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Artist of the Month - May 2006

An Art of History
By Annabelle Numaguchi

Reyes Madalena
Reyes Madalena

Why do some people have a gift? Why can some people create music out of metal, or art out of pigment, or pots out of clay? Why are some people sublimely talented while others struggle in the same area?

It seems to be a randomness of genetics. Yes, some families appear to carry an art gene that gets passed down from one generation to the next, but even within those families, why does one sibling get it and not the others. It seems to be as random as the passing on of a recessive gene that pops up from time to time, causing relations to exclaim, “why the baby is a carbon copy of Great Aunt So-and-So!”

After all, isn’t that the basic explanation of how you would end up with a naturally sunlight-blonde Native American.

When Reyes Madalena, a Jemez (pronounced “Hay-miss”) Reservation Pueblo, laughed on the phone while telling me she was blonde, I wasn’t sure who the joke was on.

Apparently it’s no joke. She’s a hundred percent indigenous to this land, and she’s blonder than most of us (including our artificial highlights). She’s just got light pigmentation, one of those random blips in a family gene pool that surfaces unexpectedly.

This unusual coloring considering her ethnicity is not the only thing that connects her to the rich tapestry of her ancestry. Another thread that reappeared in Madalena was her grandmother’s talent with clay. Madalena is a potter.
Now, when I say “potter,” I don’t mean someone who buys clay, throws it on a wheel and paints it with glazes, which is no small feat to begin with. Ask anyone who’s tried, and, most likely, struggled.
No, I mean “potter” in the sense that her ability to craft clay into art is written into her DNA, much like her gender, height and skin color are. She inherited this gift. It literally emanates from her fingertips.

As we talked, she maintained eye contact with me the entire time she manipulated a ball of clay around and around in her hands until a well-shaped, symmetrical bowl emerged. She never had to look at what she was doing. She created out of touch, not sight.

This connection Madalena has with the earth (after all, that’s what clay is) and her art is part of what makes her pottery so magic.

You could identify the physical reasons why her earthenware is so smooth, resists cracking and burnishes to such a splendid sheen. Pottery, in its essence, is chemistry in action. And, like any good cook, a good potter needs to know how the clays will react, particularly under the intense heat of a firing.

But, analyzing the chemistry of pottery is like analyzing the chemistry of a person; it may explain their unusual pigmentation, for example, but it doesn’t capture how that color has shaped the person.

In Madalena’s case, growing up on one of the few continuously inhabited pueblos, her singular look galvanized her to embrace her heritage more fervently than the others.

Born in the late 1930’s, she grew up with the other Reservation kids calling her “white girl,” which made her dream “that someday I’m going to do something really Indian,” she recounts.

And, sure enough, she’s the only one of her childhood friends who became such an accomplished potter.
To be fair, Madalena had the advantage of genetics on her side. Her maternal grandmother, Benina Medina Madalena from the Zia Reservation, had been an excellent potter, winning awards in the early 1920’s at the Santa Fe Indian Market. She was the one who essentially reintroduced the art to the Jemez Reservation, where the craftsmen had focused on other indigenous crafts.

Benina taught her daughters pottery which created a wonderful beginning for Madalena, who remembers watching and listening to her mother and aunt making pots. Although they were accomplished, the natural talent Benina possessed resurfaced in Madalena, who uses the same techniques, the same clay sources and the same smooth red jasper stone to burnish her pots to a high sheen.

The inheritance of this particular river stone symbolizes the passing on of the knowledge and gift for pottery-making, from grandmother to grand-daughter.

Madalena, whose sensitive skin doesn’t tolerate synthetic materials, uses all natural clays and slips. She and her immediate family mine the rock clay themselves, which includes hauling out 100-pound packs on foot over rough trails. One of her greatest moments was discovering the seam of gray clay found in the Four Corners area that yields the fine white pottery which much of her current work is made of.

For decades, she searched for its origins. Most clay fires up a reddish or brownish color, so this white clay that her ancestors used was a momentous discovery. Because of this clay’s purity, Madalena is fairly sure that she’s mining the same seam as her ancestors, and this connection excites her.

She also feels connected to the past by using traditional methods. She processes the clay herself, aided by her husband. After soaking the rock for several weeks to soften it, she mixes it and, then, allows it to evaporate in burlap bags until it arrives at the desired consistency.

She shapes the pot either by pinching the clay while rotating it methodically (called a “pinch pot”) or roping long coils of clay on top of one another and smoothing the surface (a “hand-coiled pot”), which usually leaves a slightly ridged interior.

The latter technique allows Madalena to create pots of varying size. Possibly her most impressive piece, the “Ancient Style Water Canteen Storage Vessel” is a 24-inch diameter orb with handles and a mouth. Because the vessel sports a rounded bottom, it is hung by its rope handle. A mirror under the canteen reflects the finely detailed white buffalo depicted on the underside of the canteen.

The majority of the pot is decorated with tiny triangles, in white, rust and black, that form multiple patterns, horizontal and zigzag, much like a quilt. The design encircling the rim displays even smaller designs, evidence that Madalena does not sacrifice fine detail to the large size of the piece.

Both the designs and the types of pots she creates are also tied to the traditions of her Anasazi ancestry. Madalena uses different color clays to decorate the pots. She designs spontaneously on her pottery; however, she always incorporates certain familiar motifs that date back thousands of years and have well-established significance.

For example, the ever-present step motif represents the lightening in the sky, while the parallel lines that usually appear on one side of the steps represent rain. Another common design is that of a bird represented by a triangle made up of slightly curved lines with a circle in the middle. The traditional designs appear on all her pottery, blended in a variety of ways according to the artist’s inspiration.

In addition to canteens and cooking pots, Madalena creates bells, wedding pots (which have two spouts, symbolizing the union of a couple) and gourd-shaped vessels. These are all useful items, particularly for an agrarian lifestyle, which is evidence that form blossomed out of function. Her decorative items, however, include storytellers, figurines and bells, favorites of many collectors.

The final step in creating pottery is the firing, which is the test of how good the clay and the potter are. Because of the intense heat required in baking clay, if the clay is not the right consistency or dryness, or if the potter has not worked the clay properly, the contracting process that the earthenware undergoes will show cracks or break.

Like in every other aspect of her art, Madalena avoids shortcuts and modern methods for the traditional ones. Although she purposely keeps the details vague to preserve trade secrecy, she reveals that she burns cedar wood in her hand-built firepit.

Few of us are really as defined by our professions as the language we use implies. We say “he is a fireman,” or “she is a teacher,” when what we mean is “he puts out fires for a living,” or “her profession is teaching.” In Madalena’s case, being a potter is very much at the central core of who she is.

Now in her late sixties, she continues to toil at a physically demanding art, considering that she processes her own clay and paints in such small, accurate patterns. Yet, she does so with the passion and devotion that clearly gives joy and meaning to her existence.

Not only does she produce beauty through her art, she sustains an important connection to her past. Would her art be less valuable if it were created by a non-Native American? Probably, since collectors care about authenticity. But, even more importantly, Madalena cares about the preservation of her culture and its traditions.

Clearly, what makes her “Indian” is not dependent on the color of her skin, any more than a Frenchman must wear a beret, but it is the strength of the tie to her heritage. The energy of former Pueblo potters runs like a river through this area, and by clutching at this particular piece of red jasper, she has anchored herself in it and the energy flows through her and in to her marvelous creations.

Reyes Madalena uses her home in Moab both as a studio and gallery. To make an appointment to view her earthenware, she may be contacted at (435) 259-8419. For large enough parties, Madalena is willing to do a demonstration of her pottery-making.

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