The late Ron Carlos and his apprentice, August Wood, on traditions of O’odham and Piipaash pottery.
Ron Carlos passed away in May 2023 due to complications from cancer. He was a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. He learned traditional paddle and anvil technique pottery in the mid-1990s from Phyllis Cerna and her daughter, Avis Pinion. In 2015, Carlos was recognized by the Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA) with a Master-Apprentice Artist Award, and worked with August Wood, to pass on knowledge about collecting and processing natural clays and pigments, producing tools, creating pots using paddle and anvil technique, implementing native designs, and firing in open pit fires.
Ron was interviewed in December 2021 by Casely Coan during a research effort to better understand support systems for traditional artists in the Southwest supported in part by the American Council for Learned Societies. August was interviewed in June 2023 by Kimi Eisele.
The Last Potter: Ron Carlos
You were one of the Southwest Folklife Alliance’s first Master-Apprentice Artist Awardees. What made you decide to apply for the award?
I had never applied for a grant before. This was my first time. I looked it over and it looked simple enough. But it was more about the apprentice part than the money, because—and I don’t like saying it—but I’m the last potter for the tribe here. There really wasn’t anybody learning. It’s hard to commit time for everything. It’s a long process for making pottery. August [Wood] had been hanging out with me and practicing with me. So I talked to him about it. He said he would like to try it. Now he really is more of a master. If I would drop dead, he can do it himself. He doesn’t need me, and he can teach other people. But that’s how it started. For me, it wasn’t really about the money. It was just that I wanted someone to learn, because there really wasn’t anybody learning at that time.
What did the award allow for you? How did it support you?
It allowed me to take time off my regular job to work with [August] directly. Because my job is–I’m there all the time, from eight to eight sometimes. Because of that extra money, I was able take days off and work with him during the daytime instead of late in the evening. We’d go out and look for the materials we needed, and I showed him what to look for.
What was that process like, going out to find materials?
There’s a mountain on the very east end of the reservation called Red Mountain, also known as Butte McDowell. A lot of our clays come from that particular mountain. Red, white, yellow, whatever color is available, it’s there. But you have to go and dig it. We’re not using commercial clays. So, it’s a process of digging and then processing that clay into use. I would take him out to show him where the different colors were in the mountain, and how to collect clay. You can’t just dig dig dig; there’s clay but usually it’s strata so you can only go so far. Once you go too far you start hitting regular dirt or hitting rocks. Just digging clay itself is a process. You have to learn how to separate the clay from the dirt.
We would drive up there and hang out most of the day, just wandering around the hills, and I would show him what was available and what to look for. That way if he ever decides he wants to look for clay for himself, he knows what to look for and how to spot it.
He’s gotten pretty good at it. He finds clay all the time now. He goes hiking up towards South Mountain in Phoenix and different places and he’ll bring back clay with him. He’s gotten good at memorizing where locations are. I’m old school. I don’t GPS anything. I got everything by memory, you know? With most younger people, they’re like GPS-ing all the time to remember where to go. But he’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t do that anymore either. Most people have a really hard time finding [clay]. A lot of times it’s just laying right next to you or they’re sitting on top of it or walking over it, and they don’t realize it. [August will] just say, “I know where it’s at.” And he’ll go and get it.
You talked about identifying yourself as “the last potter.” What impact did the award have on you or your community or your artistic practice?
I think in one sense, it brought awareness that there really isn’t anybody left. I don’t like saying that—it sounds, I don’t know, like I’m bragging or something. I’m trying not to be that way. I’m trying to prolong it. I’m trying to pass that on to other people. This award definitely brought to light that, hey, there really is nobody left, you know? This is it. If I was to drop dead, that whole tradition of pottery-making for our tribe would have been gone, because there’s no one else besides me.
There’s a few people that might know a few things or have learned a little bit. But they don’t actually make pottery. They just know little bits and pieces, you know? I’ve been teaching more classes and more community members. There are a lot who are interested until they find out how much work goes into it, then they kind of start falling away. But I have more students that are more committed now than they were before. Before it was really easy for them to quit right away. But now they realize that this is the end right here. If no one learns, this will stop right here.
Who is coming to learn?
A lot of them are 20-ish. It seems to be that age group. A lot of them are kind of lost culturally and lost emotionally. I blame the Internet for that. A lot of times people are just kind of connected to that and they don’t really interact. I’ve also noticed 20-year-olds have a hard time expressing themselves verbally. They can text all kinds of stuff, but when you’re right in front of them, they have a hard time talking. They don’t know how to express themselves. They have a lot of knowledge about the world, but they don’t have a lot of knowledge about themselves.
I’ve noticed that the ones who have been coming and taking on that traditional knowledge, they’re looking for themselves. They want to follow traditional ways, yet they’re so used to pan-Native Americanism, like sage and eagle feather. But that’s not our tradition. We don’t really think about the eagle. We don’t believe in sage. That’s what tribes in the north believe mostly. I’m kind of shocked sometimes because whatever they read on the Internet, they assume that we all do the same thing.
I kind of started pulling them in. And I think that’s where they find themselves in a sense, because they’ll ask more and more questions. The students that do come, who are making pottery together, it’s more of that connection to what our people really believed in, in traditional ways of our people. I mean, the pottery has a part, too, but it’s more about their growth. I’m not trying to win souls! It just kind of ends up being like that, you know? In the 20-something group, they have a lot of information, but not about themselves. There isn’t hardly anything written about our people anyway, so I can see why they don’t have any connection. And then their parents probably grew up on the Internet, they probably didn’t really talk to them. My generation, we didn’t have Internet when we were growing up, so we had to talk to each other.
I always tell them, if you want to learn more, all you got to do is come over, all you got to do is come over, set a time, let me know when you want to come, and we can go out or we can make pots together. I try to leave that open for all of them. I don’t push anyone. If they’re working, they’ll be here till three, four o’clock, sometimes even later. I just stay with them and work with them. I try to encourage not just the students but everybody in general, the community members.
What other forms of support financial or otherwise would be meaningful for you?
That’s a tough one. I do feel like because I’m working out of my kitchen, a larger place where someone could just meet and be together with the students and have like workshops with them. Again, time is a big thing, because it’s hard to take time off. But I would say it’s the location. If I had a bigger place, I could do way more with more people at one time.
A lot of times the younger people are already struggling to make their rent and all that. I do see that’s a problem with the students. They want to learn, but they can’t they take that time off or fit it in their schedule without monetary loss. I’m set. I own the house I’m living in. If I quit working, there’s not gonna be a huge bill hanging over me. But younger people aren’t like that. We think about the master as being the one needing the money, and I’m not saying that we don’t, it’s just that I feel that a lot of times the apprentice needs just as much.
What would your ideal workshop look like?
I had a dream about that. It would be almost like a house, but it would have a large carport to work inside and outside, depending on the season. Hopefully it would have a little showcase area to show all the students work. But the main part will be like a small hall, which would give a lot of workspace for everybody and shelving for materials. And light. I’m a person from the light. I like outdoors, I like bright lights. It would all be tiled, though, because it’s easy to clean.
Anything else you want me to know about?
For anyone who’s thinking about learning something, don’t just keep talking about it. You have to do it. I know a lot of people that talk and talk, but they don’t actually ever do it. I work with elderly, 80- and 90-year-olds. It’s important work, language work, and we can’t just stop. Because if we stop, eventually their lives can come to an end, and that is going to be lost. There is a time limit on what they’re able to give us, and it’s sad. At one point it was 25 elders we were working with, and we’re literally down to seven. It’s the same thing with masters. Masters have a certain degree of time they’re going to be on this earth. It takes time to learn, but you have to start somewhere. If you don’t start soon enough, you may not get all that knowledge to be a master yourself, you know? I definitely would tell the apprentice, you need to just do it, because there is a time, who knows how long. Anything can happen.
The Next One: August Wood
How did you meet Ron Carlos and begin studying with him?
I met Ron through a mutual friend in late 2010, when we went to the Smithsonian to view what they had in their collections relating to the O’odham. We were just going through the archives, looking at a lot of burden baskets. One of the last things we looked at was O’odham/Piipaash pottery. I remember as soon as the lady opened the cabinet, Ron was just kind of like, “Ah, right there!” It was a bunch of brown pots with white designs, brown pots with red paint, brown pots with black mesquite sap. It was just all shades of clay. At that time, Ron was making pots from those types of clays, but people would tell him, “That’s not traditional. That’s not what we make.” So, when we went through those collections, and when the lady opened up that cabinet, it showed that our people did not just one style, but all kinds of pots in all different colors.
I started asking him more and more questions for the duration of our trip. On our way back home, he just said, “Let’s just go into my house and I’ll show you.” I showed up a couple of days after our trip and started sitting with him, talking to him, asking him questions about pottery. I never took a ceramics class or even made a pot at that point. We just talked and talked and he eventually he just gave me a ball of clay and said, “Well, you do this and this.”
I made a pot, and it was very rough for me. But he said, Make another one. And I would just keep going, making more and trying to make them better, trying to refine my skills with each pot I made.
Can you share a little about the form of pottery Ron made and why you wanted to learn it?
The form of pottery that Ron did was known as “paddle and anvil,” which consists of using an older pottery to create a new pot with the help of a paddle and anvil, usually a rock. It is the technique used by the O’odham and Piipaash people.
When we would go through collections, Ron would say, “These are cooking pots.” He could tell because they were black; people cooked in them and used them every day. He’d say, “These big ones are like water jars. And they would use them to store their water or food or greens.” So that helped me learn more about what our people did and what they used pots for. These were things made to be used—everyday functional items, not decoration.
Growing up here on the reservation in Salt River, I’d walk around and always find broken pot shards everywhere. So being able to see these complete pieces in museums, to see their shapes and their know their usage was a cool thing to experience. Especially now that I make them, knowing we’re doing the same thing.
What do you remember most about your learning sessions together? Did he have any special or memorable ways of working or habits/styles he shared with you?
The way he learned how to make pottery from Phyllis Cerna and her daughter Avis Pinion was a unique style of making pottery, which I was able to pick up from him. Using rocks we found on the ground and pieces of wood to create our own paddles to shape and form our pots. Of course, patience was definitely a huge part of the learning process.
While we’d sit there working on pots, he would say things in the O’odham and Piipaash languages, because he grew up where both languages were spoken. I’d ask him what it meant, and he would tell me the meaning. He’d say, “You can say it this way, or you can say it this way.” Also, while we’d sit there working on pots, he would mention other forms of traditional art. I would ask him if he knew how to do them, or if he knew someone that knew how to do them. Luckily, he knew how to do them. Over the years he would go on to show me how to create the beaded capes, usually worn by those of the Yuman tribes, as well as rattle making and sandal making.
Apparently Ron didn’t like to call himself this, but for many years he was “the last potter” of his kind. Is this something he talked about with you?
That’s something we talked about a lot. When we would demonstrate, people would always ask him, “Do you have anybody you’re teaching?” I’d be sitting right there, and he’d just be like, “Just him.” It was just the two of us, you know?
He would just jokingly say, “If we get an accident on the way home, there goes our whole culture.” People would say, “Don’t say that. That’s terrible.” But you know, we were laughing about it. That was him. If you knew him, he would have been laughing.
After he passed, a lot of people asked me, “Are you going to keep making pottery?” Of course I am. Why would I stop making pottery? But for some people, the only time they actually ever made pots was when they were sitting with him. Even then, they would just make the pot; they would never finish drawing on them or fire them. Sadly, I’m the only one that’s still doing it. I have no intentions of stopping. I have no intentions of abandoning this. It’s something that brings me a lot of joy when I do it. I’m able to create something and it’s always going to be different every time. No two pots that we make are the same, so it’s an exciting process. Is it easy? No. But it’s fun and worth it at the end.
One of the most-read articles in BorderLore is this 2015 piece by Monica Surfaro Spigelman featuring Ron Carlos and rattle gourds: Gourd Rattle, Connector of Native American Tradition
Also view this video from the Heard Museum on Ron’s artistry: