amerindian Foundation, the show also surveys the outside world's evolving interest in the work. Nineteenth-century exploration drawings and photographs are on display, along with modern photographs of the still-existing Casas Adobes ruins. John Russell Bartlett recorded the ruins and pots in lovely drawings while working for the U.S./Mexico Border Commission in 1850 (Bartlett also wrote some early travel accounts of Tucson) and U.S. troops led by Gen. John Pershing dug in the mounds when they tired of chasing Pancho Villa in 1916 and 1917.

The Paquimé story has an interesting contemporary epilogue. In the 1980s, artisans in the nearby town of Mata Ortiz began pots again. While not exactly reviving the pure Casas Grandes pottery tradition, the new potters prize symmetry, geometric design and abstracted animals, just as that long-ago cat craftswoman did.

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