Culture Shock: Stories In Clay And Canvas

A Legacy Of Creativity Is Illustrated In Three Generations

Maggie Grimason
5 min read
Tammy Garcia
(Wiz Allred of Desert Moon)
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“I just love clay pots,” Tammy Garcia put it simply as we spoke over the phone. “They’ve always played an important role in human life,” she continued before she began to outline the importance they have had in her particular human life.

Garcia sold her first pieces of ceramic art at the age of 16. Before that, some of her earliest memories were of sculpting small figurines from the rich clay she and her family harvested near their home in Santa Clara Pueblo. Mostly she hand formed bears, even as she dreamed of making large vessels like the older members of her family.

Garcia’s family have been making pottery for generations with techniques culled from hundreds of years of connection to place and practice of the craft. “It was a very special kind of education,” she said of coming up in her family and in the Pueblo, “the kind you have to be born into.” She vividly described her grandmother tasting the clay as she mixed it with ash to get the proper consistency for sculpting and firing. Or mornings when she and her sister rose early to help kindle the fires in which the clay would be set—how she never minded those early starts and never tired of looking out across the landscape as she worked. Garcia’s strong affinity for clay was fostered by the likes of the work left behind by her great-great-grandmother Sara Fina Tafoya, a renowned Tewa potter, whose work Garcia remembered seeing at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture as a little girl, and her grandmother, another famous potter named Mary Cain.

The legacy of creativity that Garcia fits into is annunciated anew in an upcoming exhibition at Gallery Chaco at Hotel Chaco (2000 Bellamah NW) in Old Town. In this exhibition—
Three Generations—Garcia will show her latest work, a series of oil paintings, alongside works by her mother Linda Cain, her sister Autumn Borts-Medlock and Borts-Medlock’s daughter, Rochelle Medlock.

For Garcia, painting was a passion she long wanted to cultivate and a natural fit, since the first step for all of her pottery designs involves sketching on graph paper. She extolled the benefit of drafting in this way and, of course, a good eraser. “It allows me to make changes. It’s a lot easier to make changes on paper than it is to repair clay.”

A number of Garcia’s works on canvas are even inspired by the pottery she is so engaged with. “Pueblo pottery is a continual inspiration,” she explained—the color of the clay, the shapes and designs of traditional ceramic work, all surface in her paintings. “The paint is a little like clay. I can add textures and layers to it,” she observed. One piece that will appear in
Three Generations, “A Room with a View II,” explicitly attempts to represent Garcia’s “inner perspective and love of pottery … [how] every piece you make is still unique, even after working for so long.”

“Native people wrote their history on pots,” Garcia explained, chronicling the long significance of pottery in Santa Clara Pueblo and well beyond. Ancient shards of clay with white and black paint have been found amid the Puye Cliffs in Santa Clara, and Garcia also pointed to the remnants found in Chaco Canyon. Just as broad sweeps of history can be pieced together from ceramic remains, Garcia weaves her own stories into her work. “When I’m contemplating what I want to design on my next piece, I look at what’s going on in my life,” she said. “I can look back at a vessel I may have made 10 years ago, and I can remember what was going on in my life at that time. There is always meaning to them.”

In 30 years of working as an artist, Garcia still heads to the hills of Santa Clara to harvest clay and, everyday, finds that there are new pieces to create and more things to learn. “I’m so happy to wake up everyday and have this incredible heritage and to work with clay,” she said. The most important things she’s learned over the course of this time is how to confront inevitable missteps—“Pottery is handmade; you can build a pot and not get rid of an air bubble and it cracks. It busts into pieces. It can be devastating. You have to learn to deal with failure.”

When she was younger, that was harder to reconcile with. “I wanted a job with a guaranteed paycheck,” she remembered, “because you could work on a piece for three months and have it break.” Yet as, inevitably, vessels broke and Garcia confronted the failure that has turned out to be be so formative, her family of artists was present with nurturing advice and support. “During the firing process you really need help, at least three or four people,” she said. “If a piece broke, I remember all of us standing around, contemplating and strategizing, everyone sharing their ideas—maybe try this, maybe add more ash. We helped each other figure out the problem to make it work instead of giving up and being devastated.”

Similar dialogues and wisdom shared among generations of talented artists is brought to bear in
Three Generations, as well as the myriad individual stories that surface in Garcia’s pieces. On Friday, May 4, a formal reception will take place at the gallery from 5 to 8pm where the artists will be on hand to discuss their work.
Tammy Garcia

Artist Tammy Garcia works in multiple mediums, and always has a story to tell

Wiz Allred of Desert Moon

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