There is a wonderful book published by the School of American Research Press called All That Glitters, The Emergence of Native American Micaceous Art Pottery in Northern New Mexico (I borrowed my title from this because I just couldn’t come up with anything better). I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in this magnificent pottery. Before coming to northern New Mexico I had never heard of micaceous pottery and had a very hard time remembering its name after I did. But heading into my third winter in these mountains, my love of this ancient art form is in full bloom.
I am something of a rock hound and started collecting pieces from the Land Grant and Llano on my arrival. Being a child of the northwest, I was accustomed to granite but, here, I was finding a diverse assortment of glittering stone; cream, white, golden, black, finely granulated all the way up to course. Some of it crumbles in the hand. It is all mica rich and our soil is infused with it. This is the base material from which Native Americans have been fashioning micaceous pottery since around AD 1300.
According to this informative book, “… the ancient roots of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains contain 63-million-year-old warped and twisted rocks that were pushed up by the earth’s forces at the end of the dinosaur age. Several of the minerals in these deposits—including the micas—weather to produce clay when they are exposed on the surface… In areas around Taos and Picuris Pueblos, many of these deposits contain significant amounts of mica…”
Pots are made several ways: Those using clay in which the mica occurs naturally—true micaceous clay–or micaceous rock temper, those in which crushed rock containing mica has been added to the clay. Some are covered with a wash of mica-rich clay to form a mica slip.
Until fairly recently, micaceous pottery was primarily utilitarian. True micaceous clay makes for exceptionally durable pots with superior cooking and heating qualities, so families have used them and not considered them art. That is changing, however. Pots are winning prizes as art at Indian markets and are selling for high prices in galleries.
I own pots by both Bernadette Track and her great aunt Juanita Suazo DuBray, both Taos Pueblos. The day I went to pick up my bean pot from Bernadette, she had several pit fires burning in her back yard with various pots sticking up out of the wood and coals, all in different stages of fire. She tells me the weather has an enormous effect on firing and all conditions must be just right or a pot can be ruined. Juanita is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian.