Cultural Landscapes in Clay and Pigment

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Master Artist: Ron Carlos
Apprentice: August Wood
Tradition: Maricopa Pottery

Ron Carlos evokes stories of tradition about the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community through his artistic and functional objects. He is a master of the expressive medium of Maricopa clay pottery, and within traditional, stylized bounds, he works terrestrial materials to produce an art and cultural practice with universal appeal.

Master Artist: Ron Carlos

Master Artist: Ron Carlos. Photo from Ron Carlos’
Facebook page


With the dark red and black designs its distinguishing characteristic, Maricopa and other clay pottery traditions have been passed down through generations of Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Gila River Indian Community, the Ak-Chin Indian Community, and the Tohono O’odham Nation.  Yet the Maricopa pottery cultural practice, crafted by hand with wood paddle and stone anvil and no potter’s wheel, is in danger of disappearing. A few Native American potters have revived the skill and continue to make pottery for everyday use as well as commercial sale.

Mr. Carlos is one of them. In his words:

Maricopa Pottery

Pottery was an integral part of everyday life for “The People.” It held food items for storage, water for the household, and was used to cook meals in. During historic times, without a clay pot, you couldn’t have water at your home that is readily available to drink. You wouldn’t be able to cook various types of nutritious foods like beans and other native desert foods. Life would be definitely harder.

As the times changed with the coming of the Spanish and American, pottery started changing from utilitarian to more of an art form. It became a source of income. Bartering and selling pottery helped some of the people survive by adding to the family’s finances.

Before the influence of the tourists and trade, Maricopa pottery was mostly bowls and jars in basic shapes and predominately plain in characteristic. But as people traveled through the Phoenix area Maricopa pottery became more artsy. The potters started making heavily decorated pottery to suit the eye of the buyers.

This is when red polished pottery made its emergence. But no matter what style of pottery was being made; it was made from natural materials collected here in our home country.


Phyllis Cerna was from the Bread Family of Maricopa Colony on the Gila River Indian Community. At the time I learned pottery making, she was one of the few active Maricopa potters left in Maricopa Colony.

Originally I learned to make pottery in a class Phyllis and her daughter Avis taught for the Hoohoogam Ki Museum here in Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

I learned the basics of pottery making like clay processing, pot forming and painting. After the class was over, I would go and visit with Phyllis at her home in Maricopa Colony and she would discuss pottery making with me.

Demonstrating Pottery Making

Demonstrating pottery making; image from Ron Carlos’ Facebook page


It was during this time she would talk about how to collect clay and what I should look for in a clay source. Eventually she showed me the local clay source she used and would give me raw clay to take home.

Phyllis Cerna was one of only a few Maricopa Potters still active with her pottery work. In her class I learned to make bowls and jars in various sizes. But one type of pottery really caught my attention… effigies. I had seen historic effigy pots but I really didn’t see any of modern day Maricopa potters making effigies.

Phyllis would occasionally make pigs, frogs and sometimes put bird’s heads on her pots. She would tell me to use your imagination & make something different.

Master-Apprentice with August Wood

Well, as part of our Master-Apprenticeship, August and myself will meet at least two weekends a month for 4-5 hours per each meeting. We will be doing some of the following things:

  • Collect materials — clay, wood & natural pigment
  • Process materials — clay & slips
  • Collect and/or make tools — stool tools, pottery molds & paddles
  • Make pottery
  • Painting with pigments
  • Slipping & Polishing
  • Firing

Collection of mesquite sap is time sensitive so we will most likely do this first. Other materials can be collected and stored for later use.

I have a few public demonstrations scheduled this fall/winter. I hope to get Mr. Wood into some of these events. But for sure Mr. Wood will demonstrate next June 2016 for our tribe’s “Community Day” which is a day the tribe celebrates the day the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community was created by executive order on June 14, 1879. I have spoken with the museum manager of the Hoohoogam Ki Museum and they are willing to have Mr. Wood demonstrate and show the community his endeavors to help keep our tribe’s pottery making traditions alive.

Tradition’s Tools

Our paddles are carved pieces of wood.

When we are ready to form pots, we use another pot as a mold. We make a tortilla out of clay and place it on the mold and use the mold to form the base for a new pot. We use our wooden paddle and pat the clay until it is the desired thickness. The newly formed base is taken off the mold and a coil of clay is added to the rim of the pot to make the pot larger.

We blend the coil to the base and then use our paddle and anvil to thin and shape the walls of the pot. The anvil is usually a flat stone held inside the pot as you work.

Nature’s Materials

(It all begins with the natural materials used.) Finding a good clay source is important. Not all clays are equal. Some clays are good for pot forming and other clays are good for making slip.

Once a good clay source is found and mined, the clay must be processed. Processing begins with a makeshift mortar and pestle. The clay is pounded into a powder and sifted. The clay we collect is already naturally heavily tempered. So normally we just add water to the powdered clay and knead the clay like a bread dough until we feel it is the right consistency. In my area, brown, orange and a reddish brown is most predominate. But we there are veins of a crème color caliche clay.

I prefer to use the caliche clay to form my vessels and the reddish brown to paint. The reason is because I like my pottery to mimic the Hohokam red-on-buff pottery. Colors are just natural colors found in our native home land with no specific meaning.

Traditional Art Inspires

There are many things that help inspire my pottery work. But I definitely draw most of my inspiration by looking at historic and prehistoric pottery.

I always enjoy looking at pottery no matter what type. A lot of times it makes me wonder, “Who made this? How did they make this?” I may not know the potter but I can see their creativity in front of me.

Also as I examine the old pots I can see what some people call “blemishes” and “imperfections.” But I see (these) as part of life. Seeing these differences in the pottery has helped me accept imperfections in my own life. A lot of times when I make a pot and it ends up with “imperfections”… I always say, ‘It is what it is… If you don’t like it. You don’t have to look at it.’

Importance of Master-Apprentice Program

I think Master-Apprentice programs are necessary to the passing on of any tradition or language. You can sit in a classroom with a group of students and learn many things. But when you sit with a master and they talk about the things you know… that is when you get those jewels of knowledge not normally shared in a classroom setting.

I can attest to this myself… I have learned more about pottery and all the aspects of clay just from sitting and visiting with the elder potters of my tribe.

The best classroom is just sitting in a master’s home or work place — Watching them work and talk about the way they make their pots.


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