A Rock and a Paddle

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Kathleen Vance on the art of traditional Tohono O’odham utilitarian pottery.

Kathleen Vance, of Tohono O’odham and San Carlos Apache descent, specializes in Tohono O’odham utilitarian pottery creating clay cooking vessels, water ollas, seed jars, effigy pots, and whistles. She first learned to gather and process clay twenty three years ago with her first mentor, Alicia Bustamonte, an elder from the El Bajio community in northern Mexico, historically O’odham homelands. Later Reuben Naranjo, Jr., helped her refine her pottery techniques. In 2023, Vance was awarded a Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance to work with apprentice Melvina Garcia, an O’odham community member, and pass on the form.

Interview by Kimi Eisele

(Photo above: Kathleen Vance, by Steven Meckler)

What are your early memories of clay pottery and how did you learn your artform?

I was about maybe five or six playing outside underneath my grandmother’s ramada.  I didn’t know it, but there was pot sitting up on the shelf about the size of half of a basketball. I hit one of the stands that was holding that shelf up, and it came falling down on my head. So, I have a scar on my forehead and on my scalp. That was really my first encounter with clay.

During that time, my grandmother was really adamant about making sure we ate before we went anywhere. So, I remember sitting at the table and my head was all bandaged and hurting, but I had to eat before we went to the hospital.

Kathleen Vance dressed in a purple ribbon shirt, using a paddle to shape a pot outside.
Kathleen Vance using a paddle to shape a pot.

Fast forward to the third grade. I was very good at coloring. I always stayed in the lines and made sure that it was evenly colored. This young boy and I always won the coloring contests. I’m telling you this because it has to do with clay, years later. In the process of completing a vessel, you burnish it. It’s like coloring on that surface to complete it. When I first started doing the burnishing, it was one of the things I didn’t like. Then I thought about it. It’s just like coloring. I never knew that there would be a connection there.

I didn’t really start to learn until my oldest daughter was going to her, we call it “jewa,” her womanhood. Her auntie had said we should find somebody to teach us how to make pots, because in the ceremony, you use pottery, and you use water from a natural source to bathe. My daughter’s auntie asked one of the ladies that came from the area of S-Gogogsidk, or Many Dogs in English. El Bajio, just south of the San Miguel Gate on the reservation.

Her name was Alicia Bustamante. We had to cross the border and go a mile into the desert to visit her. Her grandmother was also a potter, so she had come from generations of potters.  But for me, I was the first potter in my immediate family. Alicia took the time to teach us everything she knew.

Her son, Raymond Valenzuela took us to get clay. He told us you always leave an offering when you’re getting the clay. If you don’t have anything, leave water. Because we come from the desert, water is very important for us as well as for the plants. You say a prayer, and you thank the clays for being there and tell them you’re going to make something good, and people are going to use it. 

From Alicia, we learned how to pound the clay and mix the clay. The sand she would get had mica in it. It looks like gold, little shiny specks. We also used horse manure, which acts as a binder. As the pots get bigger, they’re able to hold together because of the hay from the manure.

Once you mix your clay, you can’t use it right away. You just have to let it sit and cure. One time I took a break, and I went to go see the kids playing in a tree nearby. On the ground I saw a whole bunch of pottery shards lying all over the place. I wondered about that but didn’t say anything.

All that Alicia gave me was a cobblestone, a round smooth rock, and a paddle. Those were my tools. I just made that one pot with her. But I didn’t fire it. I left it there.

One day my neighbor came with the pot and said that Alicia gave it to her to give to me, and said it was only pot that came out. Because my daughter, her auntie Vivian, and I were the three that made pots.

The late Alicia Bustamante, an elder woman wearing a hat, smiling outside in the desert.
The late Alicia Bustamante was Kathleen Vance’s first pottery mentor.

After that every time I saw Alicia, she would always ask me if I was making pots. I would always say no.

Some years later, I found out from one of my co-workers that Alicia was in the hospital in Tucson. I went to visit her during the week, and she looked good. I didn’t ask her what was wrong, I just sat with her. In our conversation, she talked about her life and then she asked If I was working with the clay. “No, I’m not,” I told her.

She said, “You have to you have to keep working with the clay. You know how to do it. You can do it. You just start with the small ones, and they’ll get bigger and bigger. Remember that day when you saw all those pottery shards, the broken pieces? That was from years and years and years of trying,” she said. “Don’t ever give up.”

“Okay,” I told her. When I left that evening, I told her I was going to come back and visit her on the weekend, but before the weekend came, she passed away. It was my last conversation with her.

Traditionally in our culture, when you have someone that’s teaching you traditional ways, when they pass, you wait for a year before you pick it up. So, I waited for a year and then I decided it was time. 

At first, I could not mix my clays right. My pots kept cracking. They just were not coming together. My friend Teresa introduced me to the potter Reuben Naranjo, Jr. Reuben had come from potters. His grandmother or his mother knew how to make pottery, so he picked it up. But he also spent time with Alicia.

“My clay is not coming out,” I told him. “I didn’t even learn how to fire.” He said, “Come over to my house and I’ll show you how to fire.” He took me under his wing. It was just that fast, that quick. He became my second mentor. He introduced me to the ceramic tools I use now. How did I make my first pot without these tools? How did I do it with just a rock and a paddle?

I worked with Ruben from 2006 on. Then one day, a few years back, he said, “Kathy, I’m not your mentor anymore. I’m your colleague.”

Why do you think it took you as long as it did for you to start working with clay?

Back then, I was very athletic. I played ball all the time. I played softball. I played basketball until I was 50.  So that was my thing, running, sports, that’s who I was.

Multiple pots, pre-firing, 2023. Baboquivari red with Magdalena clay pigment for designs
Multiple pots, pre-firing, 2023. Baboquivari red with Magdalena clay pigment for designs.

Alicia did not want to take it with her. She needed somebody to pass it on to. It was my duty, I had to. But it also happened that I started aging. I had stopped playing sports. I started slowing down, and that’s when I started focusing on the pottery, the journey that I’m on now.

I have six kids. My oldest, the one we had the first ceremony for, is thirty five now. My youngest is still in high school. They’re living life. People ask if my kids know how to work with clay. I want them to at some point, but they haven’t really made that connection yet, just like I didn’t make the connection when Alicia was here.

We’ve started doing classes for the community. From our first class in Topawa, only one has student kept it up. In San Xavier we did one class and of 20 to 25 people, only one kept it up–Harrison Preston. He’s the only one that’s continuing. He’s just a beautiful artist in general and does exquisite work.

My current apprentice is Melvina Garcia. She came to one of our first classes. It was so amazing to see. She must have come from potters, or it was just sitting there waiting for her. When she started making her pots, her little ones, they were coming out really nice. They were smooth and the shape was beautiful. And now she’s doing really well.

You’re one of only a few potters making utilitarian pots, right?
Cremation Jar made of tan Magdalena clay.
Cremation Jar, 2022, Magdalena clay

Our tribe is somewhere around 30,000 tribal members. Right now, there’s just a handful, maybe no more than a dozen potters making utilitarian pots. Way back, our tribe was known for their pots. They were part of our everyday lives. But when metal pots and pans and plastics and all that came about, everything switched. Now what we’re known for is our baskets. There are a lot of basket weavers.

I’m in a position where I’m part of the past, but I’m also part of the future. It’s important for me to make sure I keep doing what I’m doing and that somebody else learns. I understand how important Alicia felt about passing it on because that’s how I feel now.

You mentioned the coming-of-age ceremony for girls. What are some other uses of the utilitarian pots? 

A lot of people still remember how water from a clay pot tastes from when they visit their grandparents or from when they had their own water pot sitting under the ramadas. They still remember how refreshing that water was. More cooking was done back then in the pots, and it gives a sweeter taste, an earthen taste. So, people want bean pots, or cooking vessels or water jars. You can use them to store seeds and grains, but mainly they’re for cooking and for water.

Where does the clay come from?  

We mostly get clay near Baboquivari mountain range. Also in the Artesia area, southeast of Sells and the Tecolote Valley, which is where my family comes from. We also get clay in Magdalena, Sonora.

We go out with five-gallon buckets get what we can. It’s a process not only to go out after it, but to clean it. When we go to Mexico, we actually sit out there for a couple of hours and get that clay cleaned and bagged before we come back across through the Border Patrol checkpoint. We try to put it in plastic clear bags so that they can see it.

But traditionally that’s our homeland. To Hermosillo and Rocky Point, this whole area is traditionally our homeland. I’m glad we’re still able to get beautiful clay there.

Badger Effigy Jar, 2018. Artesia white clay with Baboquivari red designs.
Badger Effigy Jar, 2018. Artesia white clay with Baboquivari red designs.

When we gather the clay, it’s dry. When the rains come, it’s those areas that get really slick, your tires are spinning, your shoes get muddy, it’s just like a suction on your shoes. But when it’s dry, it’s those areas that feel like you’re walking on some kind of cushion. That’s where you’re walking on a clay bed.

I know that ball players, at the free throw line, will sometimes bounce the ball three times, or do some sort of ritual, before they shoot the ball. Is there some kind of ritual you do before you begin a pot?  

I’ll take a deep breath and I’ll just relax. I’ll just start working, and whatever it’s going to come out to be, it will be. When I’m building, if I find myself wandering, I come back. I’m always trying to make sure that certain things aren’t a part of me when I’m working with clay.  That’s really hard. But it helps in life itself. Everything that the clay gives, it helps not only as you’re building, but in life. You just keep trying. That’s what I tell everybody when we’re starting our classes. Never give up because you don’t know what life is going to give you. If it doesn’t work, try again. Don’t give up. 

Do you sell your work primarily to people on the Tohono O’odham Nation or do you sell it elsewhere as well?

We get asked—I say we, because Teresa is always a part of it and Melvina’s a part of it and Harrison’s a part of it. It’s not just me—to participate in the season from January to April at the Tumacacori National Historic Park. So we go there to demonstrate and sell our wares. I’ve been going out the last couple of years to Montezuma Castle National Monument and Tuzigoot National Monument to do demonstrations and sell whatever wares I have. Tucson Meet Yourself, of course, is a really big supporter of traditional crafts.

Each piece is unique. It’s not like it’s an assembly line. You’re never going to find another piece that looks exactly like it. They’re all unique. So, I don’t have a lot of inventory. That’s why I’m trying to get others to continue. 

What do you love most about your artform?

I’ve been blessed to have learned it. Because of what we’re doing today, the next generation is also going to be doing this. It’s hard work. It keeps you active and strong. It also keeps you in check. Sometimes you put so much work into it and in the firing, it’s going to crack for some reason. Maybe there was air pockets in the wall, maybe a piece of wood hit a brim or something or you didn’t connect it right. It just keeps you humble. It’s therapeutic. It keeps me centered.

Ju:dum Vase, 2018. Tecolote clay with bas-relief and simple bear etching.
Ju:dum Vase, 2018. Tecolote clay with bas-relief and simple etching.

Sometimes I get really frustrated and I know that I can’t work on my creation. What we were told when we were learning, what the mentors would mention is that if you’re going through something bad, don’t work on clay. Or if you find your thoughts moving towards something that you shouldn’t be thinking about then don’t work on clay. Whatever you’re feeling, whenever you’re building something and you give it away, that’s also in the clay. You always should have a good sense, a good mind, a good spirit when you’re working.

It’s rare that I’m not working with clay in the evenings. But sometimes it gets overwhelming. I have so many things to do. I’m on the school board for the district. Things get busy, and maybe I’ll put away the clay for a week, but never longer than that.  

One of my daughters was asking me how long I was going to be working with clay. I think it’s going to be forever. It’s become so much a part of me.


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