Breath of Clay

Exploring the World of Traditional Pottery with Felipe Ortega


 B. Sunday Eiselt
Department of Anthropology

July 12-16, 2007

The art of pottery has deep roots in the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest.  Join Dr. Sunday Eiselt and Filipe Ortega at his studio for a hands-on, four-day workshop on the history and creation of traditional Apache-inspired vessels.  Participants learn each step in the process of making their own pieces. Slide presentations will reveal the breadth of designs used in prehistoric, historic, and contemporary pottery, and you will learn how to identify good work in the market today.  Travel to one of the largest clay mining open pits in the country. The workshop concludes at Felipe’s studio on Monday, July 16, with your participation in the traditional ceremonial firing of your pottery.  Your travel companions are welcome to attend this ceremony, which will be followed by a wonderful meal prepared by Felipe (who is also a very fine chef!). The excitement of seeing your works of art emerge from the fire will be an unforgettable experience, and your pot will serve as a durable reminder of this experience for years to come. 


The indigenous cultures of northern New Mexico have used micaceous clay in the creation of cooking vessels for over 700 years.  Archaeological sites in the area are littered with micaceous sherds.


The ceramic is especially suited for slow cooking and baking.  Mica makes up about 80% of the clay fabric.  Vessel walls are hard and resistant to physical shock even though they are thin, and the mica in the clay acts as a heat insulator and protects the vessel as it sites in a fire or on your conventional stove.  Hot foods in a mica pot stay warm longer. 


The reddish clay is naturally rich in iron, sodium, and potassium.  Foods taste better cooked in micaceous pots because they are infused with these and other natural minerals. 


If your doctor recommends that you do not use cast iron (you are an iron accumulator), then you should not cook with mica pottery.  Chemical analyses conducted on micaceous pottery otherwise demonstrate that it is safe for cooking and serving.


The clay is special because it is self tempered.  Normally, potters combine a strong clay or plastic material with a temper or what we might call an aplastic material.  Aplastics include things like sand, grog, or grit.  The aplastics prevent the pottery from contracting and breaking during drying and firing.  The combined clay and temper is called a clay “paste”.  Clay paste recipes are numerous and complex.  The mica in this clay, which occurs naturally in the clay deposit, acts as the temper.   Therefore we call this clay self-tempered.  It is totally natural, nothing is added to it.  The beautiful fire-clouds on many pots are places where the wood fuel came into contact with the vessel during firing.  No oxygen reaches this portion and it does not turn red.  The black also is the result of carbon from the wood, which is burned on to the surface of the vessel.



Steps in Making a Pot (by Felipe Ortega)

Caring for your Pot

Sunday's Green Chile Recipe

Class of 2007 Photo Gallery

Felipe's Web Site

El Zocolo Gallery (Where Felipe Shows)

My Mom's Beautiful Pottery 

Photograph of Santonita, wife of Albert Lujan (1935). 

Digital photograph retrieved from Pomona Public Library on May 15, 2007.