Southwestern pottery is at the forefront of art historical recognition and has been written about exhaustively by scholars as well as amateurs. Pottery catalogues abound, and they address subtopics of the field too numerous to mention. This volume attempts to contribute value to this wider discussion by accounting for one of the significant private collections in this field. Moreover, it is hoped that the organizational structure of the book itself might challenge long-held assumptions about how Native pottery is considered and classified.
One thing that books about Southwestern pottery tend to share is a particular structure, one that organizes works according to either the potters' matriarchal lineages, or their ancestral geographic homes (i.e. their pueblo or tribal reservation). Such categories are remnants of an era when Euro-American archeologists and anthropologists studied Southwestern pottery as artifacts of "primitive" cultures and peoples. These scholars coldly recorded the physical appearance of these vessels and their locus of discovery, speculating about their significance. The artistry was of secondary concern, if it was noticed at all.
Today, we are somewhat removed from the prejudice of that era. We no longer dismiss traditional art forms from indigenous cultures as mere craft. Southwestern pottery is regarded as equal if not superior to the finest European and Asian ceramics. Yet, we still tend to classify these works of art in an archaic manner, relying on the familiar-but-flawed taxonomy of early anthropologists to inform our views of art. Pueblo, tribe, matriarchal lineagethese attributions have their uses, but they inhibit both novice and expert from appreciating the individual and collective artistry of pueblo pottery. Furthermore, such rigid codification chafes when applied to the potters of today, whose Native lineage is often mixed and whose styles frequently represent cross-influence at its finest.
So, in devising the structure of this catalogue, it became apparent that it must reflect the tastes of the collectors, the collection itself, and the artists' works within. The accepted method of objective, academic organization was poorly suited to illuminating a subjectively composed private collection. A new method was needed. Charles King, of the King Galleries in Scottsdale, Arizona, deserves credit for inspiring the structure that became a solution for this book. His article in the winter 2005 American Indian Art Magazine, Pueblo Pottery: From Folk Art to Fine Art divided contemporary potters (those producing in the past 30 years) into three groups: The Foundation, Contemporary Traditionalists, and Contemporary Innovators. After a discussion with Mr. King, he generously gave permission to use his ideas as a springboard.
For the purposes of this catalogue, which comprises work from more than 100 years of Southwestern pottery, Mr. King's categories needed to be expanded and altered. It seemed clear that our catalogue should begin with the great matriarchs who revived or created traditions in their respective pueblos or reservations. From there, it seemed initially obvious that some potters since that time became known for either preserving tradition (traditionalists, if you will) or defying it (innovators).
However, these latter categories are inherently problematic, making the process of separating the majority of artists between them challenging. First, the meanings of the words 'traditional' and 'innovative' have become depreciated and stereotyped through overuse. Second, arguments could be made that many 'traditionalists' experimented while many 'innovators' were bound by tradition, further muddying the waters. Finally, at the crux of all of this is that, in an effort to compensate for past ignorance toward Native culture, non-Natives are hesitant to be critical. Would a potter be angry at being labeled 'traditional'? Is it more politically correct to call contemporary work 'innovative'? Upon reflection of these issues, this catalogue presents the Cameros Collection in the following manner:
The Great Mothers:
Though the body of this catalogue begins with the founders and revivers of the current tradition, it is not intended to hold a linear or chronological progression from thenceforth. These founders, the matriarchs, are termed "The Great Mothers" and are honored separately, providing historic information intended to inform the novice reader as to the beginnings of the current iterations of this art form.
However, the entirety of the Cameros Collection, including a few pieces by the matriarchs, could not be accommodated in the exhibition. So, an appendix to this catalogue provides a complete visual listing of the collection. Since it is admittedly simple to reference artists geographically, the appendix follows the more accepted methods of categorization divided first by pueblo or reservation, then by family relations if such is well represented within the collection.
Keepers of Tradition:
After "The Great Mothers," the reader proceeds to a section titled, "Keepers of Tradition." Though the group name has been changed from "traditionalists," this is no attempt to beguile the reader (or pacify the potter) through word-smithing. Rather, it is an effort to replace the insinuation of stagnancy or mimicry with an association of honor and reverence for one's past. These "Keepers of Tradition" should be seen as mediums for the same spirit that guided their ancestors. These potters have become the means for perfecting methods of the past, continuing to fill their vessels with the ether of creativity, skill, and culture that is tradition.
Within the "Keepers of Tradition" grouping, the objects are arranged stylistically. This format is intended to promote a visual comprehension of the stylistic trends both within and between families and pueblos. It should help the novice gain a better understanding of technique, and the expert a more encompassing view of the collection.
Artists Without Reservation:
Finally, the last grouping had to be harshly defined as well as relabeled. There is a superfluity of the term 'innovator' as used to describe Southwestern potters. Indeed, it is a covetable characterization, for it automatically conveys an air of distinction among the throngs of potters in the Southwest. But its use has proliferated to a point where it no longer expresses true merit or meaning.
This desire to be known as innovative is relatively new among Southwestern potters. For decades, there existed a preference for tradition because pueblos and reservations benefited directly from an art market that favored traditional styles. Such demand-based markets encourage repetition, not experimentation. And the pueblos and reservations likewise discouraged variation for fear of losing market share. Thus, in order to escape such stylistic constraints, an innovative artist must be either successful enough to withstand the possible financial loss or dare to defy both market and community.
For this reason, this last section is titled "Artists Without Reservation." The potters assigned to this section are not constrained by manmade boundaries, be they geographical or philosophical. These potters are blending traditional styles from one region to another, and some are even adapting influences from other continents. Not all of these artists are contemporary (meaning 'of this current generation'). Many people conflate the term 'contemporary' with a stylistic judgment, implying 'innovative.' But many current potters strictly adhere to traditional methods and styles, while even the "Great Mothers" were innovators. Rather, our "Artists Without Reservation" are recognized as the vanguard of things to come no matter their generation.
In a collection that is based on excellence, division into categories such as the ones proposed here cannot mean hierarchy -- merely distinction. Both excellence and risk-taking are characteristics of the Cameros Collection on the whole, and perhaps these terms apply both to our "traditionalists," who exemplify excellence in established methods, and to our "innovators," who take risks in extension of these traditions. And yet, in defiance of any category, there is no status more significant than being admitted into a collection of quality. Nancy and Alan Cameros have decided which works merit their respect. It is now up to the reader to discover why.
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